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College student body president admits he's an illegal immigrant

By Nick Valencia, CNN
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Student body president in U.S. illegally
  • Pedro Ramirez moved with his parents from Mexico when he was 3
  • He says he assumed he was a U.S. citizen until his senior year in high school
  • For the past four years, Ramirez has lied about being a citizen

Read more about this story at CNN affiliate KFSN.

(CNN) -- Pedro Ramirez is the student body president at Fresno State University in California. He is also an illegal immigrant.

Ramirez moved with his parents from Mexico when he was 3. He has little memory of living anywhere other than Tulare, California, located about 45 miles outside Fresno.

He said he assumed he was a U.S. citizen until his senior year in high school when his parents broke the news to him.

"I wanted to go to the military, but then I started asking questions and found out I wasn't a citizen. And then I found out I was undocumented," Ramirez told CNN in a phone interview.

"I knew I was born in Mexico, but I was under the impression that we fixed our legal residency. So when I found out that wasn't the case, I was a little taken away. [My parents], they did it to protect me. They didn't do it as a harmful thing."

For the past four years, Ramirez has lied about being a citizen. When he started college at Fresno, he told a few friends about his illegal status and hoped they would keep his secret.

On Tuesday, his secret was out in the open after an anonymous tip to the Fresno State newspaper, The Collegian.

"I don't know who would do that to me," he said.

Under Fresno State code, there are no citizen requirements for a student to join the college government.

Ramirez said that when he ran for student body president, he did not reveal his illegal status. Now that his peers know, he has no plans of stepping down.

"I'm not a quitter. That's one thing I learned from being in this great country. I'm going to keep serving these students," he said. "I was voted in. If the students feel I shouldn't represent them, I would hope they'd go through the democratic process."

At least one student hopes to encourage that process. Cole Rojewski, the head of the College Republicans, wants Ramirez gone. Ramirez beat Rojewski for the student body presidency.

"He misled the students. He wasn't upfront about it. And no one knew about it. So I think he should step down and have a re-election," Rojewski told CNN Fresno affiliate KFSN.

But Ramirez says while everyone is entitled to their opinion, he ran by the same rules as Rojewski.

Fresno State University President John Welty said Ramirez filed the appropriate paperwork when he applied for college. The president said Ramirez notified him and other student body advisers about his immigration status and offered to serve without pay. His status does not allow him to get a paycheck.

"I commend Mr. Ramirez," the president said in a statement.

The political science major pays in-state tuition as a result of a California bill that allows illegal immigrants to do that. He also supports the Dream Act, a proposed federal law that would let students in the country illegally earn legal status if they attend college or join the military.

He works as a student representative for an organization that advocates passage of the Dream Act. Congress is expected to vote on it in January.

"[The Dream Act] affects thousands and thousands of other students throughout the United States. It symbolizes the American spirit: students working hard. It's not amnesty. It's a pathway, and students have to earn their way in," Ramirez said.

Growing up in Tulare, Ramirez wasn't interested in politics.

"I was in the marching band," he said.

But being at the center of the immigration debate makes the issue important to him, he said.

Ramirez hopes to become a U.S. citizen, but says there are no pathways for that.

"I'm a person that wants to go about it the right way. I don't want to marry someone just to be legal. Right now, I'm living in an unknown vacuum. Anything can happen. I can be deported or someone might attack me, I really don't know. I can't say. I am worried. Not just for me, but for other students around me."

He also worries about his parents, a maid and a restaurant worker. He hopes they will be left out of the controversy swirling around him.

"They've always told me, 'Don't give up,' and that 'we're going to move ahead.' I'm not a pessimistic. I always look at the good side of things," he said.

Ramirez hopes students will look at what he has accomplished.

"I don't know if I'd win re-election ... I can't speculate on what might happen," he said.

The 22-year-old who ran on a platform of transparency hopes that his lack of it won't come back to haunt him.