Every summer for the past nine years, Alfredo Garcia has packed away his notebooks, textbooks, and school supplies and taken up his ladder, rollers, and brushes to paint houses and pay for his dream of attending college.
Unlike many of his peers, some of whom spend summers relaxing at home, building up their resumes by working as interns, or travelling to exotic places, Garcia has worked through college and graduate school to pay for his living expenses, food, and books. He labors alongside his father, a housepainter in Austin, Texas.
Garcia, who is pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), is an undocumented student who came to the United States at age 15 from his native Mexico. His story exemplifies the double life that many undocumented students lead in straddling two worlds: their country of birth and their new homeland.
In summers, “For three months, I don’t speak a lot of English, and I don’t behave like a college student,” said Garcia on a recent morning. “I’m my father’s son, I’m a laborer, and I’m in communion with my people.”
An advocate for undocumented students, Garcia is spreading the word at Harvard about the quandary of unauthorized young immigrants, whose inability to obtain Social Security numbers limits their ability to pursue better lives. Even if they attend college, they are at risk of becoming part of a “disenfranchised underclass,” in the words of Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.”
Harvard and several other colleges across the country do not reject applicants based on their legal status, but most companies require job applicants to provide Social Security numbers.
According to the Pew Research Center, 2.1 million of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are undocumented youths.
In 2012, the Obama administration announced the Deferral Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for those who came to this country before June 15, 2007, to protect them from deportation and allow them to apply for work permits. Garcia arrived here on July 27, 2007, missing the DACA cutoff date by a few weeks.
In 2014, the government expanded the program to include children who came into the country before January 2010. Garcia would have been eligible if a Texas judge had not issued an order blocking the program, an injunction that was left in place after a 4-4 deadlock by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as the next president, such policies may soon change.
Concerned about the future, a group of Harvard undocumented immigrants has started a petition which has garnered 4,000 signatures, asking the college administration for protection. According to the group, there are 40 undocumented students at Harvard.
Trump has vowed to terminate President Barack Obama’s executive actions, which allowed undocumented youth to obtain legal work permits and protection from deportation, although it is not clear that he actually would move to do so as president.
In Garcia’s case, he “came out of the shadows” as undocumented during his freshman year at Texas A&M University, after he ran into students who were handing out flyers calling to repeal a Texas law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. The measure, which remains in place, helps children of undocumented immigrants for whom college would otherwise be out of reach.
“That’s when it hit me,” recalled Garcia. “Immigrants have been romanticized or dehumanized, but we have the power to act. We still have the capacity to make choices, the agency to decide how to respond to our circumstances.”
To prove his point, Garcia uses his own life. Born and raised in San Alberto, a rural town of about 500 people in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, he immigrated to the United States to join his father, who had moved to Austin in search of a better future. Eight years later, Garcia graduated magna cum laude as an undergraduate research scholar with bachelor’s degrees in economics and philosophy from Texas A&M and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In the fall of 2015, he came to Harvard to explore the role of faith in the immigrant experience, a topic he knows well.
The fear of deportation still grips Garcia, but he has found refuge in Catholicism. His mother and sister still live in Mexico. He hasn’t seen his sister in seven years because if he travels outside the country, he won’t be allowed to re-enter the United States.
Garcia would like to pursue doctoral studies, but if that doesn’t work out, he may go back to Austin and start his own painting business. He prepares for the worst but assumes the best. After all, he said, it’s the mix of faith and hope that plays a big role in the lives of immigrants.
“Every day when undocumented immigrants go to work, they risk deportation, and yet they do it to give a better future to their families,” he said. “Hope is what keeps many undocumented immigrants going.”