In Bishop’s Pastoral Letter on Migration he encourages us all to reach out and experience an “encuentro” with one of our migrant brothers or sisters. An encuentro is a blessing, an experience, which allows for sharing and for getting to know first hand what our migrant brothers and sisters are living.
Roberto Valadez Peña is a Senior Sociology Major at UTEP destined for greatness and is graduating December of this year. He pays his college tuition out of his own pocket and does not rely on loans or any type of financial aid. He is a graduate of Hanks High School and R.E.L. Washington Elementary. Roberto is one of two children born to his parents. Like 80% of El Paso he is Hispanic. He speaks both English and Spanish and he likes the Oakland Raiders. His favorite places in El Paso are historic downtown, the mountains of McKelligon Canyon and UTEP where he says he can feel his future. He has never been to Mexico. As a matter of fact because of his previous status, the first time Roberto left El Paso was when he was twenty-two years old.
Roberto loves this country with all his “Corazon” and plans to contribute to his community by becoming a Sociologist and an active agent of social change. He works to support himself and helps his family. He has lived in El Paso for the last twenty-three years and he is only twenty-four years old. He is a well rounded outspoken millennial with courage most people twice his age lack and I had the privilege of getting to know him.
You see Roberto is one of close to 800,000 DREAMers in the country that could soon face deportation if Texas Attorney General Paxton and nine other state Attorney Generals have their way. As per the reports, this group of states will sue the Trump administration if they do not rescind an existing Obama executive order regarding DACA by a September 5, 2017 deadline. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals temporarily protects individuals like Roberto brought to this country illegally as children from being deported. Keep in mind though that not all childhood arrivals qualify as beneficiaries of the program, you have to apply and be designated as a beneficiary by the Department of Homeland Security. Roberto applied, paid a fee and is now one of those beneficiaries.
Roberto came to the U.S. as an infant with his two parents and five-year-old sister. All of his family of four came to El Paso and stayed to make a life on this side of the border as undocumented residents in search of better economic opportunities. Like many families in El Paso, migrant or not, the Valadez family struggled financially to make ends meet. Both of his parents worked outside the home, his mom at a restaurant and his dad as a tile setter. He and his sister could attend school despite being undocumented, as federal law requires school districts to allow. He told me “There was always that uncertainty knowing my parents were out there working and something really could happen. Especially my dad, he worked construction and would meet downtown everyday by the border, there was always that thought of…hope everything is ok.”
Roberto said he grew up like everyone else he knows, like a regular kid in El Paso with friends, video games, cartoons and school but he had a secret identity. About growing up undocumented Roberto says “We weren’t vocal about it so there’s always that being in the shadows, not telling anyone. Which in a way is hiding your real identity.” In high school Roberto never told anyone he was undocumented and not until he was in college did he tell a professor. “I didn’t actually come out until I was twenty one. It was actually to one of my Sociology professors. It was for a paper about your identity and connecting it to social inequality so I took that as a perfect opportunity to kind of come out and wrote it.” Roberto said after that paper he started to share his secret status with other people. He said it made him feel better, somehow liberated. “Now I’m fully open about it, I tell everyone”, Roberto enthusiastically proclaims. Roberto says he didn’t like feeling as if he had to hide who he really was just because he was not born here. Roberto reminds me “I am an El Pasoan, a Miner and a DREAMer. I pledged allegiance to the flag, I learned the history of this country and I learned how to be an American. School was my safe place.”
Listening to Roberto made me realize just how common Roberto’s story really is for all of us. Roberto is my classmate, my next-door neighbor, my teammate and he is the kid at the skate park down the street. His family reminded me of the typical El Paso working class family with kids we all probably grew up with and like the many students that are in today’s El Paso schools.
Roberto works diligently for the cause of the DREAMers and towards justice for immigrants at UTEP. He helped launch the Education Not Deportation Campaign at UTEP, which is a coalition of student groups and other community members actively organizing to make the university a sanctuary campus. This coalition is organizing to host Know Your Rights workshops and to educate staff and faculty about how to better protect students. This campaign is national and opposes deportation of community members. This campaign embraces for me as a Catholic, a very familiar message.
Roberto says the topic of immigration is at the forefront now more than ever and sometimes there are students at UTEP that do not agree with the E.N.D. campaign message. He says many tell him, “Get back in line like everyone else” or they say things like, “Well my parents came here legally.” Roberto feels he belongs here at UTEP just as much as those that make the comments. Recently Roberto launched Soñando Juntos which is a local advocacy organization looking to empower and support DREAMers in El Paso and its surrounding areas.
His family currently is a mixed status family, which for many DREAMers is common. Being that his family has been here for so long their status has changed over the years. His sister has since become a citizen and his parents, sponsored by her, are now permanent residents. He is the first one in his family on track to get a college degree and he looks forward to getting his degree later this year if the U.S. government allows it. His sister can sponsor him but the sibling-sponsored process is taking between 18 and 20 years. His parents are working on getting their citizenship but according to Roberto they are still a few years away. When he thinks about the possibility of deportation he knows he would not stay in Mexico. He says he would move to Canada or Europe. If DACA were to be terminated today, he is the only one out of his immediate family that migrated illegally together twenty-three years ago who could be deported.
For me I am saddened at the loss of opportunity for Roberto and for our community if this should come to fruition. I asked Roberto if he could speak to the Catholics of El Paso what would be his message? Roberto answers, “Jesus was an immigrant and as a child he too fled with his family for safety and a better life. Jesus was a person of love that wants us to treat each other fairly and with love. I would ask them to be compassionate and sympathize because that’s what Jesus would do.”