When he was one year old, Alfredo was carried across the U.S.-Mexico border by his mother and father. Neither he nor his parents had legal documentation.
The promise of a better life was part of what prompted their migration. There were other reasons, however: his family moved north for security, too. The pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico, where Alfredo was born and where many of his extended family lived, was plagued by violence from drug cartels. Shortly after their crossing, Alfredo’s cousins were murdered. Though nobody in his family was involved in the drug trade, the cartels exploited their innocent lives as guerilla-capital.
Flash forward a decade. Alfredo began his eighth grade year at a low-income middle school in Phoenix, Arizona. He was an all-star student. I’ll never forget the first time I met him. He was one of the first students to approach me during “meet the teacher night.” He humbly introduced himself with the firmest handshake from an 8th grader I have ever received, asked what materials would be needed for the coming semester, and expressed an eagerness to learn and to succeed.
That eagerness remained on display each and every day in my science class. He cooperated well in group work and was a constant source of guidance and support for his peers. He displayed a notable complexity in his thinking, as he frequently asked sophisticated questions well beyond the scope of any material we covered. He was the top of his class in English and math as well, and even took a 7am zero-hour course at the local high school so that he could study Algebra.
Beyond his scholarly aptitude, I came to admire his determination and ambition. While he counts leaving Mexico as a blessing, life in the United States still proved difficult. His parents both migrated from Mexico with little more than their infant child. His father works in construction and carpentry while his mother raises the family and actively participates in all aspects of the children’s school life. Like all students at his middle school, Alfredo received free breakfast and lunch every single day. He was raised in a deprived school system that lacks the resources needed to help him realize his full potential.
But while materially poor, Alfredo was rich in spirit. When asked about his ultimate goals, Alfredo first replied with a very practical concern: he wants to move his family into the middle class and into a better life. He then discussed his concern for his community, and his desire to have a positive impact there, and on the larger world.
That was Alfredo as an eighth grader. Since then, he has only blossomed more fully.
Through grit and determination, and the support of scholarships blind to legal status, he was able to attend a Jesuit high school in Phoenix. In short, he crushed it. He maintained a 4.14 GPA while taking 10 Advanced Placement classes and 10 honors classes. All this while also volunteering more than 100 hours at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank, among other social justice-related non-profits. He also engaged in multiple campus-based organizations: Hermanos Unidos, which focused on appreciating Hispanic culture and serving the broader community; Broncos for Life, a pro-life student group; and the Barbell Club, the weightlifting team.
The Jesuit motto, “to go set the world on fire,” resonated deeply with Alfredo. In a senior project synthesizing his worldview, he provided his own version as his life’s guiding vision:
“Be the fire that burns brightly, that illuminates the mechanical world, that becomes the beacon of light to the broken, the marginalized…and that brings hope to this world that needs more humanity.”
As an eighth-grader, he believed he had to help his family and community. This belief strengthened in high school. More than just grades, Alfredo dedicated himself to living out his vision of justice. When it came time to apply to college, Alfredo had attained a resume that most kids can only hope for.
As an undocumented student, Alfredo faced a number of challenges to receiving financial aid to help pay for university. He has no access to federal student aid. The ability to secure private loans was extremely cumbersome, if not impossible. And this was when Obama was president.
When Donald Trump was elected, these barriers multiplied. The future status for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), one of the few veils of protection Alfredo has as a young person living without documentation, seems precarious. Our president now openly and proactively demonizes those without legal status in the United States, and new numbers show he is putting his money where his mouth is. In the first three months of the Trump presidency, immigration arrests have risen by 38% compared to the same time period in the previous year. More than half of those arrested were migrants who committed no crime other than being in country without documentation, reflecting a major shift in federal policy under Trump. (Under Obama, arrests targeted undocumented migrants who committed dangerous crimes.)
There are more insidious effects of the renewed American tradition of xenophobia under Trump. The increase in enforcement discourages undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes; for example, reports by Latinos of sexual assaults and domestic violence have dropped sharply. Furthermore, the toxicity of xenophobia in everyday life in Arizona and many other places is more potent. Alfredo notes a sharp increase in the number of racial epithets thrown at him on the bus every day, and the condescension some of his white classmates now openly display toward him. All this for the epitome of what a model 21st century American looks like.
For many DREAMers, this new culture of fear is preventing them from applying for financial aid, and in some cases leads them to skip out on university entirely. Not surprisingly, Alfredo remained undeterred throughout the admissions process. He applied mostly to private schools, which operate under more flexible policies regarding legal students. He was accepted to six schools total, including many with a full ride scholarship.
The best school he was accepted to was Northwestern, ranked twelfth in the U.S. with an acceptance rate of thirteen percent. He was offered a 90% scholarship! A mere $7,500 stood between him and his dream of a Northwestern education. The $7,500, however, remained a significant barrier. His family was fearful of seeking loans and additional aid given their undocumented status.
Thankfully, his community rallied to support him. His former teachers and I set up a scholarship fund (please consider supporting!) and have raised close to $4,000. Alfredo committed to Northwestern, where he plans to study political science and is determined to pursue a career in advocacy.
Alfredo’s story has a happy ending, for now. Most undocumented students, however, are not as fortunate. Alfredo realizes this, and he is determined to live out a personal and professional life that actively promotes social justice in the world. When asked about what he hopes to do with his Northwestern education, Alfredo provides an inspiring lesson for all of us:
“I am called to serve humanity, and today there remains so much lack of good in the world. Therefore, I will become a man I am proud of in the future by seeking the marginalized, living in solidarity with the crucified, and further developing myself into a conqueror of dreams and achiever of the impossible.”
*For the purposes of anonymity, Alfredo’s real name is not used.