For most 22-year-old college students like Mario Perez, a mathematics and statistics major at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, a routine traffic stop wouldn’t be such a big deal. But for Perez, whose parents crossed the U.S.-Mexico border when he was 4 years old, the traffic citation was the start of a continuing nightmare.
Sitting in his car in the midnight glare of the police lights, waiting for the officers to complete their paperwork on the traffic stop, Perez typed a frantic text message on his cell phone. In his moment of dire need, he reached out to the only people who shared his secret—his brothers in the Iota Mu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the nation’s oldest black Greek-letter fraternity.
“Hey, Bruhs,” he tapped. “I just got pulled over.”
His fraternity brothers knew precisely what that meant because they were well aware Perez is an undocumented immigrant. He didn’t know about that part of his personal history until he was a high school senior, needing a Social Security number to apply for college. Without proper papers, Perez discovered for the first time in his life that he was one among the estimated 65,000 undocumented young people in college living in a hellish limbo through no fault of their own. That traffic stop last April changed everything in Perez’s previously blissful life.
“I’m taking my life one day at a time now,” Perez told me in a phone conversation earlier this week. “When I think about being here as an undocumented (person), it interferes with my focus on school and studying. So I try not to think about it too much.”
Not thinking about it became all the more difficult when that simple traffic stop set loose a chain of events that prompted federal immigration officials to detain the model student in a county jail. Perez now is in the crosshairs of a deportation threat. A hearing in Houston on March 9 may determine his fate, depending on whether a judge orders him deported or allows him special dispensation to stay to complete his final few courses toward a college degree.
Beyond the human drama of one young person caught in the Kafkaesque rules of U.S. immigration policy, Perez’s plight brings to public attention the remarkable demonstration of brotherhood that contradicts commonly held misperceptions about the immutability of race, culture, and politics in the immigration debate. Black Americans aren’t unaware, unconcerned, or unconnected to the travails of immigrants in their communities.
Despite the anti-immigration rhetoric spewed by conservatives seeking to drive a wedge among minority groups, African Americans and Latino immigrants often share a common appreciation for fairness in the administration of federal law. Such was the example in Perez’s case as immediately after his arrest, word raced across the country on the Alphas’ grapevine and brothers responded to offer him help. His Iota Mu chapter brothers contacted an alumni chapter in Houston, which raised the $1,500 needed to release Perez from jail. Another member of the fraternity found a lawyer to represent him pro bono. “I love the brothers,” Perez said, noting he joined the fraternity in spring 2009.
Jacob Monty, a Houston attorney who specializes in immigration cases, said that as he considered taking Perez’s case, about 20 Alphas showed up at his office in a show of support for Perez. “His biggest supporters are African Americans,” Monty said during a phone interview. “If you listen to the debate on immigration, especially from the voices on the conservative side, you wouldn’t know that these African Americans are in favor of the DREAM Act, and that they don’t fear losing jobs or anything to people like Mario.”
The DREAM Act proposed a pathway for law-abiding undocumented immigrants who are in college or the military to become U.S. citizens. The legislation called for tight rules that would allow some 65,000 young people an opportunity to emerge from the shadows and become productive Americans. The fraternity’s leadership seized upon Perez’s plight to urge its members to lobby congressional leaders to support the ultimately unsuccessful effort late last year to pass legislation that provides a pathway for citizenship for people just like Perez.
(Full disclosure: I’m a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became aware of Perez’s plight from the countless email and Facebook appeals I received from the fraternity’s national office and other Alphas.)
Perez said passage of the DREAM Act could have been the answer to his prayers. “It would have stopped the whole prosecution I’m going through,” he said. “When it didn’t pass I was really hurt.”
Monty said it’s uncertain how the case will be resolved. Armed with letters of support from Perez’s fraternity brothers and school officials that attest to the young man’s sterling character and avoidance of legal trouble, he’s preparing to ask federal officials to exercise prosecutorial discretion, which is within their ability under law. That would dismiss the deportation proceedings but it wouldn’t make Perez a citizen and he still wouldn’t have a legal right to work in the United States.
“The ironic thing in Mario’s case is that he could have gotten married to his girlfriend or he could have gotten her pregnant and become eligible to get a green card that would allow him to stay here legally,” Monty said. “But he didn’t believe that was right. He thinks you should finish your education before you get married or start a family. He was trying to do the right thing and he’s being prosecuted for it.”
For his part, Perez views his situation philosophically. He said he once had plans to become an engineer. But given all that’s happened to him over the past year, he suspects it may be a heaven-sent message telling him to change the course of his life. “What if I’m in this situation because God wants me to go through this to prepare me to help other people,” he said. “What if I’m supposed to go into law and do something like that so other people won’t have to go through what’s happening to me?”
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.