CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The campaign for student body president at the University of North Carolina here has just begun, and there’s nothing unusual in the number of candidates — five — or the fact that two are Morehead-Cain scholars, an elite designation.
But there’s a wrinkle that’s certain to generate discussion, especially in a state whose politics have taken a profoundly rightward turn. One of the candidates is an undocumented immigrant who readily identifies himself that way. In fact, he’s at or near the head of the pack.
His name is Emilio Vicente. He’s a junior, 22 and a minority three times over: Latino, undocumented and gay. He came to the United States from Guatemala at 6, his mother leading him under barbed wire and into Arizona, as he recalls it. (He remembers the screech of a woman with them whose hair got caught.) And he flourished here, his grades earning him the private scholarship he needed for Chapel Hill, where he’s on this committee, that board, a one-man whirlwind of engagement.
I hung out with him on Sunday, including at a meeting of his campaign team. They took stock of their efforts to meet the Tuesday deadline for 1,250 petition signatures. Emilio was already above 2,000. The election is Feb. 11, with a runoff, if needed, a week later.
His victory would be a milestone, not just locally but perhaps nationally, and it would be a chance, he told me, “to change the narrative of what it means to be undocumented.” It would be a vindication, too, and that’s clear from his campaign site. Under the headline “Inspiration,” it says, “My parents for their sacrifices.”
His dad arrived here illegally in 1992. He and his mom followed in 1997, traveling through Mexico by rail, in a cargo car.
“I’m pretty sure it was a cattle train because I could smell the manure,” he said.
From Arizona they made their way to Siler City, N.C., where his father plucked chickens in a big poultry plant. His mother got a job there, too.
“They would come home from work and show me their hands — blistered, pruned,” Emilio remembered. “And they said, ‘You don’t want this.’ ”
He buckled down to schoolwork, although it was hard, partly because his parents had little education and almost no English. And he stayed out of trouble, careful not to draw any attention to his family.
Things got tougher still. His father, who had taken a new job in a lumber plant, was paralyzed in an accident there. Homebound, dependent, he returned to relatives in Guatemala, Emilio’s mother beside him. The choice belonged to Emilio, then 15: Join them or stay in Siler City with an older brother who had managed to get to America.
It was our national anthem Emilio could sing, our president whose name he knew. He thought about the future and about his parents’ hands. He stayed.
He hasn’t seen his parents in seven years because he can’t re-enter the country if he leaves. He has no papers, no legal status. If the government didn’t typically turn a blind eye to young people like him, he’d be at risk of deportation, but he doesn’t really fear it, especially since President Obama in 2012 created renewable two-year reprieves for productive young immigrants without criminal records, enabling them, for example, to be legally employed. Emilio is applying for one.
But a change in government could end that program. It doesn’t include any durable peace of mind, not the kind offered by the long-stalled Dream Act, which creates a path to citizenship for many immigrants who were tugged here by their parents, are blameless for their illegal crossings, got educations in America and are eager to lend their skills to this country.
Federal and state laws are a welter of contradictions. As an undocumented immigrant, Emilio can attend Chapel Hill but must be considered a foreigner and pay out-of-state tuition. He’s ineligible for state or federal aid. Lucky for him, his private scholarship covers the full cost. His many campus involvements, he said, are his way of saying thank you and giving back.
Republicans in Washington, who have been an obstacle to immigration reform, are about to unveil some new proposals, which may take into account the perverse limbos of young immigrants.
I sure hope so, because if we, as a country, aren’t prepared to open our arms and workplaces to strivers like Emilio, who could so easily have sunk into self-pity and had to summon a grace and grit that many of us never manage, then we’re not just callous. We’re self-defeating. We’re stupid.
But while Congress dithers about his degree of welcome in America, students in Chapel Hill are asking a more elegant, enlightened question. Does he maybe represent the very best of us, and should he be their leader?
© 2014 New York Times News Service