Millions of people and thousands of corporations who use cloud storage and software powered by Dell don’t know it, but the son of an undocumented immigrant is keeping their data safe. His name is Carlos Phoenix, and he’s the global cyber strategist for a Dell subsidiary called VMware. “Our software powers a lot of the internet,” says Phoenix. “I strategize how to make their systems secure and stop hackers.”
Phoenix plays a vital role in the 21st century economy — and one that he credits to his mother, who initially came here without papers. As he explains, his mom grew up moving back and forth between Mexico, where her family raised cattle and horses, and Texas, where they sold their livestock. It was on one such trip, as a young adult, that she met her future husband, a Colombian immigrant who had become a U.S. citizen after obtaining a green card and work visa. The couple fell in love, married, and had two sons. To support the family, Phoenix’s parents worked in a factory making bolts for the aerospace industry, sometimes taking two or three shifts in a row. “It was a dirty, difficult job,” says Phoenix. “They were on their feet 10 hours a day.”
When Phoenix and his brother were growing up in California, their mother began to worry about her immigration status. “She had put down roots here, and was worried about deportation,” he says. “Both my parents saw the United States as home.” Luckily, President Reagan put these fears to rest in 1986, when he signed a sweeping immigration reform bill that granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who had entered the country before 1982. Phoenix’s mother immediately applied for citizenship, starting a process that became a unique bonding experience for her and her son. Just 11 years old, Phoenix helped his mom improve her English and quizzed her about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. “We both got to know a lot about American history,” he says.
The more of the world I see, the more I realize that we have to think globally. Immigration is an opportunity to help people.
Phoenix saw how determined his parents were to build their lives here, and he adopted their work ethic. He taught himself how to write code, and by the time he enrolled in college he was already working full time as a software developer. He paid his way through school doing consulting work for Genetech, the company that discovered the human genome, and Amgen, a biotech company. After graduating, he spent two and a half years traveling the world as a technology and security expert for Deloitte before leaving to start his own company. He was just about to sell it for a significant sum when the economy crashed. “The financial crisis took me out,” Phoenix says. “That was a big setback.”
But Phoenix regrouped, went to business school, and took a series of computer consulting positions with large entertainment companies like Warner Brothers, Disney, and Fox. Finally, in 2015, he landed at VMware.
Phoenix’s career trajectory is an example of what the children of immigrants can achieve — and what they contribute — regardless of how their parents got here. According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of second-generation Hispanics say that “most people can get ahead if they work hard.” Only 58 percent of all adults in America say they feel the same. Evidence suggests it’s a philosophy that immigrants put into action. In 2010, for example, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, according to New American Economy.
It did not come as a surprise to Carlos when his wife, Jess Phoenix, decided to run for office, because they share the same values. Her district, California’s 25th Congressional District, an area in northern Los Angeles and Ventura Counties where immigrants paid $1.3 billion in taxes in 2014 and held $3.7 billion in spending power. Both Jess and Carlos speak Spanish and comprehensive immigration reform was a big reason that Jess decided to run for office. Carlos often joins Jess as she knocks on doors in the district. Together, they listen to the stories of families directly impacted by current policies, and proposed changes being threatened by the Trump administration. As for DACA recipients, “they didn’t have any choice in coming to the United States and haven’t done anything wrong,” says Jess. “They are working hard and trying to make a life here. I don’t want my family to be torn apart by immigration law.”
Carlos agrees. “I’ve traveled all over the world,” he says. “I speak five languages and I’ve lived in 12 countries. The more of the world I see, the more I realize that we have to think globally. Immigration is an opportunity to help people, and an opportunity for us to invest in our economy. Most immigrants come here to work very, very hard. That’s what my parents did.”