Axel grew up in North Carolina and considers Durham his hometown—but when he won a full-ride scholarship to Duke University, he was classified as an international student. The reason? Ramos is an undocumented immigrant. And so he attended orientation alongside students—including some from Honduras, his country of birth—who had never previously set foot in the United States. Axel struggled to explain to his new friends why someone with a North Carolina accent and an abundance of local knowledge was being treated like a foreigner. “It brought into focus the fact that I’m not from here, or from there,” he says. “Even after 11 years in the United States, I can’t fully identify myself as American.”
Axel came to the United States with his mother and siblings at the age of seven. “She took the decision to come here because it would be a better opportunity for us kids,” he explains. Since then, he’s lived in several North Carolina cities, with his mother and stepfather relocating periodically to help set up new locations of the supermarket chain where they’ve worked for more than a decade, and where his stepfather is now a store manager. This willingness to upend their lives for the sake of their jobs demonstrates the important economic contributions that immigrants—even undocumented ones—make in the United States. “My parents work and pay taxes,” he says. “And there’s a lot of money going into the Social Security system that’s never going to be collected by the undocumented immigrants who are paying it in.”
There has to be something that deals first with the undocumented immigrants here in the United States, something to integrate them into the system.
Shortly before starting his freshman year at Duke, Axel gained a degree of stability through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields some young immigrants from deportation and gives them legal authorization to live and work in the United States. That’s been an important stepping-stone, he says, allowing him to gain a Social Security number and driver’s license, and making it easier for him to envision a productive career after graduation. Still, he says, it’s not a permanent fix, and the next president could cancel the program with the stroke of a pen. “It’s kind of a limbo state,” Axel explains. “They could just decide to send me away. It doesn’t have the same sense of belonging that a visa or residency [has].”
Still, the DACA program remindsAxel that changes to the immigration system are possible and can make big differences in people’s lives. He wants to see comprehensive immigration reform that makes it easier for people to come to America legally but also provides a solid pathway to permanent status for undocumented immigrants. In the meantime, though, he says DACA-style protections should be extended to all undocumented immigrants as a means of rapidly bringing people out of the shadows. “There has to be something that deals first with the undocumented immigrants here in the United States, something to integrate them into the system,” he says.
Axel sees immigration reform as one of his generation’s defining civil-rights issues, and he’s been involved in numerous protests, traveled to Washington, DC to lobby lawmakers, and even scored a private chat on immigration with Jeh Johnson when the Homeland Security chief visited Duke this past summer. He’s now planning to study politics and dreams of a career in government, helping immigrants and others less fortunate than himself. “The immigrant struggle has defined a lot of my character and will always be a part of me,” he says. “I want to be involved with, or have some influence in, decisions that affect people in terms of social justice.”
But he can only do this so long as his DACA status remains active. Having a more stable grounding and a path to eventual citizenship, would make it far easier for him to build a career, and to contribute to his full potential. “Getting citizenship wouldn’t make me more of an American—I already am what I am,” he says. “It wouldn’t change me as a person. But in terms of opportunities, it would definitely open a lot of doors.”