Jesus Arzola-Vega credits his mother’s intelligence and resilience with motivating him to earn a college degree and become a business policy fellow at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His mother had arrived in Detroit from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant and, to provide for her three young children, slogged through an auto industry job for nearly a decade. She had permission to legally work in the United States because her eldest son was born in the country. When changes in the auto industry led to her lay-off, she started her own business as a travel agent. Despite having no access to capital, she built the business into a 10-person company.
Her remarkable resilience proved itself again when, after Internet sites like Orbitz and Expedia ate into her customer base, she reinvented herself again and became a paralegal. She married an American citizen and started the citizenship process for herself and her two undocumented children. When Arzola-Vega was 12 years old, the family moved into a middle-class suburb in Detroit.
If I had been undocumented, there would have been no way I would have been able to afford college.
Arzola-Vega supports immigration reform so that newcomers won’t have to struggle as much as his mother did. She could have accomplished much more had she been given the same economic opportunities that other Americans have, he says. “If someone is looking to start a business and they have no criminal record, they should be given legal residency so they’re not deported, and given access to capital and financing that they need to start businesses,” he says. “They’re just trying to make this country greater and help out their family.”
Arzola-Vega believes his own ability to secure citizenship is the main reason he was able to succeed in his education — he received a bachelor’s in economics and international affairs from Michigan State University — and his career. “If I had been undocumented, there would have been no way I would have been able to afford college,” says Arzola-Vega who is in his early 20s.
Arzola-Vega has come a long way since his birth in a rural Mexican hospital, where he was born three weeks prematurely and almost died. “I suffered from minor breathing issues that any hospital in the U.S. would have been able to treat,” he says. He feels a great responsibility to build on what his mother created. “I want to do everything I can with what I have. My mom had so many barriers and was still able to achieve greatness. I don’t have a glass ceiling or three kids or no money — I should be able to run the planet.”