Adrian Escarate was three years old when he arrived in Miami from Santiago, Chile with his parents and older brother. The family overstayed their tourist visas and never tried to establish permanent residency. This was in the 1990s when life was manageable for undocumented immigrants. Escarate’s parents were able to get their driver’s licenses and enroll their kids in school. The family assimilated easily into Miami’s large Hispanic community.
For me, the United States is the only country I know. It’s the one I grew up in.
Yet Escarate never could have imagined how his undocumented status would impact his future. When his grandfather died, his father couldn’t attend the funeral because he might not be allowed to return to the United States. A few years later, Escarate ran into the same problem. At age 14, and ranked among the top 50 tennis players in Florida, he couldn’t leave the country either. “Friends from Chile would say ‘When are you coming to play?’ But I had to say, ‘I can’t travel,’” says Escarate, explaining that his ranking dropped when he couldn’t compete in international tournaments. “It was a bummer to practice and work hard and not be able to compete with the best players in the state,” he says.
But the most devastating setback was not being able to attend college. He needed financial aid, which required proof of permanent residency. That’s why Escarate believes that all undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should be given a path to citizenship. “I’ve struggled through so much here,” says Escarate, now 27. “For me, the United States is the only country I know. It’s the one I grew up in.”
Escarate graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class. Yet it was painful watching his classmates take SATs and talk about applying to college. “I felt like I wasn’t the same as everyone else,” says Escarate. “I would change the subject whenever it came up.”
He thought he got a break when a family friend, who was the assistant tennis coach at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, offered him a place on the team and a scholarship. But the following year, the coach couldn’t afford to keep him on. He lost his funding and had to drop out. Luckily, a coach for St. Thomas University, a private college in Miami, saw Escarate’s potential and sponsored him. In 2011, he graduated from St. Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in communications with dreams of being a sports journalist.
The next hurdle appeared when Escarate couldn’t apply for a job because he didn’t have a work permit. For the next year, he scraped by. Then, in 2012, he got lucky again with the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, which allows undocumented workers who entered the United States before their sixteenth birthday to apply for a renewable two-year work permit, was a game changer. Escarate was hired as the assistant tennis coach at St. Thomas, where he also plans to pursue his master’s degree in communications. “DACA changed my life,” he says. “I can drive legally. I can apply for jobs like any regular person.” Two years ago, his parents became legal residents through his brother, who became a citizen after marrying his long-time girlfriend. They’ll sponsor Escarate next.
Still, DACA isn’t a perfect—or permanent—solution. Escarate still has to apply for renewal every two years, and he’s only allowed to travel outside the county in the event of a family emergency. Real reform, he believes, would make it possible for undocumented immigrants to have a path toward citizenship. “I hope our government can come up with something totally new,” says Escarate. “All I’ve ever wanted is the opportunity to contribute in a real way.”