Juan Carlos Diaz grew up in a crowded home in Goshen, Indiana, surrounded by friends and family, some with legal status, some without. It was a blue-collar upbringing. Virtually all the adults he knew worked in Indian’s robust RV manufacturing industry, where four of every five U.S.-made RVs are built and 50,000 people work. Diaz, who had briefly been undocumented as a child, could easily have worked in the same factories. But he was lucky enough to gain legal status and attend college, opportunities that led to his current job at a nonprofit healthcare provider. He now performs a vital service in the Goshen region, where an estimated 10,000 people lack access to primary healthcare providers. “One of the things my parents taught me is that you always give back to the community,” Diaz says.
Without lawful residency status, Diaz would have had a very different life. Born in Mexico, he first crossed the Rio Grande when he was just 2 years old. His mother held him in her arms as she waded into the cold water, rejecting a Coyote’s offer to help for fear the man would leave her baby behind. His parents moved between North Carolina, Indiana, and Texas, working in agriculture and construction. But after three years they wound up taking Diaz back to Mexico, where they managed a farm they had inherited from Diaz’s grandfather.
Five years later, Diaz once again crossed the border, this time through legal channels. His parents had obtained green cards and brought the family to Goshen. It was there that Diaz, thanks to his lawful residency status, was able to secure in-state tuition, loans, and scholarships to attend Goshen College. “Unfortunately, people with deferred action, or who don’t have legal status, don’t get as many scholarships and have to pay full out-of-state tuition, so they can’t afford college,” Diaz says.=
It sits very heavy on you, knowing your undocumented friends and family members can’t do the same things you’re able to do.
Undocumented immigrants aren’t just excluded from the educational system, Diaz says, they’re unable to participate in many other social programs, as well, or to give back to their community in as many ways. “It’s very hard to be active in the community when you don’t feel like you have ownership in the town you live in,” he says. Diaz doesn’t think much about the politics of immigration, but he believes undocumented workers need a way to live, work, and obtain critical services under their own names without fear of deportation. He’s seen undocumented friends flee traffic accidents that weren’t their fault, or sink into depression because they were scared to report crimes committed against them. “You don’t feel safe, even in your own home,” he says.
Diaz is proud to be a United States citizen, but he knows that, had his parents not managed to obtain a legal means of entry, he could easily have grown up as an undocumented immigrant and been denied the opportunities that now allow him to contribute to his community’s healthcare services. He sees his citizenship as a privilege, and feels a huge responsibility to make the most of the chance he’s been given. But he also feels sadness that so many of the people he cares about have been denied the same opportunities. “I know that because of that, some of them aren’t reaching their full potential,” he says. “It sits very heavy on you, knowing your undocumented friends and family members can’t do the same things you’re able to do.”