In 1998, Luisa Santos’ family moved to Miami from Colombia to seek better opportunities. In America, Santos was awestruck by the fancy computers, book-filled libraries and even the air conditioning. In high school, she joined the Future Business Leaders of America and was elected to student government—opportunities that didn’t exist in her native country.
Then at 16, when she needed her social security number to launch a mentoring program, Santos learned she was undocumented. “To credit our public schools, there wasn’t much up to that point that made me realize I lacked this paper,” she says. “But it was a really dark and frustrating time.” She couldn’t get a driver’s license or an afterschool job. And college was a question mark. Santos was a straight-A student with enough extracurriculars to impress any admissions team, but prior to 2014, most schools didn’t allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
Luckily, Miami Dade Honors College offered her a partial scholarship. In 2011, Santos received an associate’s degree in International Relations and transferred to Georgetown. She completed a bachelor’s in Political Economy and worked for the Department of Education. “I got to see, not just practices in the classroom, what a difference policy can make,” she says.
She also launched Lulu’s Ice Cream, which makes hand-crafted seasonal ice cream using liquid nitrogen. In 2015, she opened a permanent shop in Miami and hired 17 employees. “Miami is still small enough that you can be anyone and come here and make meaningful changes,” she says. She was fortunate to become a permanent resident in 2011 and a citizen in 2016, after her grandmother sponsored the family. And she’d like to see the community do more to support small business owners who haven’t been as lucky and may unaware of available resources. “A lot of undocumented immigrants don’t know they can start a LLC with their TIN number,” she says.
Santos has used her own success to give back. She offers her teenage employees college advising and financial literacy training. And in November 2020, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Miami-Dade school board.
“There are very few formerly undocumented people anywhere in any level of elected office,” says Santos. “I am very proud to represent this perspective and show the world, if you give us the opportunity to fully participate, we are fully capable.”