Carlos Sotelo is a high-flyer: a newly minted Princeton graduate with an impressive resume that includes a semester at Oxford University. He’s also an undocumented immigrant, brought to the United States by his parents as a baby, and raised in near-poverty by his mother after his father passed away. Now aged 22, Sotelo works in Houston’s school system as a college success adviser, and wants to spend his career trying to help underprivileged students achieve their potential. “I’ve seen the value of what education does for a person on the very bottom rung of society, and the way it lifts them,” he says. “I want to do everything in my power to make that more accessible to everyone.”
Growing up in Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico, Sotelo’s mother only made it to ninth grade before leaving school to care for her younger siblings, while his father earned a technical degree that allowed him to work as an agricultural adviser. “They were fairly well off by their town’s standards,” Sotelo says. Still, after Sotelo and his older sister were born, his parents decided to bring them to America. “They wanted to come to the U.S. and pursue the American dream so their kids could grow up to be anything they wanted,” Sotelo says.
In 1995, the family crossed the border in the dead of night, terrified that four-month-old Sotelo’s crying would give them away. They made it to Houston, where Sotelo’s father supported the family by working two jobs — as a gas-station clerk, and in a furniture factory — while Sotelo’s aunt, a legal resident, tried to sponsor his father’s immigration paperwork. The process proved more complicated than anyone had expected, and nine years later, when Sotelo’s father passed away, the family still didn’t have legal status. “Because he died, the process sputtered out, and we weren’t able to continue it,” Sotelo says.
That left Sotelo’s mother, then pregnant, to support the family by working as a seamstress in a furniture factory. “It was a struggle for my mom to become the breadwinner,” Sotelo says. “Very few people would want to do what my mom does, working long hours with her hands in a warehouse.”
“We live in this country, and we grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem.”
Growing up in Houston, Sotelo and his older sister didn’t feel like foreigners. “We live in this country, and we grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem,” he says. Sotelo only realized he was undocumented when he saw his mother taking his youngest sister, who was born in the United States and is a citizen, to the doctor and the dentist, thanks to a public-assistance program that covered native-born children but not undocumented youngsters. “I realized how many years had passed since my last visit to the dentist,” Sotelo says.
Later, Sotelo missed out on educational opportunities — including a school trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center — because of his status. “I realized, okay, there are some limits to being undocumented, and some opportunities I won’t be able to have,” he says. “My options were really limited by the fact that I was undocumented.”
That changed in 2012, when Sotelo qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily shields young immigrants from deportation. “It was a huge deal,” he says. “Being able to obtain that status opens up a lot of doors.”
Before gaining DACA protection, Sotelo had to avoid places like airports, where he might be detained or deported. After gaining protection, however, Sotelo was able to look for opportunities beyond his local neighborhood: He worked at a food bank, attended a White House science fair, and eventually earned a full-ride financial aid package at Princeton University, where he majored in education policy. “I’d seen what it meant to be a person without papers, and how hard my mom worked, and how limited her opportunities were,” he says. “I knew I needed to go college to improve my family’s situation.”
DACA helps young immigrants enormously, Sotelo says. “It ensures an educational pathway is open for more students, either through working or getting scholarships,” he says. Just as importantly, he adds, DACA allows young immigrants to inspire other members of their communities to strive to achieve their full potential. “It ensures more people growing up in immigrant communities who can achieve these opportunities and can be role models, and show that if you work hard you can achieve the American dream.”
Still, he says, it’s far from a perfect solution. President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel DACA has left those registered, including Sotelo, at risk of deportation. “It’s a huge worry,” Sotelo says. And only certain immigrants were ever eligible for DACA protections. “Having DACA opened a lot of doors for me, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am,” he says. “But a lot of people who are just as deserving didn’t get these opportunities.”
What’s needed, Sotelo says, is a broader push to provide all undocumented immigrants with a path to legal status. There are 1.8 million undocumented immigrants in Texas, according to New American Economy data, and only a fraction of them are eligible for DACA. And yet these immigrants pay $2.8 billion in taxes each year, and their combined spending power of $22.6 billion makes a big contribution to the Texas economy. “We need a more meaningful and comprehensive solution,” he says. Sotelo says his own trajectory shows the way that America would benefit from bringing immigrants out of the shadows. “DACA is an example of the benefits that immigrants produce for American society when they’re given opportunities,” he says.