Today, Martin Rodriguez, a 26-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, is a PhD student at Wake Forest University, where he is working on developing gene therapies for pediatric blood disorders. “I believe that fulfillment for any human being is best achieved through service to others,” Rodriguez says. “Helping children born with bleeding disorders is something I can see myself spending my life working on.”
But Rodriguez is only able to do this important work because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to legally live and work in the United States. If Congress does not implement a permanent solution to DACA in the coming weeks, Rodriguez will be subject to deportation, meaning he could be, removed from his doctoral program and sent back to Mexico, where he hasn’t lived since he was 9 years old.
DACA was a door to continuing my education, and it’s definitely as essential as ever.
After Rodriguez’s parents brought him to the United States in 2000, his mother worked in McDonald’s and his father was an electrician. Rodriguez enrolled in public school and was amazed by the basic amenities that so many American children take for granted: computers, air conditioning, carpeting, even a lunchroom. Back in Mexico, his school had not even been able to afford doors for the classrooms. “I remember what it was like to live there and then come to live here,” he says. “That’s helped me value being here a little bit more.”
As Rodriguez grew older, he realized how hard his parents worked to give him and his siblings a better life. “It might sound like a cliché, but they said they wanted to provide better opportunities for us,” he says. “They were very deliberate about reminding us of that as the years passed, and telling us that the biggest gift we could give them was to get good grades and have a good career.”
Rodriguez graduated fifth in his high school class. But when he visited his school’s college counsellor, he was told that despite his excellent grades it would be impossible for him to attend college because he did not have a Social Security number. “That was a moment of awakening, really — after all the effort, and all the years of doing the best I could, to be told I couldn’t go because I wasn’t born in the United States,” he says.
Fortunately, the counsellor was not entirely correct: At the time, undocumented students were not permitted to take post-secondary classes at any of North Carolina’s public community colleges, but they were allowed to attend public universities in the state as long as they paid out-of-state tuition. Rodriguez’s parents scrimped and saved to allow him to study for a year at North Carolina State University; later, after the rules changed, he transferred to community college in order to reduce the financial burden on his parents.
In 2012, while studying at Surry Community College and working as a social-justice campaigner, DACA was implemented. Rodriguez immediately applied, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and — newly equipped with a Social Security number — won a scholarship to Marquette University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biomedical engineering. “DACA was a door to continuing my education, and it’s definitely as essential as ever,” he says.
But Rodriguez is also essential to his school. The work he does is highly specialized, and If he is deported, Wake Forest would likely have a difficult time finding another candidate to continue the critical research. The university needs its foreign-born students to fill critical research and teaching positions, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields: 35 percent of North Carolina’s STEM PhD candidates are foreign-born, and they help drive innovation that is expected to add 800,000 new jobs nationwide by 2024.
Rodriguez says he would be bitterly disappointed if he had to leave the country. He loves his adopted home, and believes that welcoming new arrivals is part of what makes America great — which is why he finds the threat to expel the Dreamers so confounding. “Part of the American dream is that there are no limits,” he says. “How hard you work has a lot to do with how far you’ll get in life. But [the threat of deportation] has been such a big barrier for 800,000 young people, when, ultimately, all we’re trying to do is contribute to the U.S. economy.”