An immigrant’s path to success

Review of Dan-el Padilla Peralta's memoir UNDOCUMENTED: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (Penguin Press) The Washington Post. August 7, 2015

What price should a son pay for his mother’s decisions?

In 1989, Maria Elena Peralta, a 29-year-old government worker from the Dominican Republic, flew to New York City with her husband and her 4-year-old son, Dan-el, to seek medical treatment for gestational diabetes. Dan-el was told they wouldn’t be in the United States long, but shortly after his baby brother was born, his mother decided she didn’t want to leave. Her husband pleaded with her to return to the Dominican Republic, but Maria Elena was adamant. “I’m staying right here with [my sons],” she said. “For them and their future.”

Maria Elena overstayed her visa, separated from her husband, signed up for welfare and food stamps, moved her children into a homeless shelter, obtained state-subsidized affordable housing and placed herself and Dan-el in permanent legal limbo. Seventeen years later, Dan-el Padilla Peralta graduated from Princeton University with a degree in classics. His memoir, “Undocumented,” is clearly intended to bolster arguments in favor of undocumented immigrants like himself. But his book provides as much ammunition against them as it does in their support.

Those who speak of “anchor babies” will note that, after her husband flew back to the Dominican Republic, Maria Elena survived for years solely on government resources, to which she was legally entitled because her younger son is a U.S. citizen. “Between WIC and welfer,” Padilla Peralta says, “we ate because of Yando,” his brother. Readers will also note that Maria Elena declined to regularize her immigration status by marrying her long-term boyfriend, whom her sons called “Dad,” until after Yando turned 18 and was no longer eligible for benefits. Padilla Peralta writes that the delay was caused by Maria Elena’s desire for a church wedding. “Her position didn’t make much sense to me,” he writes, “but Mom’s ways were her ways.” No kidding.

Those who speak of undocumented immigrants “draining” limited resources will notice that Padilla Peralta accepted coveted scholarships to the famous all-boys prep school Collegiate and to Princeton, which he attended for merely $2,000 a year. Time and time again, Padilla Peralta contrasts his hardships with the luxuries enjoyed by the Collegiate students around him: SAT tutors, European soccer camps, full-floor apartments, etc. Growing up in Harlem with unreliable electricity, brown tap water and stairwells full of drug addicts, he writes, “I tried my hardest not to think too much about how baller their lives seemed in comparison to mine.” Yet he appears oblivious to the envy that intelligent, cash-strapped, legal residents would have felt looking at the scholarships he used to climb America’s slippery social ladder.

Rarely have I felt so intensely ambivalent while reading a memoir. At times, I battled waves of indignation, exacerbated by Padilla Peralta’s penchant for ad hominem score-settling and his tone of belligerent entitlement. A gem from his closing paragraph: “To the haters, a final word: Demography is a bitch. Holla at me if you want me to break it down for you.” Is such trash talk the best this accomplished scholar could produce?

Yet despite my irritation, I found myself rooting for Padilla Peralta’s legalization. For starters, he was only 4 years old when his mother set his fate. Then, around page 230, another, more self-serving emotion arose when he recalls his urge to move abroad because he can’t legally work in America. “If I didn’t have any realistic opportunities in the States,” he thinks, “why not just bounce?” Staring at that line, I caught myself thinking: We can’t let him get away.

For there’s no denying that, macho bluster aside, Padilla Peralta is exactly the kind of person we want in our country. Brilliant, ambitious, resilient, ferociously hard-working, he embodies classic American virtues. Even at Princeton, he distinguished himself as one of the most gifted, diligent people on campus. The best student in his first-year class. The salutatorian of his graduating class. Phi Beta Kappa.

No wonder Padilla Peralta’s 2006 petition for a legal student visa garnered letters of support from Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy and Mark Dayton. It’s not simply a matter of compassion. If you want the United States to succeed as a meritocracy in a competitive global landscape, you have to retain its brightest, most industrious residents, no matter their legal status.

I imagine that Fred Hargadon, who admitted Padilla Peralta to Princeton when he served as its dean of admissions, would have agreed. In a widely circulated 2006 article on the Dominican’s case, he told the Wall Street Journal that Padilla Peralta “could have been from the moon and I would have admitted him.” At 18, he was already that dazzling.

Yet immigration officials declined to rule on Padilla Peralta’s application, provoking him to leave the country for England, before returning two years later on a student visa to complete a PhD in classics at Stanford. Perhaps officials were loath to set a precedent in such a public case, afraid that they might be accused of encouraging undocumented immigration.

Of course, if Maria Elena had come to America in 1889 rather than 1989, their dilemma wouldn’t have existed. Then she would have been accepted without complications, as were almost 12 million immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1900, most of them entering, as she did, through the “Golden Door” of New York City: the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, the English, the Scandinavians and the Jews. Their grit and brains helped make us a superpower in the decades after they decided to call the United States their home.

Padilla Peralta’s case is messy, but it makes me wonder if such “golden door” policies might not ultimately make us a stronger, more competitive nation.