Imagine a group of families, including parents and kids.
You know how there’s almost always one child off in a corner, reading? Engrossed in a book? Deaf to everything else? Doesn’t come when called? Doesn’t speak when spoken to? Occasionally walks into walls?
Dan-el Padilla Peralta was one of those kids, enraptured by a textbook about ancient Greece and Rome. He was lucky — he found a lifelong passion, a field that so captured his imagination that he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Stanford University studying it, and now he’s teaching.
But he was not so lucky in other ways.
Dr. Padilla was born in the Dominican Republic; his parents brought him to the United States when he was 4 years old. His mother was pregnant with his brother, and needed medical help that was more available here than it was at home. He was here as an undocumented alien. That is a status from which he has not yet been able to free himself, although many people have tried to help him and they’ve all made some progress.
Now, as the national debate on immigration — which always simmers in a large but not melting pot on the back burner — has been brought to boil in the recent presidential election and the changes in policy to which President-elect Donald J. Trump often alludes, it is compelling to listen to Dr. Padilla’s story.
He was a Dreamer — one of the undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and whose status President Barack Obama tried to help through an executive order.
You can hear Dr. Padilla’s story at the JCC (see the box for more information), but until then, here it is:
Dan-el Padilla Peralta was born to parents who were comfortable middle-class in the Dominican Republic; his mother, Maria Elena Peralta, was the executive director of a pension fund for dock workers, and his father, Domingo Padilla, was a CPA who worked for that fund. But by the time that their younger son, Yando, was born, and the complications that continued to dog Ms. Peralta were treated successfully, Dan-el was in kindergarten, and the family, which was in the United States on a tourist visa, had no legal grounds that would keep them in the country. (Except for Yando, who, of course, was a U.S. citizen — he was born here.) They tried to work with a lawyer, whom they trusted, but it turned out that their trust was misplaced. “He swindled them totally and utterly,” Dr. Padilla said. “He left them with no paperwork and no money.
“We moved to Queens, my dad drove cabs and sold fruit from a fruit stand, and my mom did some babysitting, and wrote for a fledgling Dominican newspaper that shuttered in two years,” he continued. None of it was enough. Eventually, “in 1993, my dad decided he’d had enough of this life, and told my mom that he wanted to head back to the Dominican Republic. And my mom said that she’d rather stay in New York with her two sons, and my parents separated, and then they divorced.”
Ms. Peralta and her sons were evicted from their apartment, and found themselves in the New York City shelter system. “I was 8, turning 9,” Dr. Padilla said. “We were in the shelter system for the entirety of my fourth grade year. We were processed in a center in the South Bronx, then assigned to a shelter in Chinatown, and then in the spring of ’94 we were relocated to a shelter in Bushwick.” By the time he was 10, Dr. Padilla had lived in four of the city’s five boroughs (Chinatown is in Manhattan, and Bushwick is in Brooklyn), but he didn’t spend any time in any of them long enough to make friends or establish himself in school.
It was in the shelter in Bushwick that Dr. Padilla found “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome.” “That gave me a space in which I could imagine a different world, and it motivated me to find every opportunity to learn Latin and ancient Greek,” he said. It also brought him to the attention of Jeff Cowan, a shelter volunteer, “who took an interest in me.” Soon the family was given a voucher that allowed them to rent an apartment in Central Harlem. Dr. Padilla’s mother remarried — “my stepdad, Carlos Pena, has been a pretty key player in my life,” he said. And Mr. Cowan kept in touch with the family. He told Dan-el about Prep for Prep, an organization that helps smart, motivated, but underprivileged children get and then stay in city private schools. Mr. Cowan also helped Dan-el apply to the Collegiate School. The school accepted him, and gave him a full scholarship.
“It was fantastic,” Dr. Padilla said. He loved his time at Collegiate, and the Prep for Prep support that came with it. “I had both an absolutely stupendous academic experience — and moments of real trouble adjusting.” Many students at New York City private schools come from wealthy families — certainly not all of them, but many. “I had not encountered anyone like the classmates I had at Collegiate, or anyone who lived in the kinds of houses or apartments they lived in,” he said. “I was shocked that people lived in such opulence. But at the same time that I was negotiating this collision of worlds, I was really taking to the academic and intellectual scene at Collegiate.”
But his undocumented status always preyed on his mind. “Anyone who looked closely at my paperwork would have noticed that something was wrong,” he said. His mother, who had been a high-level administrator, took any menial job that she could, including cleaning houses, “and we were very involved in our community and our church,” but they were always aware that their position in the United States was precarious.
“For me, the decisive moment would be when I applied to college,” he said.
Pull back for a minute and think about Dan-el’s position. He was a brilliant student, and an obsessive one. Of course college would be the next step for anyone like him, coming from a competitive high-end prep school. What else would he do?
But he was undocumented. How could he get into college if he didn’t even have a social security number? He certainly couldn’t pay for college on his own, but how could he get financial aid? “I had been spending my whole high school career studying as hard as possible, but I realized that it looked vanishingly unlikely that I could ever get to college,” he said. “But I eventually came out as undocumented to my high school guidance counselor, and he really committed to the promise that he would do everything in his power to ensure that I would be able to attend the college of my desire.”
That college was Princeton. He was admitted, and he got a full scholarship, which the school covered itself. He worked hard. “I tried my best to have a fairly normal undergraduate trajectory,” he said. “I threw myself into my work.” Of course, he majored in classics; less predictably, he minored in education policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. “I wanted to find a way to harmonize the two,” he said.
After he graduated from Princeton in 2006, Dr. Peralta went to England for a two-year fellowship at Oxford. It was heaven for a classicist — but as the result of a 1996 law, once an undocumented immigrant leaves the United States, he or she is barred from re-entry for 10 years. “I said goodbye to my mom at JFK, and I said that we will see each other soon. Maybe in 10 years. It was not a great moment.”
But then, once he finished his fellowship, Dr. Peralta was offered a job in Princeton as a research assistant. Because it was a very specialized field, there were very few people qualified to take that job, so Princeton was able to offer it to him, and then to file for an H-1B visa on his behalf. (As our dedicated readers might remember, that’s the same visa that Melania Knauss Trump says she was granted, because, she says, she is an unusually talented model.) He was able to come back to the country he always has thought of as home, despite the 10-year ban.
After he finished his work at Princeton, Dan-el went on to Stanford University, emerging from Palo Alto as Dr. Padilla Peralta. His dissertation, on religion in Rome’s Middle Republic, is being turned into a book, and will be published by Princeton University Press. At the same time, he wrote a memoir, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League,” published by Penguin. He got married, to Melissa Padilla, and the two are rapturously happy.
During this time, and continuing to now, Dr. Padilla has been represented by a lawyer, Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell’s law school and who he says is responsible for his continued presence in this country. But despite Mr. Yale-Loehr, despite his being married to an American, despite the fact that should the 10-year ban have been effective, it would be over by now, his status still is in question. “My legal status now is very complicated,” he understated.
Dr. Peralta will talk about that legal status, about how it feels to be caught as he has been in the political undercurrents and weighted nets of immigration law, and how misunderstandings and resentments further cloud the future. “I will talk in part about how it feels as this kind of experience gets processed, and I also will talk about some of the myths that circle the current debate and really need to be exploded,” he said.
“There is a myth that there is a line, and undocumented immigrants are jumping it,” he said. “As I try to make clear, one can follow the letter of the law as vigilantly and scrupulously as possible, and still one can be subject to bureaucratic end runs.
“I also want to talk about what the campaign cycle of the last two years and the rhetoric of the president-elect has done to atrophy immigration discourse,” he continued. “Rather than seeing all of us as Americans, instead it has become very tempting for many to demonize immigrants, from their lack of documentation to their religious backgrounds to their regional or ethnic origins. All of these now have obtained public and voluble expression from the president-elect and his supporters.”
Dr. Padilla sees the country very differently than the president-elect does. He sees it as a place that has offered him both unparalleled intellectual and emotional excitement and a profound lack of security. He hopes that his example can show how much he appreciates the first two gifts, and how disabling the booby prize that accompanied them can be. Not so much to him — so far, he’s prevailed — but to so many others.
Who: Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta
What: Will talk about the history of American immigration policy, both abstractly and in personal terms, at the JCC U
When: On January 26 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
And also: JCC Thurnauer School of Music’s Michael Reingold will teach “A Crash Course in Mozart.”
How much: $34.00 for members; $42 for everyone else for both lectures.
For more information: Call (201) 569-7900 or go to www.jccotp.org/adult-JCC-university.