After riding a cattle train through Mexico, Emilio Vicente, his mother and several others climbed under barbed wire at the Arizona border in 1997.
They had come from Guatemala, and Emilio, then 6, had no concept of the danger when the group entered the United States illegally. The journey, he said, was an adventure with a purpose.
The boy was making the trip, in his mind, to meet his dad. He had not seen his father since he was a baby and had no memory of the man. His father had gone to America seeking a better life, and he had found a place for his family in Siler City, where a giant poultry processor offered jobs, and maybe a future.
Now, Emilio Vicente is on another journey with a purpose. On Tuesday, he will be on the ballot for student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill, where his candidacy has drawn national interest at a time when an immigration overhaul may be gaining momentum in Washington.
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During his childhood, Vicente lived quietly with his family in Siler City, not wanting to attract attention. Last week he was on the debate circuit daily, making his case to student voters along with three other candidates. He has a 20-member core campaign team, a website and a Twitter account, where his slogan is “Carolina4All.” And he is the only candidate who has been the subject of a column in The New York Times.
Vicente, a public policy major, has been active in immigration advocacy for years and most recently helped lead the “One State, One Rate” push in North Carolina for in-state tuition for students who don’t have legal status. At least 15 states have passed local versions of the so-called DREAM Act, allowing legal residency for college students and military service members.
But Vicente, 22, said in a recent interview that his candidacy isn’t about immigration.
“I’m doing this because I think I can create some change on campus,” he said. “Immigration is part of my identity; it’s something I obviously can’t take away, being undocumented. But my focus is implementing my vision for the university.”
The university, he said, is in the news more often than not for big questions concerning athletics and academics, sexual assault and other issues. But the student voice isn’t always heard in the public debate.
“As a student body, we should talk more about them and be engaged in the conversation,” he said. “It does affect us.”
Learning English and Spanish
It is extraordinary that Vicente is a UNC-CH student at all.
Despite being educated entirely in Chatham County, Vicente did not qualify for in-state tuition. He is considered an international student who must pay out-of-state tuition and fees, which this year total nearly $30,000. Because of his status, he is barred from state or federal financial aid, including government-backed loans that most students take on to pay for college.
Attending the university would have been impossible without a scholarship funded through unrestricted private donations to the school. Such scholarships are rare; only one was awarded last year, according to UNC-CH’s financial aid director.
Qualifying for admission to a top-level public university also was an uphill proposition for someone in Vicente’s position.
Arriving in Siler City at kindergarten age, he started school not speaking English. Because his parents were indigenous in Guatemala, the family didn’t speak Spanish, either. They speak K’iche’, a Mayan dialect.
So Vicente set about learning English in ESL classes and also picked up Spanish because many of his classmates in Chatham County were Latino.
His father had a seventh-grade education, and his mother never attended school, Vicente said. The only job they were qualified for was manual labor. His parents both worked at the chicken plant and in the evening would tell stories of people injured on the assembly line. This worker lost a finger; that worker had crippling wrist pain.
Vicente took note.
“That was definitely a big motivation on my end to do well in school and not have to go through the same struggles that they went through,” he said. “They obviously encouraged me to do my best, because that would be a way for me to be assured of a better future than they had.”
He was a good student, and he credits the teachers who nurtured him along the way.
“And I relied on them especially because my parents didn’t speak English,” he said of his teachers. “When I did my homework, it was mostly me by myself doing homework.”
A wrenching decision
Though Vicente thrived in school, he would eventually face a wrenching decision.
His older brothers also had come to the United States, and by then, he had a younger sister – the first U.S. citizen in the family. Everyone was protective of Emilio, the youngest son, always urging him to play it safe in Siler City. Deportation was always in the background.
“They were really careful of what I could and couldn’t do,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave the city that often because they were like, ‘What if something happens to you? You can’t do this, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.’ ”
The trouble came when Vicente’s father left the chicken plant in search of a better paycheck. He took a job at a lumber company, and one day in 2001, the machinery jammed. Vicente’s father climbed underneath to try to repair it. The machine fell on him, severing his spinal cord, Vicente said.
He was airlifted to UNC Hospitals, but the news was bad. His father would be paralyzed for life. While his mother stopped work to care for his father, the family struggled and workers’ compensation did not fully cover their needs. His father was constantly in pain, and medical care was difficult given his legal status and limited English. Fearing death, he wanted to see his mother again.
In 2007, his parents returned to Guatemala. It was their choice, Vicente said, though a deportation order hung over his father’s head for missing an appointment while trying to fix his immigration status.
Vicente’s older brothers would stay, and his little sister would go with his parents. Vicente had to weigh his options.
He decided to stay with his older brother, who was raising his own family in Siler City.
Just as his family always protected him, Vicente is cautious now about his relatives. He declines to identify them by name.
A big break
At Jordan-Matthews High School, he began to hear students talking about big tests and about college applications. Though he had an ambition to be the first in his family to go to college, he had no idea about how to get there.
“I didn’t know what SATs or GPA was,” he said. “I mean, I just knew I had good grades.”
The turning point for Vicente was in 10th grade, when he applied and was accepted into a mentoring program at UNC-CH called the Scholars’ Latino Initiative. Through undergraduate and faculty volunteers, the program helps Latino students in under-resourced high schools prepare for college and navigate the application process.
He was paired with a UNC-CH sophomore, Ron Bilbao, also Latino, for three years. Bilbao had been the first Latino to run for student body president at the university.
Bilbao, unlike Vicente and Bilbao’s own brother, had legal status. Bilbao’s parents had come illegally from Venezuela to Miami, where he was born. Ron Billbao gained admission and a full scholarship through the Carolina Covenant, which combines university, state and federal grants and work-study.
Bilbao encouraged Vicente, a shy student, to assert himself and embrace new goals.
“I saw him the way I saw my brother,” Bilbao said, “and I wanted to help him.”
Vicente blossomed. He was elected president of the sophomore class at Jordan-Matthews, and he headed the Spanish club.
He continued to study hard, with the hope that his achievements would inspire a college, any college, to take a chance on him. He had known some kids who got offers from private universities that had more flexibility with scholarship money.
With his parents in Guatemala, the Latino mentoring program became a surrogate support system for Vicente. Paul Cuadros, chairman and executive director of the program, described Vicente as unassuming, yet focused.
“He’s very bright and he has a real keen sense of what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Cuadros, a UNC-CH journalism professor. “What he was going through during his high school years were some really tough things. He sort of weathered them based on his personality, which is sort of quiet and introspective and thoughtful. That’s who he is.”
At one point when Vicente had to speak at an event, Cuadros pulled a tie out of his office and showed him how to tie it.
“It made perfectly good sense why he never learned,” Cuadros said.
Learning to lead
Vicente was accepted at UNC-CH, and through the miracle of the private scholarship, he would enroll.
But like many students today, he took a year off between high school and college in 2010. Vicente set out on a mission to work for the DREAM Act.
He went to Washington, where he worked with other young immigrants for an organization called United We Dream.
“It was a big, big city compared to Siler City, so it was really exciting,” he said. “I definitely matured a lot. I learned a lot about advocacy, how to effectively engage politicians and how to communicate well.”
He tried to get meetings with lawmakers. He went every week to U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s coffee gatherings, hoping to convince the North Carolina Democrat on the issue. She would vote against the DREAM Act but voted for a Senate immigration bill last year.
It seemed OK, finally, for Vicente and his friends to talk about their legal status.
“We realized that completely changes the narrative of what it means to be undocumented. Usually you think of undocumented as illegal, and it has negative connotations,” he said. “We thought that by sharing our stories, being open about it, a lot of people would realize, ‘Oh, we’re just like you, the only difference is we have no papers.’ We are just not fortunate enough to have been born in the U.S. That’s the only difference, but I think a lot of us share the same values, goals.”
Vicente’s example could move some people on the immigration issue, Cuadros said.
“Here’s somebody who has done everything that we require for our young people to do in life – succeeded academically and through his education and has been interested in changing his society and contributing to it and serving. That’s a very, very different face than we’re normally accustomed to seeing with regard to this debate.”
‘Two different closets’
By the time Vicente returned to Chapel Hill, he was open about his legal status and about his sexual orientation. It had been difficult to say he was gay while living in the small town of Siler City.
“I technically came out of two different closets,” he said.
In his three years at the university, Vicente has been determined to make full use of any opportunity. He is on the chancellor’s advisory committee at UNC-CH, and belongs to several other campus organizations.
He enrolled in a freshman arts seminar co-taught by the former chancellor, James Moeser. With his classmates, he attended high-quality performances that he had never been exposed to. And he continues to seek advice from Moeser.
Besides his political acumen, Moeser said, Vicente has shown himself to be a leader.
“I just admire his courage and tenacity,” Moeser said.
Vicente is eligible for temporary resident status under President Barack Obama’s policy known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But until there’s a deal in Washington on immigration, Vicente’s future is a question mark.
Deferred action is a small step toward fixing immigration, Vicente said. He now calls himself cautiously optimistic. The Washington state legislature recently moved toward a law allowing financial aid to students without legal status, and last week, former Washington Post CEO Donald Graham announced a $25 million scholarship fund for such students.
If Vicente had legal status, he could visit Guatemala, reconnect with his culture and see his grandmother again. But for now, he knows he cannot go and come back. And it’s unlikely his father, in a wheelchair, could ever return to the United States.
Though he has not seen them in seven years, Vicente said his parents remain his inspiration. “They’ve done a lot for me to have a good future.”
Vicente said he feels an obligation to pass on the generosity he’s received from so many.
A few years ago, when it came time for Emilio to graduate from the high school mentoring program, Bilbao gave him a present. It was a black Parker ballpoint pen.
When Bilbao arrived in Chapel Hill to begin his college career, his father had handed him that pen, the one he always carried. It’s the same pen that Bilbao used when he turned 21 and filled out the paperwork for his parents’ long-awaited legal residency and eventual citizenship.
Vicente still has the pen. It’s a good bet it will be passed along.
He is mentoring a high school student from Lee County who wants to study engineering at N.C. State University. His name is Emilio.