Two Kinds of Dreamer

Dan-el Padilla is a dreamer of two kinds.

Born in the Dominican Republic in 1984, a four-year-old Padilla travelled with his parents on a visitor’s visa to New York City. His family hadn’t come to the United States to see the sights, however. They came so that Padilla’s mother, pregnant with his younger brother, could receive treatment for diabetes. Their visa expired. Though trained as an accountant, Padilla’s father couldn’t find decent work and was forced to return to Santo Domingo. Padilla’s mother, looking to secure a promising future for her boys, stayed in New York.

This is how Padilla became what would later be known as a DREAMer, and this is where his story beings. In Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, his memoir published today, Padilla recounts his climb through the United States’ labyrinthine immigration system to become what a Princeton instructor wrote in their recommendation “one of the best classicists to emerge in his generation.”

Graduating second in his class at Princeton in 2006, Padilla went on to study at Oxford and then Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in classics in 2014. Now 30, he has spent his summer teaching inmates as a humanities fellow at Columbia, and next year he’ll head back to Princeton as an assistant professor of classics.

The U.S. government has yet to issue him a green card.

Despite his arduous trek from the blotted blocks of Brooklyn to the hallowed halls of academia, Padilla has remained true to his roots, able to “go from opining on Plato to opining on Pedro — as in Pedro Martinez, the Dominican Hall of Fame pitcher,” according to a recent profile in The New York Times.

In an op-ed published last Friday by The Guardian, Padilla writes relates his personal story of being undocumented to the current assault on Haitians in his homeland:

The predicament of hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Haitian descendants in my home country resonates with me because I know what it is like to be black and undocumented: to be rendered doubly marginal. In my forthcoming memoir, I’ve tried to show how America’s inflexible and punitive immigration policies result in absurd and unjust outcomes. It has been dismaying to see the Dominican government adopt a similar approach to immigration while making use of American border-policing expertise.

Indeed, the most recent persecution of Haitians in the D.R. has led some people to notice similarities between the immigration polices implemented by Washington and Santo Domingo. Only weeks after the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal’s September 2013 ruling disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Haitians, The Nation published an article by Todd Miller titled “Wait—What are US Border Patrol Agents Doing in the Dominican Republic?” in which he describes how the United States has effectively expanded its borders into other countries around the world.

“CESFRONT [the D.R.’s Specialized Border Security Corps] itself is, in fact, an outgrowth of a U.S. effort to promote ‘strong borders’ abroad as part of its Global War on Terror,” Miller writes:

What might be called our global, or perhaps even virtual, borders are growing ever more pliable and ever more expansive—extending not only to places like the Dominican Republic, but to the edges of our vast military-surveillance grid, into cyberspace, and via spinning satellites and other spying systems, into space itself. … [But] CESFRONT, like similar outfits proliferating globally, isn’t really about terrorism. It’s all about Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is a response to fears of the mass movement of desperate, often hungry, people in the US sphere of dominance. It is the manifestation of a new vision of global geopolitics in which human beings in need are to be corralled, their free movement criminalized, and their labor exploited.

With his application for permanent residency already submitted and his personal story now widely toasted, Dr. Padilla’s own escape from homelessness seems on the verge of a happy ending. But for many of his fellow Dominicans — especially those as “dark-skinned and nappy-headed” as he — the nightmare may have only begun.

[Photo: Ken Bosma / Flickr]