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Formerly undocumented alumnus shares immigration story, discusses career in law

| Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a four-part series examining the effects of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and its potential repeal at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s story focuses on a Notre Dame alumnus’s experience as an undocumented student at the University.

Cesar Estrada, a member of the class of 2017, has called a number of places home.

Born in Manzanillo, Mexico, Estrada migrated to the U.S. when he was 8 years old and grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He then called Notre Dame his home for four years, graduating after double majoring in political science and theology and caring a supplementary major in Latino studies. Now, Estrada works just a few paces from the congested intersection of Broadway and Canal in New York City as a trial paralegal in the New York District Attorney’s Office.

Having lived in so many regions of the U.S., Estrada at various points in his life could call himself a Southerner, a Midwesterner and, most recently, a New Englander. As of about a year ago, he officially added another title to his growing list — an American citizen.

“I migrated when I was 8 years old, in July of 2003,” Estrada said. “I came here with my mom and my brother, and I had an aunt who was living in the U.S. at the time.”

Estrada said his mom brought his brother and him into the U.S. to escape danger in Mexico and a government that would do little protect them. He said his mom came in using a tourist visa, while he and his brother entered illegally. They then lived in a Hispanic neighborhood in Dallas.

“School itself wasn’t much of a shock because all my teachers and classmates spoke Spanish and my community was mostly Mexican-Hispanic. … It was an immigrant-family environment,” Estrada said. “The hard transition, though, was the lifestyle change.

“We couldn’t go to the movies, or go to the mall, or go shopping. Being undocumented does confine you to a certain space, usually your home, most of the time. Just because you’re trying to keep a low-profile.”

On Sept. 8, 2016, 13 years after Estrada initially came into the U.S., Estrada finally gained his citizenship — through a slight technicality, he said.

“Because my mom came in with a tourist visa, even though I came in illegally, my mom didn’t technically come in illegally, she just overstayed her visa,” he said. “Because I was a minor when I came in, I was pardoned for that, and since [my] parents had legal status, I could derive [it] from my parents.”

As a punishment for overstaying her tourist visa, Estrada’s mom had to go back to Mexico for a period of time. When she came back, she married Estrada’s stepdad, an American citizen, and derived legal permanent residency, which carried over to Estrada.

Estrada said many of the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows individuals who entered the country illegally as minors to receive a two-year period of deferred action from deportation and permit them the opportunity to work, are children of parents that came in illegally. Estrada said he could have very well been a recipient of DACA if it was not for the stroke of luck that his mom came in through a tourist visa.

“It’s not like my mom knew,” he said. “It’s not like you decide beforehand how the way you enter is going to affect your future. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot, just that it is incredible luck. Providence even — that for whatever reason, because of a technicality, I wasn’t a recipient of DACA.

“I think about it all the time, thinking something could have changed. There really wasn’t any difference between me and undocumented immigrants in my community.”

During his time at Notre Dame, Estrada’s interest in immigration grew through his classes and a Summer Service Learning Project (SSLP) through the Center for Social Concerns. Through his SSLP, he worked at a homeless shelter with the undocumented population in El Paso, Texas.

“After that, I dropped my science major, picked up political science. Decided I wanted to be a lawyer that summer,” he said. “Because it really focused on the Catholic perspective on immigration, it also helped me declare a theology major.”

Estrada said it was during his freshman year that Notre Dame announced they would begin admitting undocumented students the following year. In regards to the recent news that DACA would be rescinded, Estrada said he fears it will force the 800,000 recipients back into isolation and fear.

“I do have some friends that are affected by this,” he said. “Rescinding DACA won’t get rid of 12 million people, but I think it makes it a lot more difficult for immigrants, the Hispanic community and other marginalized communities to be able to trust in the government.”

In regards to University President Fr. John Jenkins’ recent statement on DACA, Estrada said he hopes the University follows through with it.

“I think it’s the right position for the school to have, it’s the right position for the Church to have and I really hope that if DACA is rescinded, that Father Jenkins will go through with what he said and prove that it wasn’t just a meaningless statement, but rather, show Notre Dame’s support for the undocumented population nationwide,” Estrada said.

Growing up, Estrada said he was told to exercise caution by his mother, who was afraid of what the law would do to him for being undocumented.

“You lived a very precarious life,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because my mom always said, ‘Don’t tell anyone you don’t have papers.’”

Now, Estrada sits at the other side, not fearing the law, but working for it as a trial paralegal helping collect evidence and draft subpoenas for cases.

“I think because of my past and my immigration story, I want to be a lawyer,” Estrada said. “Notre Dame, through the SSLP and my theology major in particular, they basically did help me realize that what I want to do is work with the immigrant community because I am part of it.”

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About Selena Ponio

Selena Ponio is from Dallas, Texas and is currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. She is the Associate News Editor for The Observer. Selena lives in Breen-Phillips hall and is majoring in International Economics with a concentration in Spanish and is minoring in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

Contact Selena