Dan-El Padilla graduated from Princeton University last Tuesday, the latest achievement in a remarkable life that took him from the shelters of the South Bronx and Chinatown and an unheated Harlem apartment, to a selective prep school where he received a full scholarship, and finally to the spot he found himself in last week, as salutatorian of his Princeton class. Rising through one's own merit from poverty and powerlessness to a position of stature -- it would be the American dream, if not for one thing. Padilla isn't American. He's an illegal immigrant.
Padilla's family traveled from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. on a six-month non-immigrant visa when he was 4. When the visa ran out, they remained illegally.
My mother was unable to find employment in the months after my father’s departure and could not pay the rent. We lived off my brother’s welfare benefits (for which he was eligible as a U.S. citizen) and the charity of relatives, but eventually we were evicted from our apartment. In the summer of 1993, a friend living nearby made his basement available to us for two weeks. As we slept one night, some exposed piping burst and the basement was flooded with water; my mother woke up as the water was rising and whisked us out of the basement...
We packed up what few things we had left and went to an emergency shelter in the South Bronx. After two days, we were taken to a shelter in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where we lived for nine months. I remember the shelter being an unsafe place, with many people in various stages of recovery from drug addictions. The hallways and rooms were dusty and dirty, which upset my mother both because she always has been a stickler for cleanliness, and because my brother suffered from asthma and the air inside the building aggravated his illness. But one day a charitable soul gave me a book about ancient Athens and Rome, and I was immediately hooked.
Princeton University chose to look the other way when Padilla informed them about his illegal status, and Padilla became an undergraduate star of the Classics department.
"He could have been from the moon and I would have admitted him," says Fred Hargadon, dean of admissions at Princeton at the time Mr. Padilla applied.
Entering Princeton in 2002, he enrolled in a freshman seminar on Ovid's "Metamorphoses." On the first day of class, students were asked why they had chosen the course. "Many answered, as I did, that it looked interesting in the course guide," says Rachel Zuraw, a friend from Del Mar, Calif. She recalls Mr. Padilla's answer: He had been studying Latin for years and had already translated many stories from the "Metamorphoses."
In recognition of his academic achievement that year, Mr. Padilla won the Freshman First Honor Prize, which is awarded each year to one Princeton student, out of a class of 1,100.
To hear right-wing pundits rail, you would think that illegal immigrants are at the root of everything that's wrong with this country. Dan-el Padilla is an illegal immigrant. And his story is about exactly what's right with America.
What's right with America is that we are a big country, with a large pool of talent to draw from, and with systems in place that help to identify talented people and offer them positions of power. We are a country grounded in competition and self-determination. A story like Dan-el Padilla's demonstrates that those systems sometimes work.
I'm not saying (as someone will no doubt accuse me of) that we should "open all the borders and just let everyone in" (although if they're willing to re-settle towns like Ambrose, ND pop. 23 it might be worth considering). A more progressive naturalization policy, though, will make it easier for someone like Padilla to become a citizen. Because if you're going to live the American dream, you may as well be an American.