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Despite Poverty, Immigration Hurdles, A Path to Ivy League Professor

by Carmen Cusido /
Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his younger brother Yando in Spanish Harlem in 1995.Courtesy of Dan-el Padilla Peralta/Penguin Press

NEW YORK, NY -- Dan-el Padilla Peralta is “hopelessly addicted to the study of ancient Rome.” The Princeton graduate and Columbia postdoctoral fellow believes classical texts are germane to contemporary issues like immigration.

“Some of the ancient writers use xenophobic language and repudiate foreigners; others are welcoming,” said Padilla Peralta, 31.

Padilla Peralta will return to his alma mater in July 2016, where he will begin a tenure-track position as a professor in the Department of Classics at Princeton. But besides teaching students about ancient civilizations, the Dominican-American scholar has written a book about his own experiences navigating the U.S. immigration system through his recently published book, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.”

Since childhood, the Dominican-born academic has found a haven in the ancient Latin and Greek texts to cope with the possibility that he and his mother could be deported. Padilla Peralta’s mother Maria Elena Peralta is now a naturalized citizen, but his immigration status continues to be “very complicated.”

Video: De Indocumentado Dominicano a Catedrático en la Universidad de Princeton

The United States is home to more than 11 million undocumented immigrants like Padilla Peralta. They make up 3.5 percent of the country’s population, according to the Pew Research Center.

“As a child, I knew my parents’ hushed conversations that there was something ‘not right’ about our immigration status," he said. "It really hit me that we didn’t have papeles (papers) when I was 10 or 11 and my mom’s dad had died. She said we couldn’t go back to the Dominican Republic,” Padilla Peralta said.

“The system is broken... It puts people in an utterly hopeless position,” he added.

 Dan-el, 4, and his mom Maria Elena in Santo Domingo. Courtesy of Dan-el Padilla Peralta/Penguin Press

He was four when he and his parents came to the United States on a tourist visa and then fell out of status. His mother, who was pregnant with her second son, Yando, was seeking pre-natal care for gestational diabetes.

The plan was for the family to return to the Dominican Republic after three months, but soon after Yando was born, Maria Elena experienced health complications which prevented her from leaving the United States right away.

“I was already enrolled in school and my mother grew firm in her belief that her children could pursue their educational dreams here,” Padilla Peralta said.

“The system is broken - it puts people in an utterly hopeless position,” says Padilla Peralta.

After a few years driving a cab, selling fruits and working in a factory where he injured his foot, Padilla Peralta’s father returned to the Dominican Republic, while his mother stayed behind with the boys.

The young boy spent time living in a homeless shelter and did not have an easy childhood. Yet that did not dampen his keen intellect and drive, and with the support of mentors, Padilla Peralta was admitted to some of the most renowned academic institutions.

During his high school years, Padilla Peralta would commute from Spanish Harlem to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to attend Collegiate, a prestigious prep school in Manhattan where he graduated cum laude in 2002. He went on to Princeton where he was chosen as salutatorian of the class of 2006. He then obtained a masters in philosophy at the University of Oxford, and earned a doctorate in classics at Stanford University last year.

 Dan-el Padilla Peralta with his family and friends during the Princeton University commencement in 2006. Courtesy of Dan-el Padilla Peralta/Penguin Press

Along the way, Padilla Peralta has had to clear countless legal hurdles to attend and graduate.

He is currently a Mellon Research Fellow at Columbia University. In order to work there, he had to apply for a U.S. work permit with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), paying close to $500 in fees.

Before that, he had an F-1 student visa while he was studying at Stanford. Now he has a pending permanent residency application with the U.S. government.

“For all the bigots who insist that it’s just as simple as getting in line, there’s a major problem with that because there is no ‘line.’ It’s fiction,” Padilla Peralta said. He also added that the visa applications are “insanely expensive” and don’t guarantee residency or citizenship.

After Padilla Peralta married his long-time girlfriend Missy this year, she filed a petition with USCIS on behalf of her husband. Padilla Peralta also had to submit his own paperwork to adjust his status. They paid a total of $1,500 in application fees.

 Dan-el and Missy on their wedding day in March 2015. The couple is posing with Missy's friend Jazneigh Beamon. Courtesy of Dan-el Padilla Peralta.

Missy Padilla, a U.S. citizen raised in Sparta, N.J., said dealing with the immigration system has been an “eye opening” experience.

“The most difficult aspect has been waiting to hear back regarding an interview; there is nothing you can do but wait,” said Padilla, 32. Some of her social worker colleagues work with undocumented children and adults.

“The biggest struggle for the undocumented population is that there are limited resources for them. It is difficult as a social worker to not be able to help a family solely based on their status,” Padilla said.

While the couple wait, Dan-el Padilla Peralta says he will continue to share his story so people can get a glimpse of “the psychic and emotional toll” of being undocumented and the difficulties of navigating the current U.S. immigration system.

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