College Fraternity Fights Student's Deportation

College student Mario Perez was brought to the U.S. as a child by his illegal immigrant parents, but only learned of his legal status as a teenager. Following a routine traffic stop, Pereza is fighting deportation to Mexico with help of his predominately black fraternity. Perez shares his personal story and Sam Fulwood, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and a fellow at the Center for American Progress explains what makes Perez's case so unique.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It is one of this country's most vexing, complex and emotional issues: immigration in general, illegal immigration in particular. Today we'll spend a bit of time talking about new data on the trends in immigration as America continues to debate the way forward for the millions of undocumented who want to cross the border and those here already.

But first, we go to Texas and a college student caught in the middle. Mario Perez was brought to the U.S. as a child by his illegal immigrant parents. Today he faces deportation because he is regarded as an illegal immigrant. He learned of his status late in high school, but he went on to graduate and then take on math and statistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. But after a traffic stop last April, he faces deportation to Mexico, a country in which he has not lived since he was five years old and does not remember.

Mr. Perez is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. That's an historically black fraternity. And when his fraternity brothers learned of his plight, they mobilized to pay his bail, find him a lawyer, and they've written to local, state and federal officials on his behalf. And Mario Perez joins us now on the phone from Nacogdoches, Texas.

Also with us is Sam Fulwood. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. He wrote about Mr. Perez's story. And Mr. Fulwood is also with the Center for American Progress. That's a policy and research group - a think tank. And immigration happens to be one of his issues and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. So welcome to you both, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SAM FULWOOD (Center for American Progress): It's great to be with you, Michel.

Mr. MARIO PEREZ (Member, Alpha Phi Alpha): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, Mario, thank you for joining us. I know this is a very difficult time for you. So thank you for talking with us about this. So when did you - I understand that status was not discussed with you when you were a child. This is something that you learned, you know, when you were in high school. Do you remember how you found out and how this affected your life?

Mr. PEREZ: Well, it came about my senior year in high school, which was about 2007. It was about that time, you know, senior year, everybody was getting excited about prom and, you know, of course, applying for colleges. And when I got on, you know, everybody has to do the whole college application, I actually logged onto the website to do the whole college application. I had my paperwork in front me getting ready to go. You know, I thought I was just going to need my high school transcripts and information like that.

But I came across a Social Security number. I happened to ask my parents for it and that's basically when, you know, they told me that I didn't have one.

MARTIN: And why. Now this - but you were stopped by the police back in April, that you think you were pulled over because of failure to stop fully at a stop sign. Now, you were pulled over, you found that there were some unpaid parking tickets that had turned into warrants. You were taken into custody. You figured, what, you'd be there for a couple of hours. Then what happened?

Mr. PEREZ: Yes. I figured I was going to - 'cause I talked to the officer and the officer was, like, don't worry, you know, it's just like, it's just traffic tickets. You'll go in, your brothers can come pay your bail, and you'll be out by morning time. So I thought - I'm thinking that's great 'cause I have class in the morning, we have a step show that Friday, I'm going to be fine.

I got a call about 7:00 in the morning. I'm thinking it's one of my brothers coming to get me. I'm getting ready to go, and to my surprise it wasn't. It was the INS with basically an interrogation of my history here in the U.S.

MARTIN: Sam Fulwood, how did you become aware of Mario's story?

Mr. FULWOOD: Not long after the arrest and the involvement of his fraternity, his immediate fraternity brothers in the chapter at Stephen F. Austin - word got spread on the Alpha Phi Alpha grapevine and I tap into that. And I saw the story and I was - I thought it was interesting. I brought it to the attention of the people that I work with in the immigration team at the Center for American Progress and said we need to figure out a way to illustrate this, because this is a classic example of the work that we were doing.

At that time, the Dream Act was - we thought had a possibility of passing.

MARTIN: The Dream Act is - to catch people up to date for those (unintelligible).

Mr. FULWOOD: The Dream Act is a proposed pathway to allow law-abiding, undocumented immigrants just like Mario, who are in school or want to go into the military, a way to become citizens, who were brought here by their parents and who know nothing else but America and are stellar citizens - or potential citizens.

And we thought that Mario's story would be a really good way to illustrate just what the Dream Act is supposed to do.

MARTIN: Well, the other reason you found this story interesting is that Alpha Phi Alpha is an historically black fraternity, and Mario's of Mexican descent, obviously. Why do you think that's interesting?

Mr. FULWOOD: That was sort of the sprinkles on the sundae in the sense that Mario's plight and the fact that the people who basically came to his immediate rescue were African American men in my fraternity. It's the oldest black Greek letter fraternity in the country. And that is not what we think of when we think of Greek life in America, black Greek life in America. It's sort of insular, it's sort of thought of as inward-thinking and elitist. And it's not sort of socially activist.

Now, we - those of us who are a part of it believe that we are that way, but it's not at all how we are perceived in the outside world.

MARTIN: Well, Mario, you also mentioned that the fraternity brothers - your brothers, as you say, were the first people you called when you got arrested. How come you didn't call your parents?

Mr. PEREZ: It came to the fact that I didn't want to call my parents, 'cause first of all, they're not in Nacogdoches. They're in Houston, which is two and a half hours away. So there's not much they can do. My brothers, they're like my family. I don't have an extended family, as far as grandparents, uncles, aunts, all that. I don't consider those people my family. My family is my household and my fraternity brothers.

MARTIN: So you never doubted that they would come - at least - and come and get you, and at least come to your aid.

Mr. PEREZ: Never. I, like, never doubted them. I knew as soon as I called they would be there.

MARTIN: How did you get involved with Alpha Phi Alpha, if you don't mind my asking? And I didn't understand that you are one of the leaders of your step team.

Mr. PEREZ: Right. I'm the step master at - for our chapter. The thing is, many people, when it comes to Greek life especially, don't make their decisions till they get to college, either till they get here or they have, you know, a background of their parents joining something and they want to do the same thing their parents do. However, in my case, since I am the first person in my family tree to graduate from high school and attend a college successfully, I was the first - you know, people don't really know about Greek life.

When I was in high school my freshman year, I was also a part of the band. And my band director was an Alpha. So that's how I got well acquainted with what the fraternity was about.

MARTIN: And apparently he was a strong mentor to you. And Mario, I have to ask you this question, because this is a question that some of our listeners will be asking. Their argument would be, you know, you seem like a fine young man. But the fact is, you were brought here out of status. There are rules to follow. If those rules aren't followed, consequences have to be paid.

And you know, what would you say to that? To those who say that, I'm sorry, you don't deserve any special consideration, even if you are a fine young man. If you were brought here absent, you know, proper authorization, those are the rules. What would you say?

Mr. PEREZ: Basically, like, all of this was out of my control. I was young. I was five at the time, so I didn't even know what we were doing. You know, to my parents, they brought me here for a better future. They fled from Mexico for the simple fact that if I would - like they would've kept me there, you know, I wouldn't have had a future or our extended family would've destroyed us.

So it was basically out of my control. I had, like, nothing to do - I didn't want this, honestly. Like, if it was up to me, I would not put myself in this situation.

MARTIN: And you have a hearing set for March 9th. How are you feeling as that date approaches?

Mr. PEREZ: Anxious. Like I really want to know, 'cause March 9th is basically when we're going to set my final hearing. So it's, like, it's an anxiety to know that, you know, March 9th, my final date that could basically determine the rest of my life will be set.

MARTIN: Well, we do - we certainly appreciate your speaking with us today. And we do hope you'll keep in touch with us. Mario Perez is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He joined us from there.

Sam Fulwood, I'm going to ask you to stay with us. He's a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Immigration is one of the issues. He's also a member of Mario's fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

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