When Daniel Arenas was a high school senior in a small town in South Carolina, he made the biggest decision of his young life: He would leave his family and friends and move to Mexico, not knowing if he could ever return.
Although Mr. Arenas had grown up in the United States, he was born in Mexico. His parents brought him and his brother to the US when he was 4 years old, but the family was living there without legal documentation.
Arenas’s lack of citizenship was a tightly held secret and, at first, it didn’t hold him back. He excelled in school, became fluent in English, took many Advanced Placement courses in high school, and planned to attend college.
“Starting in elementary school, teachers were constantly promoting college and the idea of bettering yourself with a degree,” says Arenas, who often went to work with his father, a landscaper, and knew he wanted a different career.
But by the time his guidance counselor asked him about post-high school plans, Arenas was facing a series of hurdles.
“I kept telling her I wasn’t going to go to college,” Arenas recalls, despite his dream of being the first in his family to earn a university degree. Many public colleges in the US wouldn’t consider him for financial aid without proof of US citizenship, and private schools were financially prohibitive. Even if he earned a degree, he wondered if he would be hired without having a Social Security number.
He finally told his counselor why college was off the table. Her response, he says, was “What about Mexico?”