It was 9:15 on November 16, 2010, a stormy Tuesday night, when Bernard Pastor turned right on red and rear-ended a white Malibu. The accident was minor, but it unraveled a secret he had been keeping his entire life.
Earlier that evening, Bernard had attended a small-group Bible study nearby. The 18-year-old son of a Pentecostal minister, Bernard had grown up in the church; he even played drums and guitar in the band during worship. After his Bible study, he drove to the Tri-County Chick-fil-A to deliver Spanish Bibles to the Hispanic kitchen staff.
Bernard worked at the restaurant part-time. His manager, Zach Rainwater, admired his diligence and the way he joked with the cooks in Spanish as easily as he laughed with the cashiers in English. When Bernard left the restaurant that night, he climbed into a black Toyota Tacoma he had borrowed from a friend. He turned onto Tri-County Parkway and saw the brake lights blink off on the car ahead of him. Assuming it was moving, he looked left and checked for traffic. Then he slammed into the bumper of that Malibu.
Laura McDonald had left work moments before. A 23-year-old cashier at Lowe’s in Springdale, she was heading home to sleep before a 6 a.m. shift the next day. It was dark and the streets were empty and wet. The collision knocked her forward in her seat. “It was jarring,” McDonald says. “But beyond that, it wasn’t much of anything, really. Just a basic accident.” McDonald got out of her car and Bernard stepped down from the truck. He was wearing white sneakers and blue jeans, with a maroon sweater and a lightweight American Eagle jacket, black with a white stripe down the sleeves. They checked that each other was OK and then inspected the damage—dents to both bumpers and a busted muffler on the Malibu.
“He was worried he was going to get in trouble with his dad,” McDonald says. “Even though I was the one that got hit, I felt bad for him.” McDonald asked if she should call the cops.
Bernard was mad at himself for crashing; for him, this could be far worse than an ordinary fender-bender. He didn’t have a driver’s license. He didn’t have other, more important documents, either. Still, he wasn’t going to run, and he wasn’t going to lie. He had to face his fate. “It’s up to you,” he told McDonald. While she dialed the police, Bernard called his father.
The accident was only a mile and a half from the Springdale Police Station and Officer Tim Simonton arrived within four minutes. It was raining again, so he let Bernard and McDonald sit in the back of his patrol car while he ran their records up front. Without a driver’s license to run, Simonton asked Bernard for his Social Security number. “He just kept telling him, ‘I don’t have one,’” McDonald recalls. “I don’t think he straight out ever said that he was an illegal, but it was kind of obvious at that point. If you don’t have a social, you’re either an illegal, or Amish, I think.”
According to Bernard and McDonald, the officer then asked Bernard where he was from. When Bernard told him he was born in Guatemala, Simonton responded, “Well you might be going back there.”
“But I don’t know Guatemala,” Bernard told him. “This is where I’ve grown up.”
Both Bernard and McDonald remember Simonton’s response: “Well you’re about to get real familiar with it soon.” (Simonton does not recall precisely what he said to Bernard that night.)
Twenty minutes later, McDonald was free to go. “I didn’t want to get into the middle of a situation that wasn’t mine to be involved in,” she says. “He just seemed like an all-around nice kid. Someone that I wouldn’t mind knowing.” She wished Bernard luck and drove away.
By this time Bernard’s father had arrived and Officer Simonton walked over to speak with him. Watching through the patrol car window, Bernard couldn’t read his father’s reaction. “I’m sure he was thinking of what to do next,” Bernard says. But if his father had a plan, there was no chance to discuss it. Simonton called a tow for the truck, and got in the car to drive Bernard to the police station. The red and blue strobes of the patrol car flashed through the tall windows of the Chick-fil-A where Rainwater stood watching. It would be a month before Bernard saw his father again.
Bernard’s parents never told him much about Guatemala; most of what he knows about the country he says he learned from reading National Geographic. He grew up in the United States; his childhood was much like those of his classmates, except, perhaps, he spent more time at church. Occasionally, Bernard was reminded that he was different—unlike his friends, for example, he couldn’t get a driver’s license when he turned 16—but he claims he seldom gave it much thought. It was just the way his family had to live.
“I knew that we were undocumented,” he says. “I grew up knowing about it, but I didn’t think about it.” Because he was raised here and spoke English like an American, he says, no one ever thought to ask him if he was a U.S. citizen. His earliest memory is distinctly American: Playing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on his cousins’ Nintendo.
Bernard Didier Pastor-Lopez was born to an office manager and a housewife on May 26, 1992, in Champerico, Guatemala, a small port town on the Pacific coast. He was the youngest of three children. Bernard says his father was an avid soccer player who had passed up a chance to go semi-professional to raise a family instead. He gave Bernard the middle name Didier in honor of Didier Six, the French left-winger who played in the 1970s and ’80s.
In 1995, when Bernard was 3 years old, his family fled the political and religious persecution of the grim final stages of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. They headed to Neosho, Missouri, where Bernard’s uncle, a pastor, had been granted asylum. Bernard’s parents filed a similar asylum case in 2003, but a judge denied it and issued a “final administrative removal order,” demanding the family’s voluntary deportation. Soon after, the Pastors left Missouri for Cincinnati, where Bernard’s father was offered a ministerial position at a Pentecostal church. The removal order remains in place today. Because of that, Bernard’s parents declined to be interviewed for this story.
The family settled in Reading and Bernard enrolled in Reading Community Schools at the age of 11. He was a popular kid, known for his brains, good humor, and fashion sense. “I don’t think there was a person in school who didn’t like him,” says Jenny So, his friend since seventh grade. “He has the biggest heart I think you’d ever meet in someone. He’d do anything for anyone.”
His senior year, Bernard was a Homecoming King nominee and was voted “Best Dressed” in his class. He excelled in academics, graduating from Reading in 2010 seventh in his class. He did well in Spanish, though he never aced his tests, usually because he forgot his accent marks. He was a youth pastor at his father’s church, and he loved his iPod, which he calls “eight gigabytes of my life.” One of his favorites is the Christian rock band Skillet, a group he saw perform at the Spirit Song festival at King’s Island in 2009.
Above almost everything else, people knew Bernard for his love of soccer. “Reading has not had a rich history in soccer,” admits Coach Bill Simpson. But during Bernard’s four years as a varsity starter, the team engineered a dramatic turnaround, culminating in the school’s first undefeated regular season in the fall of Bernard’s senior year. It ended at the regional semifinals in a rainy 2–1 loss to Springfield Catholic, but Reading Mayor Bo Bemmes was so impressed he designated November 18, 2009, as Reading Blue Devils Boys Soccer Day.
A portion of the team’s success was owed to the nimble left foot of Bernard, a five-foot-six-inch striker with gelled black hair, a muscular build, and a constant smile. “He was a very charismatic player,” Simpson says. “My visions of Bernard are in his senior year. He had a goal where he had dribbled all the way down from about 30 yards out from our goal. He took it down the sideline, into the box and hit a shot that went into what we call the ‘upper 90’ of the far post. It was an incredible shot.”
Bernard scored 41 goals in his four seasons, the third-highest in Reading history. But what made him so likeable was his attitude. When Coach Simpson asked him to give up the goal-scoring striker position in his senior year to play defensive midfield, he didn’t protest. It was team before self for Bernard. And when he put his hand to his heart for the national anthem before their games, he felt that he was just as American as they were.
Bernard spent that first night locked up in the Springdale Police Station. Simonton took his mug shot, capturing Bernard in a rare unsmiling moment. He doesn’t like to look at that photo now, and his friends still tease him about it. At one point, Simonton noticed the background of Bernard’s phone—the logo for Manchester United, Bernard’s favorite Premier League soccer team. Turns out Simonton was a fan, too.
Bernard didn’t get much sleep, but he did make friends with a man in the opposite cell, who was in for public drunkenness. The man asked Bernard why he was there. Bernard explained—about the crash, not having a license, and the possibility of being deported. “He was one of the first people who said, ‘Man, this isn’t right, you’ll be out of here,’” Bernard says. Within hours of his arrest, he already had an ally—albeit a drunk one.
The following evening, November 17, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came to the Springdale jail, cuffed Bernard’s wrists tightly behind his back, put him in the rear of a van with another detainee, and delivered him to the Butler County Jail in Hamilton. “It was actually a jail,” he recalls. “Cells and everything.” It was also the bailiwick of Sheriff Richard Jones, an active and vocal opponent of illegal immigration in Butler County and beyond. Lying on his bunk, the reality of Bernard’s situation set in. He was 18 and in jail, and the country he called home was rejecting him. His faith precluded him from feeling lonely—“no one’s ever truly alone,” he says—but he was unnerved. Things were moving fast.
He tried to think about what he’d do if he were sent to Guatemala, but it was hard to envision a new life in a country he’d never known. He could go live with his grandmother, he thought, a woman he knew only through a photograph. He’d heard about the crime and poverty, and he was worried about culture shock, but he was hopeful that his American education and perfect English would get him a job in a tourist area. “That was the extent of my imagination,” he says.
That could have come to pass, were it not for a chain of events that began with Bernard’s first visitor in jail—Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mark Curnutte. The reporter got a tip about the Reading High grad’s detention and drove to Hamilton on Saturday, November 20—Curnutte’s day off—to talk to him. When the Enquirer landed on doorsteps the following Tuesday morning, telephones started to ring all over Reading.
Coach Simpson was on vacation, sitting on the beach when he got a call from Reading’s athletic director, Dennis Ramsey. “He told me that Bernard had gotten into a car accident,” Simpson says. “My only thought was, ‘Oh my gosh—is he alive?’” He wasn’t hurt, Ramsey explained, but he was about to be deported. Until then Simpson had assumed Bernard was a U.S. citizen. “I had no idea,” he says. “Never knew. Nobody on our team ever knew.”
But the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Neither Bernard nor his brother wanted their photographs on the team’s website. Their practice jerseys listed only their middle names—Didier and Ademar. And the two boys ran hot and cold about playing soccer in college. “They were both good enough,” Simpson says. “I was always frustrated. I’d say, ‘Do you realize the opportunity you’re missing?’” Now all that reticence meant something to Simpson. “They were here in hiding, in a sense.”
Simpson had always taken a conservative line when talk turned to undocumented immigrants. “I didn’t think they should be here,” he says. But with Bernard’s arrest the issue was suddenly more complex—and personal. “It changed my viewpoint,” he says. “If I thought I needed to get to a different place for my family, to have a better life, I would’ve stayed here illegally, too. Not everyone is here to use the system.”
Word of Bernard’s arrest spread fast. One friend created a “Free Bernard Pastor” Facebook page, where supporters posted their well-wishes and plotted strategies to win his release. Brian Page, Bernard’s high school finance teacher and fellow soccer enthusiast, got the call from a colleague. “I was in shock,” he says. Page promptly joined others in calling and faxing letters to Senators Sherrod Brown and George Voinovich. “It was a real community effort,” he says. “It was a team of people doing everything they can to help him.”
“Reading takes care of its own,” was the mantra people repeated as they organized prayer vigils and protests against Bernard’s deportation. Even Laura McDonald, the woman Bernard hit, e-mailed Senator Brown’s office when she saw the news.
The case also caught the eye of Leo Pierson, a young Cincinnati State sociology professor and an advocate for immigration reform. Pierson is a pensive academic with a mop of black hair, a wispy goatee, and a sharp focus that frequently dissolves into dry laughter. He finished his master’s work at George Mason University in 2009 and came with his wife to Cincinnati, where he found a shortage of immigrant advocacy groups. When he read the story in the Enquirer on November 23, Pierson was with his friend, fellow activist Jason Riveiro. “I said, ‘Jason, we have to do something about this,’” Pierson says.
Pierson reached the Pastor family through Bernard’s cousin on Facebook. “Both parents were just beside themselves,” he says. “They really didn’t know who to trust.” Bernard’s mother—the woman from whom he’d inherited his thousand-watt smile—“just looked like the most depressed woman I’d ever seen.” The family had hired an immigration attorney to represent Bernard, but he was already out of ideas for how to proceed. Pierson knew this would be the biggest, riskiest case he’d worked on since coming to Cincinnati. “That was a very scary thing to have to deal with,” he says, “particularly as you became more and more attached to the person who is Bernard Pastor as opposed to just the idea.” Stopping the young man’s deportation consumed him. “I slept three hours a night for four weeks straight.”
Pierson had an ally in mind: Cleveland-based attorney David Leopold, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who rose to prominence defending the rights of non-citizens in the wake of 9/11. He hoped Leopold would see the case’s potential.
From the perspective of an immigration attorney, Bernard’s arrest couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time. In Washington, D.C., the Dream Act was winding its way through Congress—legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for individuals who came to the U.S. as minors, have good moral character (understood to mean no criminal record), and plan to attend college or enlist in the military. With his compelling story and widespread support, Bernard could be the legislation’s poster child.
But before Leopold agreed to represent Bernard, he needed more details. What was his background? How long had he been in the country? How was he doing in school? Had he ever been in trouble? “I do my share of pro-bono work,” Leopold says, “but I’m very careful about what cases I take.” Leopold gleaned what he could from Pierson, and then, in early December, met with Bernard.
“You don’t know what to expect when you meet someone for the first time in jail,” Leopold says. “[ICE agents] could’ve literally come while I was sitting there. That’s how tense it was. Bernard walked into the room and he had this amazing smile. I liked him right away. He seemed like a decent kid who knew who he was. I had a good feeling about him.”
Leopold agreed to take the case then and there. He had Bernard sign representation forms, they talked a bit of strategy, and then he left. It took about an hour and a half.
Bernard’s situation had improved slightly on November 22, when he was transferred to Morrow County Jail in Mt. Gilead, north of Columbus; for Ohio inmates, it’s the penultimate stop before deportation. From Mt. Gilead, detainees go to the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, Louisiana—the last place they see in the U.S. before being returned to their country of origin.
The Morrow County holding room was large, with multiple beds. “Everyone would talk,” Bernard says. “They had TV. You played cards or dominos. You’d do exercises. There were showers.” Were it not for the lock and key, he says, it was “like going to a YMCA.” He was a puzzlement to the other Latino detainees in the room—and to the corrections officers as well. One deputy couldn’t figure out what Bernard was doing there. “You sound like a white guy to me,” he said.
The 30 or so men in the room passed the time telling stories about how ICE caught them, and about who was waiting for them in their home countries. Bernard was the youngest, and the only one who couldn’t picture the country where he was about to be sent. The other men were friendly enough, but he felt awkward around them. He didn’t understand their humor, and his foreignness was a painful difference on Thanksgiving—a day his family usually celebrated with a big meal at church and another smaller one at home. In jail, Thanksgiving passed like any other, with no special meal; among the men in the room, he was probably the only one used to celebrating it.
His lowest point came on his father’s birthday. Bernard called him collect, and their conversation only lasted a few minutes. His father betrayed no emotion when Bernard wished him happy birthday. “Thank you, son,” was all he said. When he hung up, Bernard was glad it was his time for a shower, where no one would see him cry.
On November 27, Bernard’s first Saturday in Morrow County Jail, a group of almost 30 people made the three-hour drive from Reading to see him—former classmates and friends, some of their parents, and Rev. Troy Jackson of University Christian Church. Noticeably absent was Bernard’s family, who had been advised to stay away. The group had written slogans on the windows of their cars: “Support Not Deport” and “Free Bernard.” Under better circumstances, it could’ve been a pre-game pep rally.
Inside the jail, Bernard, the best-dressed in his class, sat behind glass in a lime-green jumpsuit and Crocs. His visitors took turns talking to him through a phone, and even though each only got a few minutes, the hour was up before everyone had a chance.
“It was overwhelming,” says his friend Jenny So, who had never seen the inside of a jail before and walked out with tears in her eyes. “It’s hard seeing someone you know who shouldn’t be in that situation.” But Bernard was his usual, chipper self, telling everyone they shouldn’t worry about him so much. “He had a smile on his face,” So says. “He said, ‘Whatever happens to me, it’s in God’s hands. God had intentions that this would happen.’ ”
The days passed slowly inside Morrow County Jail. But outside, developments in Bernard’s case and in the immigration reform movement were unfolding rapidly. All eyes were on the Dream Act’s journey through Congress. Proponents knew that if the law had any chance of passing, the vote had to be taken before the freshly elected conservative legislators took office in the New Year. It was already December; the clock was ticking.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act was first introduced to Congress in August 2001 by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. The bill would offer a pathway to citizenship to eligible individuals from an estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants who graduate from American high schools every year.
Ohio has one of the lowest rates of undocumented immigration (there are more students at Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati than undocumented residents), but Bernard wasn’t the only student in Cincinnati closely following the developments on Capitol Hill. Elier Lara came over from Mexico with his family when he was 4 years old; he is studying computers at the University of Cincinnati. Dominique Nkata was brought to America from Malawi when she was 11 months old and graduated from UC this year. Both students faced deportation proceedings and received one-year reprieves in 2011.
The House of Representatives passed the Dream Act on December 8, 2010. President Barack Obama called it the right thing to do for America and for “a group of talented young people who seek to serve a country they know as their own.” Twelve of Ohio’s 18 representatives voted against it.
On December 10, David Leopold submitted to the ICE field office director in Cleveland a request for deferred action on Bernard’s case “in light of the House’s passage of the Dream Act and the Senate’s imminent consideration of the same legislation.” At the behest of Representative Steve Driehaus and Senator Sherrod Brown, Bernard had been granted an informal “handshake stay,” securing him from deportation until December 13. But once the temporary agreement with Driehaus and Brown expired, Bernard could be put on a plane and sent to Louisiana without any warning. Pierson, Bernard’s principal advocate in Cincinnati, was calling the jail regularly to make sure Bernard was still there. It was, he says, “a cliffhanger. Nobody knew how this was going to go.”
But on December 17, 30 days after Bernard’s arrest, Leopold got word that Bernard had received deferred action and would be released from jail that afternoon. Leopold was on the phone with Pierson at the time, catching him as he walked to his car in the Cincinnati State parking lot. “I remember jumping in the air, I was so excited,” Pierson says. “And then I was like, ‘Well someone’s got to go get him.’”
So Pierson left for Mt. Gilead immediately, buzzing up I-71 in his silver Smart Car, rushing to make sure he’d be there when Bernard was released. Several miles into the drive it occurred to him that none of Bernard’s friends and family knew, so he started calling them to spread the news. “And then, I get halfway to Columbus, and I realize, ‘Has anyone told Bernard? Does Bernard even know that Bernard’s released?’ ”
Pierson called the jail and got Bernard on the line; he went through the usual pleasantries at first, because he wasn’t sure how to break the news. Finally, he said, “Well, I just wanted to let you know that we won.” When Bernard didn’t say anything, Pierson thought he’d lost the connection. Then the news sunk in, and out came the relief. “He was ecstatic,” Pierson recalls. “You could hear his voice start to tremble.”
Friends and family were anxiously awaiting Bernard’s return, but in Washington the Senate was due to vote on the Dream Act the next day, and Pierson and his colleagues thought it would be good for Bernard to be there. Bernard agreed to put off his homecoming in order to join immigration activists in the nation’s capitol. “Honestly, it’s Washington, D.C.—that’s the way I looked at it,” he says now. “Just the fact that I was out was all that mattered.” Pierson bought two tickets out of Columbus, picked up toothbrushes at an airport gift shop, and they stepped on a flight that night—Bernard still wearing the jeans, sweatshirt, and American Eagle jacket he’d been arrested in a month earlier. It was his first time on an airplane.
Leopold met them in Washington, and the next day they found their place alongside several hundred so-called “Dreamers”—undocumented students like Bernard. A vote to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy on homosexuality in the military was scheduled for the same day, and supporters of both causes found common ground. “There was a bond there,” Bernard says. “We were two groups of people fighting to be recognized as part of the community we all know.”
Walking around the Mall, Bernard was in awe of the architecture and history of the capital. Everywhere he looked was another landmark that he recognized from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The West Wing. “Washington, D.C., is beautiful when you look at it from the outside,” he says.
Inside, the view was not quite so uplifting. About an hour and a half before the vote, he had a brief encounter with Ohio Senator George Voinovich, who was two weeks away from retirement. Voinovich’s office was stripped bare, and no one was around, so Bernard sat and waited until the Republican senator rounded the corner. Bernard introduced himself and delivered his message: Please, vote for the Dream Act.
“You’ve seen who I am,” Bernard told him. “You know who I am. With all due respect, this is my country as much as it is yours.”
Voinovich expressed empathy for Bernard, but said he still opposed the legislation. The meeting was over in five minutes. It was discouraging, but as Pierson points out, “He went from being in federal detention to having political face time with one of the country’s ranking senators. What better civics lesson can you get?”
When it came time for the vote, Bernard joined the other Dreamers in the Senate gallery, where they awaited the show of hands. To pin-drop silence among the spectators, the Senators called out “Yea” or “Nay.” The legislation failed to reach cloture by five votes. The Dreamers left the gallery—some in tears, some angry, all deeply disappointed.
“It was heartbreaking to see them,” Pierson says. But within moments, there was another scene. The 150 young adults formed a huddle in the hall, “and in the dead center, you can’t see who it is, but you can hear him,” says Pierson. “It’s Bernard giving the prayer to bring everyone together—with the same clothes on his back that he went into federal detention with four weeks earlier.”
When the prayer was finished, David Leopold watched as the group turned to the flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “Kids like Bernard, they’re different than the generation that preceded them,” Leopold says. “They’ve grown up in America, with the same ideals and values as anyone else, and they’re not going to take no for an answer. They’re not apologizing for being here. They have nothing to apologize for. I really believe that this group of individuals is going to pull this thing over the line.”
Pierson and Bernard flew back to Columbus that night and drove home—back to Bernard’s church, where more than 100 supporters and countless boxes of pizza were waiting for him. “When I walked in, everyone stood up,” Bernard says. He thinks they were clapping, but mostly it was a blur: He made a beeline to hug his mother. “[She] was the first person at the door,” Pierson says. “Her smile was ear to ear, it was so big and joyful and wrapped up with relief and pride and happiness and excitement and any other emotion you can attach to a smile—love.”
This fall, Bernard enrolled at Xavier University, where he’s majoring in business. It’s midday when we meet in the campus student center and the building is teeming with kids settling into the first weeks of classes. (Full disclosure: I work at Xavier in the Office of University Communications as an assistant editor. Prior to working on this story, I had never met Bernard.) I find him at the foot of the stairs, hunched over his iPad, scouring the Internet for upcoming concerts. He’s wearing basketball shorts and tennis shoes, a Xavier T-shirt, and a lanyard around his neck. His handshake is firm, and he speaks with the affable self-confidence of a middle-class American teenager—brimming with energy and ambition, and no apologies.
Bernard feels underdressed in the summer. He prefers colder weather, when he can dress more formally. The way he was dressed at a press conference, for example, shortly after his return from Washington. He wore a smart argyle sweater over a black collared shirt, and spoke without notes into a microphone, as his friends fidgeted behind him. “A change is coming to this nation,” he said. “I declare it from today with my mouth, because God has given me authority… When one community decides to change, the city decides to change. When the city decides to change, the state decides to change. And when the state changes, the nation will change.”
Somewhat unwittingly, Bernard has become an activist. He feels compelled to speak up when conversation turns to immigration, and he’s writing a freshman research paper on the issue. His friends don’t think he’s changed—and he’s glad for that. “I’ve always been the witty comeback, dry humor type of guy,” he says, “laid-back and stress-free. They noticed that was still me.” Between bites of a chicken burger and fries, Bernard tells me that he’s grateful for everything that happened. The upshot of last fall’s crisis, his arrest, and his near-deportation has been to make everything “so much easier.”
For one thing, it has made college possible. He enrolled at Xavier on the suggestion of Rabbi Abie Ingber, the university’s director of interfaith community engagement, who advocated for his release. Bernard had to apply to Xavier as an international student, so he’s ineligible for governmental financial aid. But the university gave him a Dean’s Award, and he got a scholarship from the League of United Latin American Citizens. Gifts from supporters and his father’s church make up the rest.
Otherwise, Bernard is living as he used to, attending church and working at Tri-County Chick-fil-A. Leopold helped him file for temporary employment authorization, and now he has a Social Security number for as long as his deferred action status lasts. He’s been promoted to shift manager—the third highest position at Chick-fil-A.
Bernard’s case comes up for review again on December 17. Leopold will apply for an extension of his deferred status well before that deadline, and he’s confident he’ll get it. He points to two hopeful indicators that happened over the summer. In June there was the “Morton Memo” from John Morton, the director of ICE, stating that the agency will concentrate on the deportation of felons, gang members, and repeat offenders, and avoid proceedings against minors, seniors, and pregnant women. Second was a directive Obama gave in August to suspend 300,000 deportation proceedings against individuals with no criminal record.
(That does not mean, however, that deportation proceedings have completely halted. In fiscal 2011, ICE deported a record 396,906 illegal immigrants, 45 percent of whom had no criminal record. President Obama is set to deport more people than President Bush before him, and total deportations have risen 400 percent in the last 15 years.)
Bernard seems likely to win at least another year of deferred action status, but without a change in the law, his future could be altered on the whim of a new administration. “Hopefully, at some point, Congress will have the courage to pass immigration reform, or at least the Dream Act,” Leopold says. Until then, he will apply for annual extensions to Bernard’s deferred action status.
Despite the uncertainty clouding his future, Bernard is characteristically unfazed. “I don’t know what stress is,” he says. “I’m living like nothing’s wrong.” He wants to use his degree to start a soccer-themed pub, a family business that his children and their children can work in, and one day own. It’s textbook American Dream.
If you didn’t know about his faith, Bernard’s self-assurance might seem flippant. But he’s convinced that God is always in control, even when he was in jail. “I knew I was getting out,” he says. “I just didn’t know when. That’s the faith and confidence I grew up with.”
In a way, it’s precisely that optimism, that wealth of possibility, that is the most convincing proof of his American-ness. Bernard is neither outraged by his ordeal nor worried about his future, a confidence attributable to his personality, his faith, and his still untarnished image of the world and his place in it. Poster child though he may be, he is not the archetype of America’s young immigrants. His unique blend of personal virtues, a powerful attorney, and community support are what helped spare him from deportation. Not everyone is as fortunate. But perhaps the Dreamers are teaching us that there is no “representative face of immigration”—just as there is no singular representative face of America.
Toward the end of our lunch, before he walks across campus to his next class, I ask Bernard directly: “Are you an American?”
“I am,” he says. “I know absolutely nothing but the American way. I take pride in the United States. I love this country…I think that’s why I got such immense support. Because essentially, I was one of them.”
Photograph by Jonathan Willis.
Originally published in December 2011 issue.