From Tomato Picker to Neurosurgeon

By Allison Johnson 6-18-2008

I was touched recently to hear Dr. Alfredo Quinoñes-Hinojosa, honored by the Merage Foundation for the American Dream for his contributions in the field of medicine, tell his exceptional story. Dr. Quiñones' journey began at age 19, just as it has for millions of his Mexican paisanos - hopping the U.S.-Mexico border's perilous chain-link fence. Unable to provide for his family, he remained firm in his decision to head north, even after he was initially caught by the border patrol and deported back to Mexico. He eventually succeeded and labored as an undocumented migrant farm worker in the San Joaquin Valley. The same hands that picked tomatoes in the hot California sun now perform neurosurgery on brain tumors in the halls of Johns Hopkins University. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard, he has reaped great rewards from his determination to succeed and his optimistic attitude towards life. Many would say he has realized "the American Dream."

While hearing the story of Dr. Quiñones, I thought of the millions of hardworking and goal-driven students whose dreams to attend college in the U.S. have been put on hold because of their documentation status. The failure of the DREAM Act in Congress last fall halted the aspirations of high school graduates who would otherwise qualify for in-state tuition to public colleges and universities. If we continue to punish these students for decisions made by their parents years ago to bring them to the "Land of Opportunity," we are squashing their aspirations to become world-class brain surgeons, business professionals, teachers, and contributors to the fabric of America.

I heard Dr. Quiñones speak at the National Leadership Awards banquet at which the Merage Foundation for the American Dream was honoring several first-generation immigrants who have made outstanding contributions in the U.S. (Several of us from Sojourners had been invited in recognition of the work of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform). But who knows how many (or how few) awards will be handed out in the future, if our country's immigration policies continue to deflate immigrants' hopes and dreams on a daily basis?

Allison Johnson is the policy and organizing assistant for Sojourners.

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