Mitchell Santos Toledo came to the United States when he was 2. His parents had temporary visas when they brought him and his 5-year-old sister to the country. They never left. This spring, Santos Toledo will graduate from Harvard Law School. He is one of the 700,000 DREAMers whose fate in the U.S. may well be determined by a Supreme Court case to be argued Tuesday.
For now, Santos Toledo cannot be deported. In 2012, President Obama put in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which deferred deportation for these young people if they met certain specifications and passed a background check. After that, their temporary status made them eligible for a Social Security number so they could work and pay taxes. Their status had to be renewed every two years.
President Trump tried to shut down DACA in 2017, only to be blocked by the lower courts. Now the case is before the Supreme Court, where Santos Toledo's name is listed in the briefs.
After Santos Toledo's family arrived in the U.S., it would grow. Two more children were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. Santos Toledo's mother stayed home to take care of the family; his father did manual labor, under the table.
"He would tell us time and time again, 'Your priority here is to study — your priority is to do the best you can academically,' " Santos Toledo recalls.
He doesn't remember an aha moment when he realized he and his family were undocumented. Instead, it was while "reaching these milestones of adolescence like applying for a driver's license" when he realized, "Oh, wait, I can't do that."
"This is gonna be really tough for you"
His immigration status continued to wall him off from opportunities. He couldn't accept a scholarship from a private school, and he watched his older sister, an academic star, be unable to go to college.
But that didn't stop his ambition. "Growing up like any other American kid," Santos Toledo says, his head was filled with images of colleges — first and foremost the University of California, Berkeley, "the No. 1 state school in California."
When Santos Toledo told his parents about his Berkeley dreams, they let him know — in no uncertain terms — that because of his immigration status, "this is gonna be really tough for you." But he still wanted to try — and he got in.
Like his sister, though, he couldn't figure out a way to pay the full freight. In those days, undocumented students did not qualify for scholarships or loans.
Eventually, his mother suggested an alternative: take courses at the local community college, where tuition was more affordable, and he could go part time.
Morning class. Work. Night class. Repeat.
And so he did. "My schedule almost on a daily basis was wake up, take a morning class before work, go to work and then drive back to school and take a night class," says Santos Toledo.
The jobs he found were aimed at his eventual career goals.
"Having immigrant parents, I had two options," he says with a smile. "I was either gonna become a doctor or a lawyer. Those were the two paths my father laid out for me."
His briefly worked in a doctor's office, then got a job in a legal office and fell in love with the practice of law.
Much of this would not have been possible without DACA.
Santos Toledo concedes that he was scared when applying because it meant telling the U.S. government everything about himself and his family. But after not jumping at other opportunities out of fear that he would put his family in jeopardy, he took the plunge. "I said, 'You know what? I gotta do this. Not only for myself, but realistically I gotta help support my family.' "
As soon as he got his DACA status, he applied for a driver's license and a Social Security number so he could work legally. When Santos Toledo got his Social Security card in the mail, he cried: "The doors of opportunity that that little piece of paper allows, it's life changing," he says.
From community college to commencement speaker
After four years part time in community college, Santos Toledo transferred to Berkeley. In 2016, he graduated with highest honors. He was selected as the class speaker in the legal studies department.
Until then, his parents had never visited him on campus. They couldn't fly or drive because they are undocumented. So Santos Toledo and his sister arranged to have them driven from Los Angeles to Berkeley, in Northern California.
His parents had no idea their son would be speaking that day. So when they were ushered in as honored guests to the front row, "they assumed they were in trouble," Santos Toledo recalls.
Until they saw their son onstage.
"You both mean more to me than you will ever know"
"It is an honor to speak in front of all of you this morning" began Santos Toledo. "But it is an indescribable honor to be addressing two particular people from this stage. My mother and father."
His speech was a tribute to his education, his fellow classmates, some of them also DACA recipients, his life in America and his parents.
In his speech, he recalled his life in South Central Los Angeles in a "violence-ridden, graffiti-covered neighborhood" where his parents "managed to raise four children on a monthly budget of next to nothing in a country where they knew no one."
"Yet they made it home, and it was beautiful. ... We were poor, but we were loved," he said.
At the end of his nine-minute speech, his composure finally broke. Fighting back tears, his voice faltering, he turned to his parents in the audience: "Mamá y papá. Gracias por todo. You both mean more to me than you will ever know."
Santos Toledo is graduating from Harvard Law School this spring. And if his DACA status is renewed, he has a job at a law firm afterward.
Despite his academic successes, he emphasizes that many DACA recipients are more successful — people who own houses and businesses and are raising families of their own. "This is much bigger than the DREAMer narrative," he says. "This is about an entire group of people who are your friends, your neighbors, the people who you least expect, and they're part of the American fabric. And this is our home. We don't consider it home. This is our home."