Mario Perez was living the American dream. A student at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, he was all set to receive a bachelor’s degree in math. The next step? Attend graduate school at the University of Houston, his hometown. By all accounts, Mario’s future was bright and it appeared that nothing could stop him…except for one thing — a traffic stop from last April. That’s when his life changed forever.
“It was close to midnight and we’d just finished step practice,” Mario remembers. “I was in my car, on my way to see my girlfriend, when a police officer passed by. I think he thought that I didn’t do a complete stop at a stop sign because he turned around, flashed his lights, and pulled me over.”
As it turns out, Mario had a couple of unpaid traffic tickets that had turned into outstanding warrants, so Mario was placed under arrest and taken to the police precinct, where he was kept in a holding cell. This was the first time he’d ever been arrested, but usually, the procedure for traffic warrants was pretty routine. Just post a small bail and in a few hours, he’d be out. But that’s when a guard told him that he had a phone call.
“I thought it was my mom or someone telling me that they were going to post bail,” said the 22-year old Mario, now a senior at Stephen F. Austin. “But it wasn’t. It was someone asking me random questions about my life.”
That’s when Mario was told that he would have to be detained.
Mario had been talking to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. They’d called because Mario was an illegal immigrant, and now that he was in custody, he was now under the threat of deportation.
Mario’s family came to the United States from Mexico when he was 5-years-old. He’d been kept in the dark about his citizenship status until he was in high school and began applying for college. Without a social security number, Mario was suddenly living in the shadows.
Fortunately for him, anyone who finishing high school in Texas can go by law, attend a Texas college, so Stephen F. Austin was his undergraduate destination. But without a social security number, Mario was ineligible for financial aid, scholarships and grants, meaning his parents had to pay over $40,000 dollars in tuition fees. A good student and on track to graduate, yet all of that was in jeopardy for Mario after his conversation with ICE.
“My brain was numb,” he recalled. “Instead of getting out in a couple of hours, I was sitting in the county jail for six days. Then ICE came to pick me up and transported me to Houston. I was in a jail cell for a week in Houston.”
That’s when Mario’s Alpha Phi Alpha brothers went into action. The brothers in his Iota Mu chapter at Stephen F. Austin connected with the Houston alumni chapter of Alpha to pay for Mario’s $1500 dollar bail. Then his brothers found Jacob Monty, a lawyer specializing in immigration cases.
“Our firm was contacted by some alumni of his fraternity, and I was honestly shocked to see a dozen African-American men in my office working on behalf of a Hispanic kid,” Monty said. “I was moved when they told me that Mario was a brother and they weren’t going to let their brother down. That’s when I decided to take the case pro bono.
“I think this was particularly moving because there are many politicians who are dismissive of the DREAM Act by saying that it somehow hurts African-Americans and American born Hispanics.”
The DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants like Mario, is legislation currently before Congress. It would allow undocumented immigrants to become a citizen after completing college or serving in the military. It would be a six-year process, but a legal way for an estimated 65,000 undocumented youth to move from the shadows into the light.
For Mario, it has been the actions of his fraternity brothers that has given him encouragement.
“The frat has been there for me,” says Mario, who became an Alpha in 2009. He’d been mentored by an Alpha while in high school, and never forgot how much it changed his life. “My family didn’t have the money to pay for the bond, they’d just paid for my tuition. But the frat picked me up from Houston and has been there for me through it all.”
Earlier, Alpha Phi Alpha had taken a stand against the Arizona anti-immigrant law, SB1070, by pulling their summer convention from Phoenix and relocating it to Las Vegas.
“We would not host a meeting in a state that has sanctioned a law which we believe will lead to racial profiling and discrimination,” said Alpha Phi Alpha general president Herman “Skip” Mason last May. “And (this is) a law that could put the civil rights and the very dignity or our members at risk during their stay in Phoenix, Arizona.”
Now that nightmare has come true. The stakes are high for Mario, and his lawyer Monty doesn’t mince words. Next on the docket is a deportation hearing in March and it will be an uphill fight.
“We do have a tough fight,” Monty says. “But Mario is a stellar guy. Never been in trouble. He has letters of recommendation from people at his school. No misconduct. It’ll all be up to the judge.”
And the stakes are draconian. If the court rules against Mario, the good case scenario will require him to sell all of his property in thirty days and then be deported. But the most likely scenario would be for ICE to immediately take him from the court and transport him to the Mexican border, where he’d be expected to survive on his own in Mexico. And it wouldn’t matter that Mario hasn’t been to Mexico since he left at five years old, and that he knows no one there.
“It happens everyday,” Monty says.
Although Mario is frightened of the prospect of being deported to a country he doesn’t know, he is encouraged by the support he’s had from his fraternity brothers.
“Alpha is one of the few brotherhood’s that really owns up to the words “I am my brothers keeper”,” Mario remarks.
Lawrence Ross is a proud brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.