Seven years ago, after they had completed a hazardous crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border, 14-year-old Miguel Perez made one last promise to his dying mother--he would “be somebody” and succeed in this country.
On Friday, the young Salvadoran immigrant completed the promise by graduating from Cal State Dominguez Hills. Having successfully fought off the immigration authorities for years--they are still trying to have him deported for illegally entering the United States--Perez delivered the keynote speech at his graduation ceremony.
“I feel that I have fulfilled an obligation to her,” Perez said of his late mother, Elena Manzano, who died of heart disease at the age of 61. “She will be there with me (on the podium). She will have a special place.”
A confident but soft-spoken 21-year-old, Perez adjusted his black cap and gown and strode to the podium at the school gymnasium to the loud applause of 2,000 people.
Perez’s speech was short and to the point. “Four years ago,” he began a bit nervously, “a rather timid and young immigrant entered this university. . . . " After thanking his professors and fellow students, he ended the four-minute speech and returned to his seat.
Speaking in Spanish before the address, Perez said: “It’s something you dream, but when it comes, you can’t believe it’s true. This gives me energy to keep struggling in the future.”
By any measure, it was a remarkable day for the young man. When he arrived in California, he did not speak a word of English. On Friday, he graduated magna cum laude and received a host of other honors, including awards from the International Sociology Honor Society and Psi Chi National Psychology Honor Society.
“Even the deportation officers think he’s a special guy,” said attorney Carl M. Shusterman, who represents Perez in his immigration case. “They don’t have any ill will toward him and they don’t want to have him deported. It’s just that the system is grinding down without any human involvement.”
Perez faces deportation for his illegal entry into the United States in January, 1984.
He and his mother had fled the port city of La Union in eastern El Salvador at the height of that country’s decade-long civil war. After a long trek through Mexico, they were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents only minutes after walking across the border near San Ysidro.
They spent a few weeks in separate INS detention cells, but were released when they both applied for political asylum. Soon after, Perez’s mother died, her weak heart succumbing to the stress of the long journey, the border crossing and the trauma of her brief incarceration.
An orphan at 14, Perez was confronted with a culture he did not understand and a language he did not speak. He moved in with his elderly aunt, who has continued to care for him. Perez went on to excel in his classes in English as a second language at South Gate High School. Within a few months, he became a standout, college-bound student, eventually graduating 12th in a class of 500.
Meanwhile, his application for political asylum dragged through immigration courts for more than five years. In December, 1990, his final appeal before the Board of Immigration Appeals was denied. He was ordered deported.
Despondent and tired of fighting the INS, Perez said he reluctantly accepted the idea that he would soon return to El Salvador, where he has no living relatives. He took some solace in knowing that he would be able to visit the grave of his mother, who is buried there.
But officials at Cal State Dominguez Hills became aware of his plight and organized a letter-writing campaign on his behalf, pressing the office of Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton) to take action. Dymally’s office contacted Shusterman’s law firm, which agreed to take the case.
Just 48 hours before Perez was scheduled to be deported, Shusterman filed a petition for review with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Shusterman is optimistic that Perez will soon be granted legal residency here, noting that federal authorities have acknowledged that Perez did not receive due process during his immigration hearings.
“He’s just fantastic,” Shusterman said of his client. “It’s hard to believe that he came from another country, that he didn’t speak English and that he’s an orphan. The way the guy leads his life, it’s an inspiration.”
Perez, who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, has been accepted in a doctoral program at Penn State University. But he may not be able to attend the university because his current immigration status makes him ineligible for federal aid.
In introducing Perez to the audience Friday, Prof. Richard Palmer said: “He has overcome a variety of obstacles to achieve his degree. . . . But he has not only persevered, he has done so with excellence.”