CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In almost every sense, Emilio Vicente is an American success story.
He grew up a shy kid in the North Carolina mill town of Siler City. His parents, who moved there when he was 6, had little formal education and worked long, punishing shifts at a chicken processing plant to support their seven children.
Vicente’s strong grades and college boards earned him a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina, one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. By the time he decided to run for student body president this semester, two deeply held secrets had fallen away.
Vicente, 22, is a confessed lawbreaker. Born in Guatemala, he is in the U.S. illegally, even though he speaks and thinks in English and considers himself as thoroughly American as his U.S.-born classmates.
Nor until recently had he revealed to anyone, not even his family, that he’s gay.
“I’m undocumented and I’m gay, so I’ve come out of two different closets,” Vicente said inside the student union, dressed in jeans and a Carolina blue T-shirt.
If there is a face of the young, Americanized immigrant — the so-called Dreamer — it might be Emilio Vicente.
During his student campaign, placards with Vicente’s name dotted the tree-lined campus here. He led three other candidates in the election last month, with 41% of the vote. That set up a runoff against the runner-up, an earnest scholarship student from Tennessee.
Vicente didn’t have a driver’s license, passport or Social Security number. But he believed he could inspire his fellow students, especially after revealing his secrets. Vicente was, after all, attempting a trifecta: the first undocumented, Latino and openly gay student body president at the country’s oldest state university.
“I’m not running just because I have these separate identities,” he said during a campaign day last month. “I have a vision for helping students have a greater voice. And I hope I can motivate other young undocumented students be more open about their status and work hard to succeed.’'
Vicente was by no means unknown on campus. In 2012, he made the cover of Time magazine, along with 35 other young immigrants, under the headline “We Are Americans* (*Just Not Legally).’'
By then he had shared his memory of riding a cattle train at night through Mexico with his mother when he was 6, then squirming under a border fence in Arizona. He remembers the screams of a woman who caught her hair on barbed wire, and warnings to climb a tree and hide if anyone approached.
Lost and bewildered in rural Siler City, Vicente spoke neither English nor Spanish. He spoke K’iche’ — a Mayan language. He soon learned that being “without papers” was an unpleasant truth to be hidden away like some shameful secret. His parents feared losing their jobs at the chicken plant. They came home exhausted, hands bloodied and scarred.
“They would show me their hands and say that this doesn’t have to be my future. They told me I had more opportunities than they ever had, and I should do everything possible to succeed,” Vicente said.
In 2001, his father was paralyzed in an accident. In 2007, the couple decided to move back to Guatemala with Emilio’s youngest sister, the family’s only American citizen. At 15, Vicente faced a stark choice: return to a country he barely knew, or carve out a life alone in the country he considered his own. He decided to move into the Siler City home of an older brother.
As a high school sophomore, Vicente was elected class president. The soccer coach, Paul Cuadros, said he was struck by Vicente’s intelligence and diligence.
“He was soft-spoken, very thoughtful,” Cuadros recalled. “But he was struggling because of an unstable family environment. At the same time, he was a really focused kid. He wanted a good education and was determined to get it.”
Cuadros, a UNC journalism professor, encouraged Vicente to apply for UNC’s Scholars’ Latino Initiative, which pairs promising Latino high school sophomores with a university sophomore mentor. Vicente was paired with Ron Bilbao, the Miami-born son of Venezuelan immigrants. Bilbao’s older brother, who was living in the U.S. illegally, could not afford UNC.
“Emilio was in the same situation, so he kind of became my brother,” Bilbao said. “I wanted to help him take advantage of the opportunity my brother never had.”
Vicente was charged out-of-state tuition — more than three times what legal residents pay — even though he had lived in North Carolina since he was 6. The private scholarship covered his costs.
For some school events, a tie was required. Vicente had never worn one. Cuadros had Vicente tie and re-tie the knot in a dark closet in his office until he got it right.
Vicente came out as gay only last summer, in an article he wrote for a local publication, and came out as undocumented when he was invited to speak at an immigration rally in Chapel Hill two years earlier. “It was an empowering moment,” he said. “By saying publicly you are undocumented, you are letting go of all the fear and uncertainty.”
Vicente says he didn’t seek celebrity, but it came his way after he met Latina actress Eva Longoria at a conference, and she tweeted about his campaign: “Tar Heels! Make history & vote @emilio4sbp ... He’ll be a great leader!”
At an election-eve debate last month with candidate Andrew Powell, Vicente told an overflow student crowd, “I’m not running for media attention or a political career,” he said, “and I don’t just do immigration.” The debate was spirited but with none of the spite and bile of national electoral politics. “I find your ideas really interesting,” Vicente told Powell, who had earned a student newspaper endorsement and campaigned for classroom reform. “Emilio is committed to listening to all students,” Powell told the debate crowd.
The following night, the candidates stood inside a campus building as final vote totals were announced. It wasn’t close. Powell won with 63%. Vicente congratulated the winner. He seemed disappointed but philosophical. As an uncertain boy growing up in a small Southern town, he said, “I never thought I’d be in this position.”
Bilbao, 26, told Vicente he was proud of him, reminding him of how while still in high school, Vicente had helped Bilbao collect signatures to run for student body president. Bilbao, too, had lost. “There is life after losing a student body election,” Bilbao, now a successful union organizer in Florida, told Vicente.
To Cuadros, Vicente put a human face on a national issue. “Undocumented young people deserve full membership in our society,” Cuadros said. “They’re as genuinely American as any other kid.’'
Vicente plans to earn a degree in public policy and may attend graduate school before jumping into community organizing and the national immigration debate. He has applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal exemption known as the Dreamer program, which provides qualified immigrants brought to the U.S. as children protection from deportation. But he has a bigger dream.
“Citizenship, of course,” Vicente said. “It’s the dream of every undocumented immigrant.”
There is one more piece of unfinished business. Not far from Chapel Hill, there’s a Latino high school student, the son of Peruvian immigrants who was brought to the U.S. as an adolescent. His name is Emilio and he is determined to attend college. Through the UNC Latino mentoring program, he has found a caring and inspirational mentor — an undocumented student who was once very much like him: Emilio Vicente.