DACA student committed to succeed despite uncertain road ahead for U.S. immigrants

When José Manuel Santoyo addresses SMU’s Commencement audience Dec. 17, the Mexican national and U.S. citizen-hopeful will have accomplished his own “American experiment” – one that presented the 24-year-old human rights and Spanish major with a number of great risks.

By Denise Gee
SMU News 

DALLAS (SMU) – When José Manuel Santoyo addresses SMU’s Commencement audience Dec. 17, the Mexican national and U.S. citizen-hopeful will have accomplished his own “American experiment” – one that presented the 24-year-old human rights and Spanish major with a number of great risks.

José Santoyo speaks at Commencement.

Most of Santoyo’s life has been spent as an undocumented immigrant, who moved to Texas from Mexico at age 8. His childhood memories from Michoacán are clouded by the trauma of losing his father and grandfather, who were caught in the crossfire during a drug cartel battle over control of the rural area in which he was raised.

Fearing for their safety, Santoyo and his family undertook a perilous journey a thousand miles north to Corsicana, a short drive from Dallas. “It’s the only home I’ve ever known,” he says. Santoyo graduated from high school there in 2010 and later earned an associate’s degree from Navarro College.

He embraced another hurdle after enrolling at SMU. He proposed and was awarded an Engaged Learning fellowship that called for him to travel and document a study abroad-program – not as an average American student, but as a Mexican passport-bearing beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  DACA, as the program is called, was initiated in 2012 by the Department of Homeland Security to allow more than 740,000 undocumented immigrants who met certain qualifications to study and work in the U.S. for limited but renewable periods.

The risk in Santoyo’s fellowship was in testing whether upon leaving the United States for study abroad he would be allowed to return.

Santoyo’s Commencement speech will focus on “giving hope and courage to other students facing uncertain paths to fulfilling their dreams,” he says, noting there’s now a sense of urgency to his message due to the hardline immigration rhetoric expressed during the recent presidential campaign.

As a DACA student and “Dreamer,” Santoyo was asked to speak at Commencement because of the “seriousness and outcome of his fall Engaged Learning Symposium performance – a unique and timely interdisciplinary immigration-research project that was equal parts community service and student activism,” explains SMU Engaged Learning Executive Director Susan Kress.

The Engaged Learning project was more than eye opening, Santoyo says. “It wound up a bit harrowing.”

Santoyo had to run a customs obstacle course en route to Madrid for five-weeks of study in advanced Spanish language, literature and culture, but the experience was nothing compared to what he faced upon his return to the U.S.

Given the open borders of the European Union, Santoyo recalls overseas customs agents were openly flummoxed by the complexity of U.S. immigration laws. “There were lots of wrinkled brows and scratching of heads,” he says. “In Madrid, though, they asked me why someone with a Mexican passport would want to study Spanish. I told them my focus was more on Spanish history. That seemed to make more sense to them,” he says with a smile. “On a personal note, it’s because I grew up in Corsicana learning to speak only English. Spanish was a second language to me – one in which I’ve wanted to become fluent.”

After returning to the U.S and landing at Chicago’s O’Hare, however, “trying to explain my situation was intense,” Santoyo says. “ I was in a cold screening room seated on a wooden bench with other brown and black people, most of them Muslim, for what seemed like an eternity. I really felt for some of them, especially after a couple of agents openly mocked some of the travelers’ accents.”

Santoyo’s three-hour wait gave him time to think. Being deported to Mexico – a country he appreciates for his heritage, but doesn’t consider home, was a real possibility. “But I thought, this is the country I grew up in, the place my entire family calls home. And while it’s ‘the land of the free,’ I realized I had more freedom abroad than I do here, where I’m confined within borders.”

Santoyo has chosen to not let fear overshadow his world at any level.

While helping his family make ends meet, Jose worked at local businesses and national fast-food chains and home improvement stores, where he learned firsthand about the exploitation of undocumented workers. Recognizing “a disturbing hypocrisy” would lead him into activism, even though it would put him under a spotlight. “People say they don’t want undocumented immigrants in their communities, but those same people have no problem profiting from the immigrants’ low-wage labor,” he says. “I felt I had no real choice but to speak out about what I’d seen firsthand.”

Jose Santoyo
José Santoyo

At Navarro College, Santoyo was able to benefit from the Texas Dream Act (House Bill 1403), a 2001 law allowing eligible unauthorized youths to pay in-state tuition to attend public colleges and universities. Texas was the first U.S. state to adopt such a measure.

After learning about the Embrey Human Rights Program at SMU – one of only seven universities in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree program – Santoyo was inspired to channel his advocacy goals into a career of public service.

Enrolling at SMU in spring 2015, Santoyo would serve not only as an Engaged Learning fellow but also as a Hispanic-American Senator and member of Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity. He also has been active in groups supporting young Latinos and human rights causes.

Santoyo credits his success at SMU to two people in particular. One is his Engaged Learning project mentor Bradley Klein, associate director of the Embrey Human Rights Program in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, whom he calls “an amazing and caring source of guidance and strength.”

Klein is equally moved by Santoyo, describing him as “absolutely fearless in working for justice.”

“More than most of his peers, Jose understands how prejudice works in this country,” Klein says. “Yet time and again he has demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his time, energy and safety for the betterment of others. He also demands the best of himself – not out of selfish ambition, but because he believes everyone has a responsibility to honor and protect human dignity. His courage is a shining example of what SMU can cultivate in its students.”

Santoyo is also grateful to SMU alumnus Jorge Baldor ’93. The Dallas entrepreneur “has really been there for me,” he says. “He’s the mentor to me that he never had. In return, I want to one day help others in the same way.”

Santoyo and Baldor have worked together in support of HB1403. Additionally, after Baldor co-founded the Latino Center for Leadership Development (Latino CLD) in 2013, the Latino CLD partnered with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program to create the Santos Rodriguez Memorial Scholarship in honor of a 12-year-old boy whose 1973 shooting death by a Dallas police officer is one of the most troubling chapters in Dallas’ history.

Now fluent in Spanish and educated about human rights issues “that all of us should all care about, from poverty to racial injustice,” Santoyo aims to “take everything I’ve learned at SMU and apply it to a real-world scenario.”

It won’t be easy. The renewal of his DACA permit, set to expire Aug. 5, 2017, isn’t a given.

In the meantime, Santoyo will pursue a degree in law, help with public policy initiatives related to immigration reform, and continue working as a community activist to help Texas immigrants understand their rights and opportunities.

“Right now, my education is the only thing I can control about my future,” he says. “But I’ve realized that everything I’ve learned isn’t just intended for me. It’s for the betterment of my community. I owe it to all the people who’ve supported me along the way to go out and use my education in a meaningful way.”

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