May 30, 2018
by Christopher Kerosky, Kerosky, Purves & Bogue, LLP, Sonoma County Human Rights Commissioner
This spring, young people throughout the United States are celebrating their graduations from high school and college. Many of these graduates are immigrants or the children of immigrants, a tangible reminder that the American Dream still plays out every day in this country, from sea to shining sea.
Here’s two such examples from our own County—Saul Diaz and Gustavo Espinoza—who both graduated from Sonoma State University (SSU) in May. I’m selfishly proud of these gentlemen, as they have both worked for me over the last 4 years, at the same time attending classes and earning their college degrees.
Gustavo Espinoza is a native of Cotija, Michoacan, Mexico, a town most known for its distinctive cheese. Immigrating to the U.S. at a young age, he grew up in Sonoma County, attending Kawana Elementary and Slater Middle School in Santa Rosa. I first met Gustavo when he was still a student at Elsie Allen High School. He expressed an interest in law so I invited him to intern with us. As a 17-year-old, Gustavo would show up after school and put in a few hours filling out forms and preparing cover letters. Within months, we hired him.
Quickly, Gustavo became so well-versed in immigration law that clients referred to him as “Licenciado Espinoza”, thinking he was a lawyer. He has a quiet commitment to helping immigrants through the stressful and intimidating process of obtaining status in this country. Last month, after four years of full-time work and a heavy college load, “Gus” put on his cap and gown and was handed his degree from SSU in front of his proud immigrant parents. That same night, he became engaged to his high school sweetheart, Karla, making for a memorable weekend indeed.
Gustavo plans to go to law school in the future. But the law degree would only make it official: this guy is already a legal star in my book.
A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Saul Diaz came to the U.S. at age 3. He attended Roseland Elementary School and Laurence Cook Middle School. After graduating from Elsie Allen, Saul earned two associate degrees at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC0. He also volunteered at the Graton Day Labor Center, a non-profit organization aiding immigrants in finding employment and protecting their legal rights. Throughout high school and college, Saul worked weekends for his dad as a laborer and did some landscaping on the side.
DACA allowed Saul to get a professional job in 2013 and I hired him after his good friend Gustavo recommended him. Saul started as a receptionist, but he quickly began to master immigration law. Over the years, we have watched Saul develop into a very knowledgeable and skillful advocate for immigrants, who now trains our newer staff members and handles complex cases.
Two years ago, Saul transferred from SRJC to SSU. And last month, Saul was awarded his Bachelor’s Degree from Sonoma State, a right of passage that left many of his family members and others like me very proud to know him. Felicidades, Saul!
The sky is the limit for both Saul and Gustavo. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are powerful trial lawyers or sitting as judges on some federal court in the future.
But their stories are not unlike many others from our County and communities across the U.S.. Immigrant youth – including large numbers of sons and daughters of Mexico -- are quietly obtaining degrees and professions, refuting the common myth about immigrants being uneducated and unassimilated.
The fact is that recent immigrants to the U.S. are more educated than those who immigrated to the U.S. at other periods of our history. According to Fortune Magazine, over 33% of immigrants enter the U.S. with a college degree and 75% of recent arrivals have a high school diploma or higher. Moreover, the number of immigrants with higher education has grown at more than twice the rate of the same population among the U.S. born.
California has the largest number of college-educated immigrants with 2.5 million or 24% of all college-educated immigrants in the U.S. Sonoma County has a large share: 28.8% of the student body of SSU and 30% of Santa Rosa Junior College is Latino and many are immigrants or the children of immigrants. And this number is growing every year: a full 44% of the County’s school-age population is Latino.
The accomplishments of young immigrants like Saul and Gustavo are the best rejoinder to all the myths and malicious rhetoric about immigrants, prevalent since the rise of Donald Trump. I prefer to remember the words of a different national leader, Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago this month while running for President:
“Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”
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