Young illegal immigrant redefines his life in Carrollton and at Harvard
By DIANNE SOLÍS
Published: 21 September 2012
CARROLLTON — Pierre Berastain didn’t embrace the role of mediator when thousands of high school students walked out of classes in 2006 in Dallas and other cities to protest U.S. immigration policies.
He wanted a change in federal immigration policies as much as the protesters.
But his high school principal wanted him to calm students to prevent a walkout at R.L. Turner High School. So he got on the public address system and took several students aside in the hallways.
“Do we want to be recognized for negative behavior or for our accomplishments?” he asked his classmates.
In five years of occasional conversations with a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, Berastain anonymously spoke about his journey through college and his social justice crusades. He’s gone public with his story in recent weeks because of a new policy initiative by the Obama administration that halts deportation and grants temporary work permits to young immigrants.
Until now, Berastain has lived the contradiction that he sees of a Supreme Court that says undocumented students have a right to a public education but a Congress that says they don’t have a right to a job that uses that education.
How many potential Pierre Berastains are there? The number of young immigrants who fit the government’s criteria may reach as high as 1.76 million. Five weeks after the Obama administration started accepting applications from young illegal immigrants, the government said last week it had already approved a handful of the more than 82,000 applications received.
Defined by status
During the 2006 protests, former R.L. Turner principal Kim Holland said he tapped Berastain because he inspired respect from his peers — and he knew Berastain’s secret, too.
“I saw the kids walking out in California and carrying the Mexican flag,” Holland said. He feared such symbolism on television would repulse the very audience students wanted to influence.
Berastain knew struggle, as well. His Peruvian parents — college graduates — worked low-paying jobs moving furniture and mopping floors because the family was in the U.S. unlawfully.
So that balmy March week of walkouts, Berastain and nearly every Turner student stayed in school. For that, the principal credited Berastain.
Today, Berastain, a compact 24-year-old who speaks English with precise enunciation and a slight accent, works on his second degree at Harvard, a master’s at the Divinity School. He’s preparing an application for the Obama administration’s initiative.
The chance to stay deportation and gain a work permit has brought Berastain into the light. However, the Obama executive action doesn’t include a path to U.S. citizenship. That would require a change in immigration law, not a policy directive.
“I will no longer have to hide,” Berastain said.
Critics of the Obama measure criticize it as “backdoor amnesty.” Ten federal deportation officers call it “an unconstitutional and unlawful directive” in a lawsuit filed in a Dallas federal court seeking to stop the process. Seven of the agents are from Texas.
Since 2001, there have been many attempts to pass a congressional bill known as the DREAM Act. The legislation proposes legal status, a pathway to citizenship, for those who had started or completed college.
That passage alone would help only Berastain and his sister — not his parents, who he worried might be deported if they were ever discovered.
Berastain says, “I don’t want to be defined by my immigration status.”
But the status and its adjectives — undocumented, unauthorized, illegal — did define him. It defined his entire family.
On June 15, his mother, Margarita, heard the news that young immigrants like her son might be given work permits. She wept with relief for her children. By July 29, Berastain’s mother was on a one-way flight to Peru. She was returning home to Lima, where she had once been a public television producer, to care for ailing parents.
From Lima to Dallas
His mother said her son always had drive. His favorite game as a child was playing professor with a toy blackboard. He’d cast his cousins as students, she said in a phone interview from Lima. “Studying was entertainment to him.”
But life for his college-educated parents was tense with a Maoist guerrilla uprising on the left, and an authoritarian new president, Alberto Fujimori, on the right. Berastain remembers Lima and its curfews and fears when his father was out at night. That fear of the guerrillas, known as the Sendero Luminoso, and the militarizing counterweight would shape Berastain powerfully.
“Close friends died in car bombs and family members felt terrorized,” Berastain wrote in an essay. “The government responded with brutality and dictatorship; President Fujimori dissolved Congress.”
Berastain said that as a result, he developed a strong need to help people in crisis and to ease public violence that can even create domestic violence.
As the Peruvian economy grew fragile, his parents fled. On Dec. 18, 1998, the Berastains arrived in Dallas. They laid roots in the immigrant-heavy labyrinth of apartments near Pineland Drive and Greenville Avenue not far from the Dallas skyline. They overstayed their visitor visas.
The boy’s grades soared in his new Dallas school. He sensed failure. Classes were too easy. His father encouraged him to find a more rigorous grade school.
The son did, though it took two moves before the family landed in Carrollton and he enrolled in Ted Polk Middle School. Once he arrived at R.L. Turner High, he thought he’d go into law. He took part in mock trials with volunteer attorneys, including Byron Thomas. Today Thomas is his immigration attorney.
In high school, Berastain was plucky enough to take aside Holland, the school principal. He wanted more challenge and complained about a teacher who merely read from a book. “I could read the book myself,” Holland said Berastain told him.
Holland, now a principal in Oklahoma, said he spoke to the teacher about upping his game.
Berastain applied to many universities, knowing his unlawful immigration status might create obstacles. Back in Lima, his grandmother organized a group to pray for her grandson.
“Pierre was accepted in different universities and our enthusiasm would grow with each letter,” his mother says. “Harvard was the last letter to arrive.”
For Holland, that last letter was the most important. A private university might be more accepting of a student unlawfully in the U.S. than a state school with government funding. Indeed, Harvard provided admission and private financial aid — without questions about immigration documents. Berastain was awarded a full scholarship.
A driver’s license
Berastain’s father, who had a driver’s license, drove his son to Harvard in an old blue Saturn, a gift from his brother. His father got the license before Texas increased requirements to obtain the crucial identification, the son said.
Soon, the Harvard student obtained his own license in Maryland, where relatives lived and a Social Security card wasn’t a requirement, he said. Though he didn’t have a car in Cambridge, the identification document opened up more opportunities, allowing him to travel on planes to attend conferences. He opened a bank account and placed money from a small Harvard student loan he obtained annually. Scholarship money for tuition and housing — expenses of about $50,000 — was paid directly by the university.
But immigration status still isolated him. Twice, he was assaulted. Both times he didn’t press charges for fear his unlawful immigration status would spin him into deportation.
It wasn’t until his junior year at Harvard that he met students who were also like him — in the U.S. unlawfully. Sympathetic administrators linked undocumented students together.
An email hit Berastain’s computer from a young woman in Spanish: “You, too, are in this mess?”
“Wow, you, too?” he responded.
Through the years, Berastain, who is gay, has worked within the gay and lesbian community taking leadership roles, worked at a domestic violence shelter in Boston and held two internships with a Texas legal nonprofit helping minorities.
The parallel conflicts of being gay and undocumented weighed on him.
“I came out two times,” Berastain said. “In both processes, you are asking a broader community to accept you and to love you.”
He always hoped, though, his unlawful immigration status would change.
In Berastain’s junior year, Harvard president Drew Faust threw her support behind the DREAM Act. After nearly a decade of attempts, passage failed again on Dec. 18, 2010, a dozen years after the Berastains arrived in Dallas. From Harvard, Berastain choked up with tears in a phone call.
In the spring of 2011, Berastain graduated from Harvard with honors with a degree in social anthropology. He applied to graduate schools, including Harvard Divinity School. He’d been offered enough scholarship money to give him financial independence — a critical issue because he cannot legally work.
Berastain and his attorney plan to file applications for him and his college-age sister soon with federal immigration officials for the process known as “deferred action for childhood arrivals.”
Despite his improved prospects, the Harvard student worries about how his mother will jump-start a career in Lima after such a long absence. From Lima, his mother called herself a “warrior” who will survive.
In Texas, Berastain said his father should have worked as a businessman because he had a business degree. Instead, he often worked two daily shifts as a furniture mover.
The son said he’s encouraged his attorney may find a legalization path for his father, too.
“Here, I am an ant,” the elder Berastain said. “The opportunities here are for my children.”
The young Berastain said he wants a career in social justice, particularly in fighting domestic violence.
“I want to be defined by my work in domestic violence, in the LGBT community and with the underprivileged in the Boston community,” he said. “I don’t want my undocumented status to become my final status.”