Of the 800,000 or so undocumented immigrants receiving federal protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, only one of them is known to be a professional athlete and he happens to be from Sacramento.
Miguel Aguilar, a former DC United midfielder vying for a spot with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, did not seek this distinction for himself when he was scoring goals for and graduating from Encina High School in 2011.
Aguilar was too young to understand the legal implications shaping his life when he arrived in Sacramento more than a decade ago as an 11-year-old brought to America without documentation. His single mother, Carmen, chose a perilous journey to the U.S. over the more perilous prospect of raising her three children alone in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, ground zero for warring drug cartels.
“From 2008 to 2012, (Ciudad Juárez) was widely deemed the most dangerous place on Earth,” wrote Sam Quinones in the June 2016 edition of National Geographic. “Murders shot above 3,700 in the worst year. Criminals kidnapped and extorted with impunity.” Aguilar’s sister narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt, so the family fled, crossed the border and headed for Sacramento, where they could be near relatives.
Some Mexicans apply for asylum when fleeing drug-cartel violence. Others don’t. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 600 Mexicans were granted asylum in the U.S. in 2015. But the process of asylum qualification is daunting and can take years because of the backlogs of cases in immigration courts. Some people feel they can’t wait that long and cross the border without permission, an act that’s illegal. But is it understandable?
“Every mother is biologically programmed to protect her offspring,” said Tibor Pelle, a Sacramento prep soccer star in the 1980s and UCLA player who now coaches youth soccer and is an unofficial dad to Miguel Aguilar. “Someone tried to kidnap (Aguilar’s sister). You don’t have the resources (to petition the court). You flee.”
Discussing cases such as Aguilar’s, the conversation inevitably leads to someone to ask a question like: “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”
As a college-educated adult who earned a finance degree from the University of San Francisco in less than four years with a 3.7 GPA, Aguilar, 23, understands the importance of the question and doesn’t dispute its validity.
No one with any sense would advocate for open borders or defend people such as Luis Bracamontes, the Mexican national accused of murdering Danny Oliver, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy who was slain in an October 2014 crime spree that also claimed the life of Deputy Michael Davis Jr. of Placer County.
Citizens need to be protected from violent criminals, whether they be American or foreign. President Donald Trump has promised an aggressive crackdown on the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, saying Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will target people who have criminal records. But there have been published accounts of otherwise law-abiding, hardworking immigrant people being swept up in the raids as well.
It’s clear that America has every right to protect its borders and enforce its immigration laws. But what would America lose by deporting someone like Aguilar?
To begin with, Aguilar is part of a group of immigrants in a no-man’s land of legal limbo through no direct fault of their own. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was an immigration policy started by President Barack Obama in 2012 whereby undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children could become eligible for work permits. You had to have entered the U.S. before your 16th birthday and before 2007. You had to be in school or the U.S. military and you couldn’t have been convicted of a “felony, significant misdemeanor or three or more misdemeanors,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Aguilar was vetted thoroughly and qualified. He has lived a life of achievement, hope and, yes, fear – of deportation. “I avoided trouble,” he said. “If I saw my friends going down the wrong path, I distanced myself from them.”
Pelle, who met Aguilar while coaching and took him under his wing, told the young player: “Keep hitting the books and scoring goals.”
As a senior, Aguilar scored the winning goal for Encina in the 2010 Division 6 Section championship. At that game in Stockton, the stands were packed with friends of Aguilar, some of whom also were undocumented. Pelle has remained in touch with some of them and watched as those boys failed to show Aguilar’s dedication to building a life for himself.
“I love some of those guys,” Pelle said. “I’ve tried to help them …” His voice trailed off when recounting how some of Aguilar’s former friends are now living lives marked by substance abuse.
Young undocumented people like that are asking to be deported. But what of those, such as Aguilar, who have structured their lives to give back to the country they embrace even though, at least for now, that embrace isn’t reciprocated?
Aguilar has crafted a life of community. He remains an inspiration and a willing public speaker to kids at Encina High School and other local schools. In January, Pelle took Aguilar on a kind of speaking tour and was moved by his ability to connect with young people. “He’s a professional soccer player and would look at these high school kids and say, ‘Five years ago, I was where you are now.’ It was powerful.”
With his finance degree and pro-soccer status, Aguilar has the intellect to be a high-wage earner. Last April, he married his college sweetheart, Erin Ah Choy, who now works for a U.S. senator in Washington, D.C. Until recently, Aguilar played for D.C. United. His application for a green card is ongoing. But will he get it under a new presidential administration emphasizing immigration control and enforcement?
“I want Miguel to be in a position of showing everyone what America has to offer if you are willing to make sacrifices,” Pelle said.
A dutiful son, a high-school hero, a college graduate, a professional athlete, a husband, an ambitious young man. Is there a place in America for people like this? Or should they be disqualified by the desperate choices that defined their flights to America?
In public comments, Trump has expressed sympathy for DACA kids and the idea of allowing some or all to remain in the U.S. But Trump hasn’t ruled out abolishing DACA, a reality that’s inspired misgivings among young people who have only known a country where they have no permanent legal status due to profound decisions made for them by the adults in their lives.
“You can’t bundle groups of people together,” Aguilar said. “There should be a process where you separate (legal status in the U.S.) between those who deserve it and those who don’t.”
Until the green card arrives, it’s an open question whether Aguilar will get to stay in the country he loves or not.