Undocumented Chattanooga student wins almost $300,000 in college scholarships

David Rodriguez

There are people who need somebody to hate in order to unite. They hate blacks or the Irish or Jews or Catholics. Now they hate Hispanics.

Note to readers

The young man profiled here asked that certain details of his life not be divulged to protect his parent’s privacy. His parents are hoping there will be a path to citizenship or legal residency. For example, he asked that his high school remain unnamed but the Times Free Press was able to verify his GPA and other facts he shared in this story. His middle name was used rather than his first name.

David Rodriguez made excellent grades in eighth grade despite being bullied constantly. Being one of the few Latinos in his class in the Hamilton County as well as his love of playing the flute and piccolo made him a target.

"I would stay up until 2 a.m., working on math homework or essays because getting a score of 99 was not good enough; I wanted a perfect 100," recalls David now 18. "I wanted to make straight A's, win a college scholarship, earn a law degree, then come back to Chattanooga. I dreamed I could be America's first Latino president."

But when he turned 13, his parents told him a secret so deep and dark, friends and coworkers did not know it.

His parents had been educated professionals in Mexico. But Mexico was so battered by drug and gang violence, they knew their son might never have a safe life or a secure future. Criminal gangs had become so vicious, they kidnapped children of impoverished street vendors for $100 ransoms.

David's parents made an epic gamble. Chattanooga friends could help them find factory jobs that paid $10 hourly. So they packed water and supplies and trudged across 200 miles of desert, dodging outlaws and border cops. David was just 5. They carried him when he was too tired to take another step. His parents walked across the border and into new lives in the United States of America.

Now, 13 years later, David graduated from a local high school with a 4.0 GPA and is enrolled in the prestigious University of Chicago to be a human rights lawyer. He wants to fight discrimination against poor people of all races, women, the disabled, elderly and LGBT.

This spring, he won $290,872 in scholarships to the university, whose alumni include astronomers Edwin Hubble and Carl Sagan, Supreme Court Justice John Stevens and film critic Roger Ebert. David's friends are promoting a GoFundMe page with a $2,500 goal for miscellaneous items like his first pair of winter boots.

David can stay in America and apply for certain college scholarships due to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy enacted by President Barack Obama. DACA status requires the applicant be in school or have earned a diploma, GED or a military honorable discharge. A person must have "good moral character" to qualify for DACA, meaning he or she has no felony conviction, has never been convicted of three misdemeanors or DUI.

David met all the requirements. But GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to revoke DACA, and other politicians are pushing for deportation of illegal immigrants. If that happens, David's dream might be denied.


Americans often ask why foreigners fleeing wars don't apply for political asylum in America. The answer is simple. U.S. asylum law protects only people who flee persecution for race, religion, nationality (for example, the Chinese in Uganda persecuted by former dictator Idi Amin), political opinion or membership in a social group, including females escaping gender-based violence (like genital mutilation) and LGBT individuals.

David's parents declined to be quoted for this story, but they let David talk because they hoped their situation may help Chattanoogans see new perspectives of the immigration issue. And they are proud of their son's varied talents.

"I loved being in plays," he grins, looking at a photo of himself as Potiphar with gold-dusted hair in "Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

"I became active in Black Lives Matter two years ago, became an LGBT rights activist, campaigned for Bernie Sanders," he says. "I had the GPA, test scores and activities that could get me into a good college."

Children of undocumented workers must pay out-of-state tuition even if they have lived in Tennessee for years, which made Chattanooga State Community College unaffordable for David. DACA allowed him to apply for financial aid at other colleges.

Getting help

Chattanooga nonprofit La Paz helped David understand DACA.

"DACA allows them to get drivers' licenses, Social Security cards and work permit that must be renewed every two years," said La Paz Community Engagement Director Patrick Miles. "DACA's logic is that a child should not be penalized because his family brought him here without documentation. A child has no say in how the family entered America."

These children were nicknamed Dreamers after the 2001 bipartisan DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Dreamers can remain here on renewable visas if they meet criteria including good moral character and passing criminal background checks. David is a Dreamer.

But the DREAM Act never became law. And 26 states - including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama - have filed lawsuits challenging DACA. In 2015, a federal judge in Texas delayed expansion of DACA, but the ruling didn't affect the original policy. The judge's decision was appealed. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on the appeal, which let the Texas decision stand. The Obama administration asked the court to reconsider the Texas decision when a ninth justice is appointed to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, called DACA unconstitutional and said, "King Obama's amnesty is turning America into a lawless open borders society."

Actually, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush used "family unity executive actions" to protect offspring of undocumented immigrants - and sometimes even the parents. The presidents approached the issue differently but shared one premise. Children do not create their illegal immigrant status and should not be punished with deportation.

Three prominent Tennessee Republicans supported a recent bill that would have allowed about 7,700 Tennessee Dreamers who met certain criteria to pay in-state college tuition. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced the bill in the state Senate last year; Gov. Bill Haslam supported it.

"I did it because it's the fair and just thing to do, and I believe these kids will have a huge beneficial impact on Tennessee's economy if they go to college here," Gardenhire says. "They are among the best and brightest, and we're losing a young man like (David) to a college in another state. They're great students, perfect citizens and pay the same sales taxes the rest of us do."

Gardenhire knew half his GOP colleagues opposed the bill when he introduced it to the Senate last year.

"I did a lot of pleading and convincing; the bill passed with two-thirds of the vote," Gardenhire says.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, introduced the bill in the state House - where it failed by one vote this April.

"It was a very ugly fight," Gardenhire says, sounding both weary and angry. "I was very close to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, classic conservatives who wanted an inclusive Republican party. That's the camp I'm in. But there are people who need somebody to hate in order to unite. They hate blacks or the Irish or Jews or Catholics. Now they hate Hispanics."

When questioned about DACA in the past, Trump said he would deport DACA students and their parents, a viewpoint wildly different from previous Republican presidents.

"The focal points of immigration policy have been keep the immigrant family together whether documented or not and keep asylum and humanitarian concerns a priority," Chattanooga immigration attorney Terry Olsen says.

"Agents deport convicted felons, anyone convicted of DUI and anyone convicted of two or more significant misdemeanors like shoplifting. That has been the priority for decades. They normally don't go after undocumented workers just trying to live a good life. ICE and other federal agencies get memos from acting directors that explain how the president and attorney general interpret the law and how to apply it."

When asked whether Trump's policy would deport students like David, Trump Campaign National Communications Director Hope Hicks replied by email:

"DACA is a government benefits program that unilaterally extends work permits, Social Security, Medicare and cash tax benefits to people illegally in the country. Mr. Trump has been clear that any immigration plan he supports must improve jobs and wages for Americans, including the tens of millions of Americans out of work."

The answer seems somewhat muddled since DACA does not give cash tax benefits to anyone. Trump clearly opposes DACA and he voices a common concern that undocumented workers take jobs from Americans.

But Olsen believes DACA students can help the U.S. economy boom. DACA students have chosen an array of demanding majors - engineering, pre-med, marine biology, architecture, accounting, robotics. One California Dreamer who toiled in strawberry fields with his parents under a broiling sun won a full ride to Harvard University. He hopes his biochemistry studies can help him discover a cure for leukemia.

"These kids will go to careers generating jobs and launching scientific advances," Olsen says. "Can America really afford to throw that much intellectual capital away?"

Another gamble

In the card game of Hearts, there's a desperate, risky move called Shooting the Moon in which a losing player can reverse all his bad luck. The player must collect all the deck's penalty cards in just one deal of the hand, which clears away all points stacked against him. Suddenly he can win.

David's parents were shooting the moon when they bet he could contribute so much to his new homeland, their illegal entry would one day be forgiven and they could all win a path to citizenship.

"I feel American in my soul, heart and ideals," David says. "I love Chattanooga and want to come back here, pass the citizenship test and bar exam and help my hometown as a lawyer."

He grins broadly.

"I love politics. I was in a high school program where students play state legislators, write mock bills and try to pass laws. I want to run for U.S. Senate."

He pauses then adds wistfully, "Because I wasn't American-born, I can never be president. But I can be a good American."

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or ledwards@timesfreepress.com.