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From Living ‘Without Papers’ to a Classics Ph.D.

Richard Drew/AP Images

During his senior year at Princeton, Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 revealed the secret that he had hidden for much of his life — he was an undocumented immigrant. He was brought to the United States from the Dominican Republic by his family at the age of 4. His mother overstayed her tourist visa, and she and her two sons remained in New York City without papers, staying in homeless shelters and eventually moving to subsidized housing. The young Dan-el loved to learn and rescued books from trash cans. A volunteer at a homeless shelter who saw him reading a book about Napoleon helped him gain admission to the elite Collegiate School. From there, he came to Princeton.

After winning the Sachs Scholarship to study classics at Oxford, Padilla revealed his situation on a Princeton email listserv, in The Wall Street Journal, and in PAW: If he left for Oxford, he might not be able to return for a decade because of his immigration status.

The author describes his immigration struggle and his lifelong passion for studying the classics in Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Padilla describes how for years he had deflected questions from Princeton friends about his background, fearing his status would be revealed. “I was always ready with some evasive answer,” he writes. The book’s central theme is his fight to gain legal status, but Padilla is rarely overtly political.

When he left to study at Oxford, his case remained unresolved, though an immigration attorney he’d met through then-Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel was helping him, and his case was on the radar of several top government officials. (When Padilla met Bill Clinton at Class Day, the former president said his wife, Hillary, had briefed him on his situation.) While at Oxford he received a visa, enabling him to enroll at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in classics. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia, he’ll return to Old Nassau next summer as an assistant professor in classics.

His book comes during a period of heated debate about immigration in the presidential campaign. “It’s unavoidable that the text will be politicized,” Padilla says. He hopes the book will prompt readers to say, “We need to rethink the way we talk about immigration.”

What he’s reading: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “It’s not only great in its coverage of issues that are very salient to me, but a model of how to think critically about race in 21st-century America — and also how to think critically about its historical context.”

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