22 September/October 2017
This summer, José Cisneros ’ 17 left North Carolina and headed north to earn a master’s degree in education from Notre Dame.
Cisneros has a career plan: He wants to
teach for a few years after graduate school,
then make a transition to educational non-
profits or administration.
It’s been a remarkable journey for someone who almost didn’t survive gestation.
Cisneros’ mother was pregnant with him
when she was shot in the belly during a
bungled kidnapping attempt at their home
in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. For his
father, “the world just fell apart,” José says.
Two lives were in peril, their fates uncertain
— plus, there was a 2-year-old daughter to
tend to and a bakery to keep running.
Cisneros’ mother eventually did recover.
But the medical bills, along with time off for
caregiving, cost his father both the bakery
and their home. The family moved into a
two-room apartment, and his father worked
as a security guard. The pay was low; finances suffered even as he pulled 24-hour
shifts. Neither parent had finished elementary school.
“My dad had these plans for his children:
to get an education, become professionals,”
Cisneros said. Opportunity lay in North
Carolina, where two relatives worked at a
pork-processing plant. But his father wanted
to keep the family intact. “He said we’re all
going,” Cisneros says. “Or no one is.”
In 1999, when Cisneros was 5, the family
crossed the Mexico-U.S. border without
authorization — walking through the desert
at night, squeezing into cramped cars, his
mother pulling thorns from her feet, his
sister getting sick from the fast-food burg-
ers that sustained them. They settled into
Snow Hill, an eastern North Carolina town
of 1,600, greener than any place Cisneros
had ever seen. But it became evident that
his father’s paycheck didn’t stretch quite far
enough. His mother, who had hoped to
raise the children full time, instead took jobs
harvesting tobacco, sorting sweet potatoes
and arranging plants at a local nursery.
Cisneros landed at an elementary school
where he didn’t know the language. In
kindergarten, he could speak to only two
classmates, who would translate his requests
to use the restroom or call his mother. He
was held back that first year, but children
are quick learners, and by the end of first
José Cisneros ’ 17 found out in grade school that he was good enough. North Carolina
wanted him, and a South Carolina nonprofit knocked down the financial barrier.
grade he spoke fluent English. Shortly after
that, the family moved across the county
line, and he tested into his new school’s gift-
“I never realized I was smart,” he said.
Those smarts might have gotten Cisne-
Open to applicants between 15 and 30, it
ros nowhere — “deportation was always a
looming dark cloud above our home,” he
said — if not for an Obama-era directive
that allows him to study and work legally in
the U.S. In 2012, when Cisneros was in high
school, then-Secretary of Homeland Securi-
ty Janet Napolitano announced the Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
was aimed at those like Cisneros who came
to the country as children.
As one of more than 780,000 DACA recipients, Cisneros knows he’s currently protected from deportation. He also knows that
his protection, which comes in two-year
increments, can disappear at any time. On
Sept. 5, the threat became more palpable:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced