Classics Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 discussed his book on the lives of immigrants in the United States in a lecture Thursday.
Although Peralta’s memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, ends shortly after his graduation, he said that his struggle with American immigration authorities continues today. In a talk at Labyrinth Books on Oct. 6, Peralta said he wanted people to be supportive of immigrants in the United States.
Peralta’s did not seek to summarize his 2015 book, nor did he try to promote an explicitly political message. However, he did implore the audience to “go and talk to people who violently disagree with [them];” citing the statistic that only one in four Americans had experienced a major political disagreement with a member of their family in the past year. He said that too often, “we segregate ourselves into like-minded communities.”
Rather, Peralta talked about his ongoing fight to establish permanent residency. Since his graduation, he said he has obtained numerous visas — an H-1B to complete a research project at the University following his graduate studies at Oxford, an F1 to complete a Ph.D. at Stanford, a one-year work extension to teach at Columbia — and so on, a process only complicated by his 2015 marriage to Missy Szladek, which has necessitated waiting in a backed-up applicant pool for his residency to finally be approved. Peralta said that the “jargon [of the immigration paperwork] becomes internalized,” making it even more difficult to understand the process from the outside.
Peralta said it's difficult to speak about the immigrant experience and that it is “hard to give expression of the many complexities of [the United States] system,” which he also described as “traumatic” and “unjust.” He said it's important that those who experienced the process don't develop “amnesia” about the difficulties they have faced, as “it is attention to details that matter” in helping the “one-dimensional” nature of contemporary immigration discourse to evolve, even though, as he admitted, some experiences are “difficult to relive.”
Peralta said he is also acutely aware of the “technologies of denigration” used to dehumanize and silence immigrant voices. Toward the end of his address, he spoke of the previous morning, when he had fielded an early call from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in which he had been instructed to “stop talking and only answer yes or no” to the questions he was posed.
He added that he thinks there has always been a connection between his own story and those of the Greeks and Romans. He first became enamored with them in the library of a homeless shelter where he stayed, and now through the University’s classics department. In the spring semester, he hopes to further connect the concerns of citizenship and identity he presented in Undocumented with a course on citizenship in the Classical world, which will be open to undergraduates.
After Peralta's address, John Heilner, chair of the Immigration Committee of the Princeton Human Services Commission,invited attendees to support the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), which is a local organization that works with undocumented immigrants in Central New Jersey.
Heilner invited attendees to sign up for volunteer positions with the organization, which seeks to “fill gaps that undocumented people . . . have trouble filling,” from resources for LGBT immigrants to domestic violence counselors to reputable lawyers who will assist with the immigration process. Although the organization is based in Trenton, they have an active Princeton branch, providing support to twenty unaccompanied immigrants who currently attend Princeton High School, according to Heilner.
LALDEF actively focuses on education through “Futuro” a program that offers college counseling to immigrant students in Mercer County.
Throughout his speech, Peralta noted the many identities people assign him, including “Black man,” “Hispanic man,” “undocumented immigrant,” and “Classicist.” When asked if he felt like an American, he said that he considered himself obligated to serve the community in which he lives, but that he finds it “hard to be part of a community that [continually] excludes [him].” Instead, he said he considers himself a “global citizen,” remarking that, although he recognizes the value of his various identities, he “[doesn’t] want one label to confine [him].”