DURHAM — Cruz Nunez was 4 years old. He only remembers being packed like sardines in a van and crossing a river in a tire.
His family left Mexico to create a new life in Carrboro, N.C.
When Nunez was in high school, he played football, went to church and applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. He soon realized his opportunities to go to college were limited, because he was undocumented.
“I was just another student,” Nunez said. “I was just like everyone else, but then my junior year of high school I found out being undocumented actually meant that you had to pay out-of-state tuition, and it was going to be harder to make it to college and actually graduate because of the barriers.”
Nunez is one of the 44,932 people in the state who is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program implemented by President Barack Obama to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.
Nunez, 20, ended up at Durham Tech. He saw an email from Code the Dream, a nonprofit based in Durham that teaches people ages 18 to 25 from minority and immigrant backgrounds how to code, which is funded by individual donors. He immediately signed up.
Nunez passed the program and continued to code. He created a website, WhereWeDream.org, to provide a resource for immigrant students to find scholarships and colleges. He is currently working as a freelance programmer and as a teacher at Code the Dream.
“This is a great experience to be able to pay this forward,” Nunez said. “What they did for me, I can do this for others.”
Dan Rearick, the coordinator of Code the Dream, said the program can provide immigrants a way to move from a low-wage and low-skill job to a career.
“It’s about something that is fulfilling and takes advantage of their skills and talents,” Rearick said. “We want them to be able to support themselves and their families to achieve their own American Dream.”
Nunez said working as a programmer has made him feel like he’s in control, whereas college could be taken away at any moment.
“If I work as a freelancer, they’re not checking if you have a work permit,” Nunez said. “They just care if you can build this. I feel like this is my calculated risk. I’ll take this way instead of finishing that semester to get my associate’s in science.”
Rearick said he created the program to give noncitizens an opportunity at a better life.
“To me, immigrants are an amazing group of people,” Rearick said. “By definition, they all have been willing to leave everything behind, an entire life behind, and risk that all to start a new life somewhere else. That tells you both of how bad it was where they came from and the type of drive that they have once they get to the new place.”
Nunez said his family’s life is better in the United States. He sometimes worries about being deported, but otherwise feels like they are safe here.
“We’ve been here for 16 years, so I guess after 16 years you’re like invincible or like nothing is going to happen to us,” Nunez said.
Nunez described some of the sentiments of a family friend talking about the differences between citizens and noncitizens.
“She doesn’t understand that even with a Social Security number and being a citizen — having all these perks they are still at minimum wage and barely scraping by, and she’s like, ‘If we had those things, we wouldn’t have to worry so much,'” Nunez said. “In a community like mine, we appreciate it more. The people who already have it take it for granted. We see it as if we only had this our lives would be so much easier.”
He said he would like a pathway to citizenship but is coming to terms that it may never happen.
“I’ll be happy if we just stay together as a family and not get split apart,” Nunez said. “I wish I could say yeah I wish there was a big immigration reform that could lead to a path of citizenship. But the way Congress is always in gridlock. You could say I’ve kind of lost hope.”