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His Parents Were Deported Two Weeks Before College, Now He’s A UC San Diego Graduate

Leon Sanchez Reyes poses for a photo in his cap and gown at UC San Diego, Jun...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Leon Sanchez Reyes poses for a photo in his cap and gown at UC San Diego, June 15, 2018.

Leon Sanchez Reyes is one of an untold number of students who straddle the U.S.-Mexico border — caught between two worlds amid stepped-up immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump and, before him, President Barack Obama.

Two weeks before starting school at UC San Diego, Leon Sanchez Reyes got a call from his dad.

“He says, ‘Hey, come to me where I’m at, because they got me,’” Sanchez Reyes remembered. “My only (thought) was it was a cop. Like, he got pulled over, maybe for a broken tail light, any small reason.”

But when he arrived, there were no police cars, just two black SUVs and an officer walking toward him.

“And on his chest, he had three bold letters — ICE,” Sanchez Reyes said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was deporting both of Sanchez Reyes’ parents. They had been deported once before but crossed back into the United States illegally so their four children could continue to build a life in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.

“I knew from that moment that there was a high chance that I wasn’t even going to go to school,” Sanchez Reyes said. “I just sat there in the truck thinking, just trying to get everything to sink in. And out of frustration, anger built up and I punched the windshield and it cracked.”

Last weekend, four years after his parents were deported, Sanchez Reyes was one of about 7,500 students who donned caps and gowns to accept their diplomas from UC San Diego. He’s also one of an untold number of students who straddle the U.S.-Mexico border — caught between two worlds amid stepped-up immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump and, before him, President Barack Obama.

About half of all children in California have at least one immigrant parent, according to the U.S. Census. It’s unclear how many of those parents are living in the country illegally and could be deported.

But educators reported in a recent survey that anxiety over immigration enforcement is bleeding into their classrooms. And the region’s schools and universities have mobilized to support these students, passing resolutions, joining lawsuits against Trump administration policies and establishing legal funds to help students.

RELATED: San Diego Schools Double Down On Assurances For Students Following DACA Decision

Despite his success, Sanchez Reyes' experience offers a glimpse into the challenges students impacted by immigration enforcement face.

In the weeks between his parents’ deportation and the start of school, Sanchez Reyes took over his dad’s landscaping business, the only source of income for his family.

“The day I moved (into the dormitory) I had to work. I think I was cutting down a tree, and I still had to go to the dump,” he said. “I remember I put all my stuff — my suitcase, my bed covers, my pillows — all inside the truck and I came here and parked. And it was the only one that had trash in it.”

“I had a roommate that had both parents, they helped move everything, and it was kind of an odd feeling because I knew my parents couldn’t be here,” he said. “If they were here they would help me get everything sorted out, but I was just solo.”

That first year, Sanchez Reyes made few friends. Between classes, he would pick up landscaping jobs.

Photo by Megan Burks

A UC San Diego graduate wears a cap that reads "Daughter of immigrants" in Spanish, June 15, 2018.

“At times I would put my mower inside my dorm, my chainsaw, my weed whacker,” he said. “And my roommates would just stare at me.”

His second year, he decided to commute with his siblings from his family’s new home in Mexico. His older sister was attending Mesa College and his two younger brothers were still attending school in the United States.

“My morning starts at 3 or 3:30 a.m. We wake up, put our stuff together and start driving,” Sanchez Reyes said. “From Rosarito to the border is a 20-minute drive, maybe. Depending on the day, we would wait up to two hours just to cross.”

He said he used that time to study flashcards.

“If I had long breaks between class, I would have my sister pick me up and we’d go work any houses that were nearby,” Sanchez Reyes said. “Then I’d go to class (again), even if I was all dirty. There were times when I would be dripping with sweat or covered in dirt or grass clippings.”

Sanchez Reyes said he persisted because he wanted to set an example for his brothers.

“I knew that if I were to give up, what message would that send to them?” he said. “Thankfully, 2018 is a great year because I’m graduating from UCSD, my sister just graduated with an associate’s degree from Mesa College, my younger brother graduated with honors from high school and my younger brother is graduating from eighth grade.

“So it’s a strong message that we send: that despite our parents not being here, we’re doing this for them and ourselves, that despite all these challenges and unfortunate events, we’re not letting it get to us.”

Sanchez Reyes majored in cognitive science and has secured a job as a behavioral therapist for children with autism. But he isn’t giving up the landscaping business. He said it’s the remaining piece of his parents on this side of the border.

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