Family Portrait: José Rafael Patiño
Posted July 2021
The first photo essay in Emerson Collective’s Family Portrait series spotlighting real families who are affected by our broken immigration system.
The original piece has since been updated.
The July 16 federal court ruling in Texas on DACA is not the first time José Rafael Patiño has seen scores of lives—including his own—stalled by America’s dysfunctional immigration system. In September 2017, the Trump administration’s pause of DACA wreaked havoc on José’s careful planning for his future. In April 2018, when the supreme court in his home state of Arizona ruled that DACA recipients were no longer eligible for instate tuition at Arizona’s public colleges and universities, he got involved in organizing for Dreamers’ access to education so other kids like him wouldn’t have to forgo theirs. Today, in the wake of the Texas court’s ruling, he is advocating for all those for whom DACA has been a source of hope.
Before 2017, José had always been the kind of person who had a five-year plan: the former teacher was going to start a non-profit to educate low-income people in the Phoenix area about personal finance—how to purchase a home, build credit, secure a loan. But suddenly, he could not plan beyond one year. Suddenly, he didn’t know whether he would be able to cheer on his three young nieces at their gymnastics meets, or watch his nephew start kindergarten.
“I had a plan and it didn’t work out,” he says. “So now I don’t plan. I educate, advocate, and save as much money as I can.”
The 2013 documentary The Dream Is Now told José's story, including the trouble he had finding a job as an undocumented grad—even as a top scholar who had earned a full ride to Arizona State University and majored in mechanical engineering. Today he holds a master’s degree and works for Aliento, a non-profit dedicated to organizing young immigrants. Since April 2018, Aliento has been leading a fight for education access for Dreamers and mixed-status families in Arizona. After hosting two annual Education Days in Phoenix and launching an inspired campaign, #EducatedAF—Educated for Arizona’s Future—Aliento was able to pass a resolution that puts tuition equity on the 2022 ballot.
His parents remain undocumented with little chance of earning citizenship in today’s political climate. His three siblings, 37, 35, and 34, are José describes the pause in DACA under Trump as “like being back in high school, before I had DACA, and not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” After the recent ruling on DACA in a federal court in Texas, that situation is once again imminent: for those who were too young to apply for DACA before the ruling, there is no insurmountable economic barriers and making education more accessible is a central tenet of José’s community advocacy.
The Patiño family — José, his siblings, and his parents— came to the United States from Mexico when José was five years old. Today they live and work in the Phoenix area. The family is loving, tight-knit, and religious. They are acutely aware of the current battle over their futures in this country.
DACA recipients as well. José calls them the “1.5” generation because they came as children, have grown up here, and have their temporary status, but cannot claim citizenship. Even if a legislative solution passes, there are stipulations in certain proposals that would never allow them to become full citizens. Due to congressional inaction on legislative immigration reform, Dreamers stay in the headlines for months but a bipartisan solution is never reached. For those who already have DACA, it is unclear how long renewals will be available to them.
But this time, instead of shifting his own plans, José is helping others fulfill theirs. The Jose Patiño Dreamer Scholarship is open to DACA recipients who graduate from his hometown school district. Kids from mixed-status families often face seemingly
Meanwhile, José’s nieces and nephews are all American citizens. The girls attend a local Catholic elementary school, and like any other kids their days are jam-packed with swimming lessons, gymnastics, soccer, and ballet. But even they are not immune to what looms over the family.
“We try not to talk about it, but the kids understand what’s going on,” he says. They cried a lot after the Supreme Court decision, and after the 2016 election. “They always make comments, specifically when my sister and brother-in-law are driving. They get tense. And if a police officer is behind them, they notice it. They ask their parents: Are the police going to come get you? If you get deported, what will happen to us?”
The truth is that no one knows. But José tries his best to remain optimistic. Where his family places strong faith in God, José hopes that those on opposite sides of the immigration dilemma can find common ground.
“My faith is with people, with actions," he says. “People have the right to seek a better life, and I hope we get to that understanding."