When Emilio Vicente, a University of North Carolina student running for student body president, was written about in the New York Times recently, he was described as a minority three times over — Latino, gay, and undocumented. And while Vicente embraces and loves his multifaceted identity, he said his candidacy was really much simpler.
"My reason for running is I have a vision for the university moving into next year," he told BuzzFeed. "My identity is part of who I am, but my goal is to represent students on this campus as a North Carolinian and as a Tar Heel."
Vicente, whose grades earned him the private scholarship he needed to attend pricey UNC as an out-of-state student, garnered 43% of the vote in a four-way race last week. That performance led to a runoff, which he lost Tuesday evening, in an election that saw record turnout.
Still, Vicente has been an immigration activist for more than six years, and he hopes national attention to his candidacy can help change the conversation around undocumented immigrants.
"I truly believe that to make an impact, we have to change the way immigrants are talked about," he said. "The word 'illegal' has a negative connotation. We're normal, just like everyone else. We share values and have the same goals; the only difference is we don't have a nine-digit Social Security number. No one chooses where they are born."
Vicente, whose mother led him under barbed wire and into Arizona when he was 6 years old, hasn't seen his parents in years. They lived in the United States and worked jobs that took a physical toll on them. They would show their blistered hands to him and say, "You don't want this."
But his parents had to leave the United States and return to Guatemala after a tragic work accident at a lumber plant in September 2001 left his father paralyzed. Vicente stayed behind to show their sacrifice hadn't been for nothing.
Remembering this story, he talked a bit about the prospect of immigration reform and what it would mean for him personally.
"It would change my life dramatically to see my parents again," he said. "My brothers are undocumented. If immigration reform passed, my brothers could visit my parents, my mother could see her niece. We could visit family and see them again. It would be overwhelming but amazing."
Cesar Vargas, a fellow DREAMer who has been immersed in the fight for immigration reform and has worked with Vicente before, talked about what the candidacy meant.
"DREAMers are as American as any other student, and we care about many issues affecting students and young people," Vargas said. "However, DREAMers have shown a unique disposition to public service that derives from our in-depth policy and political experience as undocumented advocates."
Jose Antonio Vargas, a high-profile activist who "came out" as undocumented in a 2011 Times piece and founded Define American to bring new voices into the immigration conversation, spoke about what recent attention to Vicente means as a fellow gay, undocumented man.
"Emilio has already won, as far as I'm concerned," Vargas told BuzzFeed before the results were announced. "As an openly gay, openly undocumented, Guatemalan-American, he is pushing boundaries not only at UNC but across the country."
The two advocates first met at an immigration event, and Vargas later invited Vicente to be on the Time magazine cover of undocumented immigrants with him.
"Undocumented people like Emilio — and undocumented gay Americans like Emilio — are changing the narrative of who we are as a people."
For more, check out the interview with Fusion, which spoke with him recently.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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