Imagine being wrapped up in a wool blanket, thrust into a hidden compartment inside of a car, seeing nothing but darkness and having no idea what is going on.
That is the scenario that USF alumnus Carlos Estrada, 25, found himself in when he and his mother traveled north across the Mexico–United States border in 1996.
It was this first trip across the border that began Estrada’s long path to obtaining his U.S. citizenship.
Estrada was only 4 years old when his mother decided to get in touch with members of the family who lived in the United States legally and asked for their assistance.
He explained that during this time frame, applying for citizenship started to get more difficult. President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which put restrictions on immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally.
“It was a stressful environment. I remember my mom and our driver trying to make sure that we didn’t get caught,” Estrada said. “It was really scary.”
To make sure that he was calm and not scared, his mother told him the escape was a game. She told him to be as quiet as possible. At some point during the ride, Estrada fell asleep and when he woke up they were already in Texas and on their way to Tampa.
Estrada and his mother stayed with distant relatives. The relatives let Estrada, his mother and sister, who was born in the U.S. after Estrada and his mother crossed the border, stay in a spare room at their house.
“My mom worked three jobs to help us survive,” Estrada said. “One of them was cleaning toilets, so she started from the very bottom.”
Eventually, Estrada said, he and his family began to make ends meet. They got their own apartment. Estrada said that his mother began making good money by working as a hair stylist. Estrada was also finally able to attend school.
Life took a turn when Estrada graduated high school. He had to return to Mexico since he was still living in the United States without legal permission. His mother, who had become legalized through marriage, stayed behind.
“After I graduated, I was at the end of the line on what I could legally do,” Estrada said. “I had no papers and no Social Security. I was stuck and I didn’t have a choice. I needed to do things the right way.”
Estrada said that it took him about a year to get everything ready and thousands of dollars in attorney fees to be able to appeal to the legal system and apply for citizenship. Estrada also had help from his mother’s husband, who was a legal Mexican immigrant.
“My grades also helped during the appeal process,” said Estrada. “All throughout high school, I was a straight-A student. I always tried super hard and never got in trouble.”
Estrada immediately returned to Tampa once the court granted him entry to the United States as a legal citizen. He received his full citizenship in 2016.
He applied to college and began his new life as a U.S. citizen. Estrada attended Hillsborough Community College and then transferred to the University of South Florida where he majored in mass communications with a concentration in advertising.
“I admire the fact that he was able to turn his life around, even though it seemed like the world was against him,” said Jamie Norman, a friend of Estrada’s. “No matter what happened, he didn’t give up.”
To keep himself financially afloat, Estrada worked many odd jobs that ranged from acting to plumbing and even to some real estate. He interned at various businesses and participated in school programs such as the Most Promising Multicultural Student, a program that helps multicultural college seniors connect with the advertising industry. The program even allowed him to travel to California for a company visit.
“I got the opportunity to go to Google,” Estrada said. “I never thought I would get to go there. That was so cool.”
After graduating from USF in spring of 2017, Estrada got a job offer from Green Team Global, an advertising agency in New York City. He is set to move to Brooklyn and take the position at the firm within the next month.
“Hopefully everything actually works out,” Estrada said. “I’m so excited.”