Leo Prieto remembers his own cries, inconsolable wails, for his mother.
His tears, his fear that day as a 3-year-old toddler, are among his first strong memories. He’d woken up and discovered that a stranger, a woman, was holding him.
He later learned the truth. He’d been carried across the U.S.-Mexican border by a coyote, a smuggler his father had hired to bring his only son and wife safely into the United States. To elude detection by border agents, his mother had taken another route — the one that is fabled in lore and derided by the ugly slur of wetback. She waded across the Rio Grande.
In May, Prieto stunned his audience while receiving a community service award by launching into the story, admitting that he was once an undocumented immigrant.
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At 38, the timing was right. Prieto is successful. He felt secure, surrounded that night by family and many friends. Only a few knew the full story. Most listened in shock.
The sharp suits, Prieto’s unaccented English, his law degree, his previous work developing corporate partnerships with the administrative offices of the Kansas City Wizards (the predecessor of Sporting KC) and his present job in community engagement at Truman Medical Centers. None of it fit with the idea that the man before them had started out life with such a scarlet letter.
Welcome to America, our wonderfully complicated nation of immigrants.
Leo Prieto is the perfect reply to the bleating of ignorance wafting from wannabe presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump has garnered far too much attention lately for braying about undocumented immigrants being criminals, rapists and worse.
Trump is wrong on the contention. Repeated studies have found that U.S.-born citizens are far more likely than immigrants to commit violent crimes. But there is little use in arguing with someone like Trump, so willing to pimp himself out for publicity.
And Prieto has far too much else on his plate anyway. He’ll be a busy man the next few days as the National Council of La Raza holds its annual conference in Kansas City.
He’d rather show what immigrants can offer this country, his country. He’s a U.S. citizen now.
And he’s all about the vote, actively involved in politics and encouraging the Latino vote.
Besides that, there is always the wisdom of his father, who counseled his son: “Don’t use your hands, use your head.”
He’s done it, in spades. He earned an undergraduate degree from Kansas State University and his law degree from the University of Kansas.
He was a public policy fellow with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., working at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Then he was a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, shaping national immigration, education and health policy.
For Truman, as the medical center’s director of community outreach, he has spoken at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
The distinction that Prieto recently received is called the Ohtli Award, given each year by the Mexican government to honor individuals who have worked outside of Mexico with Hispanics. Prieto worked in an advisory role to the consul.
“Every time I walk into the consulate office and I see the lines of the people, that was me, those are my parents.”
A long journey
In many ways, the Prieto family’s migration from Mexico is typical, for immigrants now and those of past generations. They didn’t plan on staying. His father followed his brothers northward. He sought work, as the family subsisted on farming in a small town in the state of Chihuahua.
But after the father had been here about a year, the separation became too much. He sent for his wife and son, probably paying about $500 for both to be guided across. The rates are in the thousands of dollars now and it is a much more dangerous venture. Drug cartels have taken over the routes.
For the Prietos, Garden City, Kan., became home. An uncle on his mother’s side had found work there in agriculture. But it was a tenuous existence because of the family’s lack of legal status.
“We didn’t go out much,” Prieto said. “We just minded our own business.”
He remembers the fears of his father, hiding whenever there were reports of vans of immigration patrols. His father found work making fiberglass tanks, a job he’s held for more than three decades.
Why they didn’t initially arrive legally? Contrary to popular misconception, legal status isn’t always a matter of getting in a line and paying a fee. For many lower-skilled people, there is no line to get into, no fee to pay. That has to do with the need for visa systems that are more reflective of the economy’s labor needs.
Despite constant calls for boots on the ground to secure the border, in reality, much illegal immigration could be curbed by simply allowing workers a legal way to enter the country. Our visa system fails horribly in that regard.
But by the time Prieto was in the middle of his elementary school years, then-president Ronald Reagan enacted an amnesty program. The family quickly applied. They became legal permanent residents. Prieto’s three younger siblings were born by then, all U.S. citizens.
By high school, he was a straight-A student, the student body president and an award-winning scholar/athlete. When he began to apply to colleges, teachers and staff were shocked to learn that he was a permanent resident, but not a U.S. citizen. It limited the options of their prized student. He couldn’t qualify for some loans and scholarships.
At their urging, he began the process to naturalize. He skipped a leadership class one day during his freshman year at Kansas State, traveling to Wichita for his naturalization ceremony.
Now his high school experiences have become pillars, the guiding lights of academics, sports, cultural awareness and community service.
“We have too many people here,” he said of the Latino population, “not to take it to the next level.”
By that, he means encouraging citizenship and voting. And for immigrants to engage at all levels, making the most of the educational and other opportunities available in this country.
Not doing so is not an option. It shouldn’t be for anyone living in this country.
But Prieto is an immigrant. He has the memories of his beginnings in the United States, and they are not easily dismissed. He’s forever mindful that his father and mother risked everything to give the family a better life.
“If anything,” he said, “it’s out of respect for my family.”