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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: His status is illegal, but not his quest

— At the boundless age of 24, Jose Gil Amateco is, already, many things: College graduate, political activist, mentor, self-improvement addict, witness to historic events and, not least of all, adventurer.

Also, it bears mentioning, undocumented immigrant. Or, more precisely, provisionally documented immigrant covered by DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama’s August 2012 executive order providing quasi-legal status for younger people not otherwise in the United States lawfully.

What Amateco is not, exactly, is cut-and-paste poster material for your countrymen who rest their arguments regarding immigration reform on an unassailable notion that children brought to America by their parents ought not have to bear the burden of their elders’ trespasses. It’s there the Amateco story departs from the ideal.

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Yes, he arrived as a youngster; about that there is no dispute. But Amateco readily, if sheepishly, concedes it was not his parents’ doing.

When they’d sneaked into the country and settled into lives of calculated desperation in Dade City, it was a comfort to know their three children — two sons and a daughter — were safe in the care of relatives back home in the mountains of Guerrero in southwest Mexico.

“My parents said, ‘Don’t come. It is dangerous.’ ”

At 15, their first-born weighed his options. He’d finished middle school and was eyeing a future his great-great grandfather would have recognized, one spent in the fields and the orchards. “When everyone is the same, you don’t see poverty,” Amateco says. “If every house is made of sticks, that’s normal.”

He’d been down to the big city, however, and he came to understand what it means to be poor. The knowledge made him restless, susceptible to rumors that wafted like dreams up the mountain, tales of indescribable opportunity in the land beyond the Rio Grande. So it was, in the summer of 2005, he and an uncle borrowed money from relatives and boarded a bus for the long ride north to Juarez.

Under a blanket of west Texas stars, they swam the big river, hopped a west-bound freight train out of El Paso, then flew from Las Vegas to Tampa to be reunited with his parents, his landing buffeted by rain bands from Hurricane Katrina.

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Within days, Amateco joined the freshman class at Wesley Chapel High, where he ruefully discovered what little English he’d learned in middle school eluded him. “If you don’t use your English,” he says, “you lose your English.”

But math is a universal language, and Amateco was good at numbers. Science, too, he found easily translatable. To help his English, he read, motivational and self-help books mostly. What he hoped for himself, he says, others already have achieved, “and they put it in books.”

Lately he’s been reading “The Alchemist,” the parable of an Andalusian shepherd inspired by a recurring dream to seek, despite hardships, distractions and doubters, his “Personal Legend,” an odyssey that, for Amateco, rings with familiarity.

Like the book’s protagonist, Amateco believes he is on a quest. Here, having chosen for himself, is Jeb Bush’s “act of love” personified. And there he was, days from accepting a degree in biology through Saint Leo University’s program for the undocumented, in the gallery of the state Senate and House of Representatives, watching through tears of joy as legislators passed a bill extending in-state tuition to the children of immigrants here illegally.

“History was made in Florida,” he says, “and I was there to see it.”

Now, who knows? He has thoughts of being a nurse, or a physician’s assistant. Come fall, Amateco will volunteer at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. But he’s also discovered an appetite for politics, not a bad choice for the passionately self-motivated. For the moment, however, the adventurer is planning a summer-long bicycle tour of this great country he’s adopted, one that ever-so-grudgingly is starting to adopt him back.

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