Libia Gil: My Parents Provided Limitless Possibilities through Education

June is Immigrant Heritage Month. In recognition of the diverse linguistic and cultural assets of immigrants and the value they have brought and continue to bring to the United States, the Department of Education will share the immigration stories of its staff throughout the month of June. 

Libia Gil, Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education

Libia Gil, Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education

My family intentionally uprooted its home to pursue a better life in America, the land of immigrants and unlimited opportunities. We entered the country as Costa Rican citizens through the port of entry in Los Angeles, California. My family is multiracial and multilingual and we spent our early years living in various regions of China, my mother’s homeland, and San Jose, Costa Rica where my father’s family resides. I started my formal education in Hong Kong during the British Colonial period and subsequently attended a private school in Tainan, Taiwan operated by Dominican Sisters from Spain who taught in English using Spanish translations for comprehension.

At the time of our arrival as visitors to the country, my mother spoke no English and my father had limited social English language so our roles reversed and I accepted responsibility for reading documents, interpreting and making decisions for all medical, educational and business transactions including the purchase of a car and house. Up until that point, my experiences with day-to-day transportation were limited to scooters and pedi-cabs. We had no exposure to basic activities such as shopping at a supermarket or any technological advances such as a television. Language and cultural differences limited employment access and my father struggled with two full-time manual labor jobs to support the family. Despite living in poverty, we believed that we were wealthy by definition—living in America! My sister and I were thrilled to have our makeshift bedroom in the garage.

It was a major cultural jolt to navigate a transition to a new world with a lack of context and reference points to address complex challenges and the negative experiences of an acculturation process with a shifting identity. Nonetheless, I was the first in my family of five children to enter college. I became the first in my family to enter college and finished my degree. The pursuit of a better life through education was instilled in each member of my family and I marvel with pride at the successful accomplishments of my well-educated siblings: physician; attorney/business owner; county public health director and University of California career program director.

My siblings and I are indebted to our parents who exemplify a pure selfless sacrifice to ensure that their children would have better lives. We have internalized the value of education and taken advantage of opportunities to contribute to the development and welfare of others. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to serve this administration and give back to a country that has provided limitless possibilities for my family and future generations of immigrants and their children, who will provide leadership for the common well-being of all people.

A 1940s wedding picture of Libia’s parents, Phoebe Cecilia Gil Ling and Jose Francisco Gil Jaubert.

A 1940s wedding picture of Libia’s parents, Phoebe Cecilia Gil Ling and Jose Francisco Gil Jaubert.

Libia Gil is the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.

It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, fixing our broken immigration system is a win-win. Immigration reform is not only good policy, but it is good politics, and the individuals Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and I met today near the U.S. Capitol Building reinforced the need to act.  These brave immigration reform supporters have been fasting without food since November 12, to call attention to the human suffering caused by our broken immigration system.

Fast for Families is an organization of faith-based, immigrant rights and labor leaders who came together, calling on Congress to take action toward needed, sensible immigration reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Some fasters like veteran immigration reform advocate Eliseo Medina, who after doctor’s orders ended his 22-day fast, have relayed their fast to other immigration reform supporters including members of congress. Others like Rudy Lopez, one of the fasters I met today, has completed 21 days of fasting and vows to continue to protest and fast.  “We love this country; we are proud Americans and aspiring Americas,” said Rudy.

“I want to live in a country where the words ‘justice’ and ‘opportunity’ actually mean something,” said another faster. As I was sitting there with Eliseo, Rudy and other fasters who have friends and families who would directly benefit from immigration legislation, I couldn’t help but to think about the many students across this country who inspired the drafting of the DREAM Act. They continued to share stories of hundreds of people dying in our deserts each year trying to cross the borders as undocumented immigrants.

And I was reminded about one of the most poignant days I’ve experienced in my tenure as Secretary.  In September, I spent a day in Columbus, New Mexico – situated right on our border with Mexico. There, children born in an American hospital to Mexican parents cross the border every day to go to school, sometimes rising before dawn to make sure they arrive to class on time.

The Columbus community has welcomed them for more than 60 years, and despite the journey those American children have to take every day, Columbus Elementary School has near-perfect attendance. Much like the fasters I met today, I saw in both the students and educators in Columbus that same dedication and that profound understanding of the importance of educational opportunity. It is something I will never forget.

If lawmakers in Washington took some time to visit the Fast for Families tent or the Columbus, New Mexico, community, I have no doubt that partisan politics regarding this particular issue would dissolve. We need legislators to work together to reform immigration, so families who just want to have a better life and contribute to America’s economy can do so, together.

The Obama Administration remains committed to working hard to achieve commonsense immigration reform. We have already taken unprecedented efforts to transform the immigration enforcement system into one that focuses on public safety, border security and the integrity of our immigration system through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But we know that DACA doesn’t reach everyone; the only permanent solution is for Congress to pass immigration legislation.

I am very inspired by the commitment and passion of these fasters and the Fast for Families’ goal to continue this hard work until comprehensive immigration reform is indeed a reality. I also remain encouraged by the undocumented students I have met – many of whom have been in this country since they were young children and consider America their home – who just want the opportunity to go to college or serve in the armed forces.

I join the fasters in a call to Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform. I hope that their mission can be fueled by the words of Nelson Mandela, an exemplary leader so present in my mind today: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Once Undocumented, Now an Immigrant Advocate

Cross-posted from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

As a first-generation American whose own family emigrated from the Philippines, I always relish the opportunity to hear personal stories of immigration. As Filipino American History Month comes to a close, I want to share a story from Angelo Mathay, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law fellow at the National Immigration Law Center. This past summer, Angelo shared his immigration experience during an immigration reform briefing at the Department of Education. The story that Angelo shared is one that reminds me that while we all have our different backgrounds, our stories hold a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and voices from which we can all learn.

Before practicing immigration law and becoming a key advocate for social justice and equality, Angelo was born in the Philippines and when he was six, he and his mother set out to find a better life in the United States.

The next thirteen years were unrelentingly harsh for Angelo. He and his mother, who overstayed their tourist visas, found themselves moving frequently between apartments in California’s Daly City, a major Filipino American community. While his mother worked tirelessly day after day, Angelo struggled with English in school as early as second grade. He recalled at the briefing in June, “I would heat up leftovers my mother had set aside for my dinner and wait for her return.  And when she arrived, my mother always made sure I had completed my arithmetic, reading, and writing homework.  She knew how valuable an American education would be to provide a better future for us both.” Despite their everyday obstacles, they never let go of their dream to “render [their] presence in the country a legal right, not a fleeting reality.”

With hard work and perseverance, Angelo took on the challenge of pursuing higher education. He explained, “Though I lacked a social security number to obtain loans and scholarships, thanks to California Assembly Bill 540 — signed into law just before my freshman year — I was able to qualify for in-state tuition and attend UCLA.”  Finally, at the age of 19, Angelo was able to become a naturalized citizen thanks to a petition by his new stepfather.

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AAPI DREAM Riders Inspire

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of young people who are mounting an inspiring fight to overcome barriers and make this country stronger. They are called the DREAM Riders, and they are taking their vital message to the entire country.

Duncan meets with DREAM RidersThe DREAM Riders are a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) who have been granted deferred action through the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. What that means is that, for certain young people who came to the United States as children, the government has deferred action that would remove them from the country, and given them authorization for employment.

These young people, along with student supporters, are kicking off the DREAM Riders Tour. This tour will take them all over the country with stops in Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and California, among others. The group plans to rally local AAPI youth and students around the need for Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform and lay the foundation for relationships and future collaboration with local organizations and leaders.

I was inspired by the stories of the DREAM Riders and their friends and family— stories often rooted in hardship and heartbreak as their parents strive to make ends meet — stories of success and struggle as they try to obtain the best education that our country has to offer.

The DREAM Riders and I discussed the significance of a meaningful pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented individuals and our collective efforts to ensure passage of commonsense immigration reform.  The Senate has passed this legislation in a strong bipartisan vote for legislation in the Senate, but the House of Representatives has not yet taken action.

AAPI communities and families have a huge stake in this debate. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 1.1 million individuals of Asian descent are undocumented. According to the Department of State, approximately 2 million individuals of Asian descent are currently waiting abroad to reunite with their families in America.

The future of our country and our economy brightens tremendously under the provisions of this legislation. Earlier this month, the White House released a report highlighting the numerous and varied economic benefits of fixing our broken immigration system, including helping to grow our economy by creating new business and jobs. And according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill will increase the nation’s GDP 3.3 percent by 2023 and 5.4 percent by 2033.  We should not underestimate the economic value of hard-working AAPI immigrant and refugee families: many AAPI immigrants start their journey in the United States as small business owners, investors, and entrepreneurs.

The efforts of these AAPI DREAM Riders will significantly impact younger generations in their communities. I wish these young advocates the best of luck on their upcoming tour and commend their efforts to ensure that the collective voices of their communities are heard.

Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education