Whenever he has not been in school, junior Bill De La Rosa has used his free time to help people, from immigrants and teenagers in trouble with the law, to the sick in Sudan. While his work has affected many, De La Rosa’s overriding focus has been people living between the United States and Mexico, both undocumented immigrants in this country and people trying to cross into the States.
Part of De La Rosa’s work has been as a volunteer aid worker in the Sonoran Desert between Mexico and Arizona, where he has helped humanitarian organizations deliver food, water and medical kits to sick and disoriented migrants. At a border shelter that provides relief to people about to attempt a crossing, he has also offered educational sessions on how to prepare for the harsh and dangerous desert trek.
A Latin American studies and sociology major, De La Rosa is determined to commit his life to changing immigration policy. “I hope to join a think tank that helps legislate immigration policy, or lead an agency that can help create better, more comprehensive policies that can accommodate current times,” he said. Eventually he might consider running for office, he added.
Honoring De La Rosa’s drive and focus, the Harry S. Truman Foundation has awarded the junior with a $30,000 scholarship for graduate school, and the support of its well-connected network of professionals and peers. The Truman Foundation also provides a stipend for a one-year internship with a government agency following graduation.
In addition to this award, De La Rosa — valedictorian of his high school class — is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, and a Michael and Susan Dell Scholar. In 2013 he was the youngest member selected to participate in Stanford University’s Forum for Cooperation, Understanding and Solidarity, which promotes better U.S.-Mexico relations.De La Rosa has experienced first-hand how immigration laws can disrupt and traumatize a family. When he was 15 and living with his father, mother, two brothers and sister in Tucson, Ariz., his mother, who had been working as a hotel maid, attempted to gain citizenship. Her children — ages 4, 9, 15 and 17 — were all citizens, and so was her Mexican-born husband. But when she crossed the border into Mexico to start her naturalization process, she was rejected and told she could not return to the U.S. for 10 years.
The reason was because she had entered the U.S. unlawfully and had stayed in the country for longer than 12 months without papers, De La Rosa explained. When he said goodbye to his mother six years ago, he never dreamed he would not see her again shortly. His father, who is at the time was 76, was very sick, and she had four dependent children. Her youngest was four years old. “I thought she would be pardoned and given a green card,” De La Rosa recalled.
Without their mother, the De La Rosa children had to take care of their father and one another. De La Rosa’s older brother joined the U.S. Marine Corps to support the family. When De La Rosa left for Bowdoin, he reached out to churches in his area to see if they would look out for his two younger siblings and his father.After this experience, De La Rosa said he “dove into trying to understand immigration law.” He shadowed immigration lawyers, interned for Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva, worked at the Pima County Teen Court, and volunteered to scour the desert looking for migrants who need water, food and medicine.
De La Rosa argues that the law that separated his mother from her family should change because it prevents immigrants from turning to the U.S. legal system for help. His mother never had a chance to defend herself because her citizenship interview took place in Mexico, and once her application was denied, she was not allowed back into the U.S. Changing this law, he said, “would cut the number of undocumented immigrants in half. As it is now, it perpetuates the cycle of vulnerability.”
This summer, De La Rosa will spend one week at a Truman Foundation leadership retreat with this year’s 57 other scholarship winners. He will then travel to the San Juan Bosco Migrant Shelter in Nogales, Mexico, to continue his honors project research into how border security has shifted patterns of migration, making it more dangerous for people trying to cross. After the United States fortified its border in 1994, more people began attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert as it offered the last unguarded route into the country. About 2,200 people are known to have died in the crossing, and that accounts for just those whose remains have been found.
Part of De La Rosa’s research involves asking migrants about their preparedness before they set out to cross the desert. Many have been traveling for weeks or months, on foot or aboard freight trains from Central and South America, and they do not know what awaits them along the last leg of their journey. De La Rosa knows that some will not make it. In his own desert travels he has come across people bordering on death; once he found a human skeleton.
Following his research at the border shelter, De La Rosa will travel in July to Atlanta, Georgia, where he has a John Lewis Fellowship to work with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Next year, De La Rosa is planning to take a group of Bowdoin students on an alternative spring break trip to Arizona to teach them about the issues he has been working with for the past few years. “I would like to expose people to the realities and consequences of our border policy,” he said. “Many students are unaware of how scary the border is.”