Family Portrait: José Rafael Patiño


This is the first photo essay in Emerson Collective’s Family Portrait series spotlighting real families who are affected by our broken immigration system.

José Rafael Patiño is 29 years old, and he does not plan beyond one year. He does not make long-term career goals. He does not know whether he will be able to cheer on his three young nieces at their gymnastics meets or watch his nephew start kindergarten.

It wasn’t always like this. José used to have a five-year plan: the former teacher was going to start a non-profit to educate low-income people in the Phoenix area about personal finance — how to purchase a home, build credit, secure a loan. But all of that ground to a halt in September of 2017, when the Trump Administration decided to end the DACA program that allows José to legally live and work in the United States.

Jose Rafael is one of four siblings with DACA status. The family moved to the United States from Mexico when Jose Rafael was five years old.

“Now my thinking is a one-year plan. What can I do within a year?” says José, a top scholar who earned a full ride to Arizona State University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. The 2013 documentary The Dream Is Now told José's story and the trouble he had finding a job as an undocumented grad. Today he holds a master’s degree and works for Aliento, a non-profit dedicated to organizing young immigrants. “I had a plan and it didn’t work out. So now I don’t plan. I educate, advocate, and save as much money as I can.”

“It’s like being back in high school, before I had DACA, and not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “That’s what DACA gave us: hope.”

The Patiño family has mixed status. José's parents are undocumented. He and his siblings have DACA status for now. His nieces and nephew are American citizens by birth.

Jose, his parents, and his siblings left Mexico in 1995. Today they live in the Phoenix, Arizona, area.

The Patiño family — José, his siblings, and his parents— came to the United States from Mexico when José was five years old. Today they live and work in the Phoenix area. The family is loving, tight-knit, and religious. They are acutely aware of the current battle over their futures in this country.

His parents remain undocumented with little chance of earning citizenship in today’s political climate. His three siblings, 34, 32, and 31, are DACA recipients as well. José calls them the “1.5” generation because they came as children, have grown up here, and have their temporary status, but cannot claim citizenship. Even if a legislative solution passes, there are stipulations in certain proposals that would never allow them to become full citizens. Due to Congressional inaction on legislative immigration reform, Dreamers have stayed in the headlines for months; but a bipartisan solution has not been reached, despite the fact that many have been brought to the table.

From left to right, José's sister, niece, brother, and brother-in-law.

José's mother feeds baby Matthew, 1.

Meanwhile, José’s nieces, 9, 7, and 6, and his nephew, 1, are all American citizens. The girls attend a local Catholic elementary school, and like any other kids their days are jam-packed with swimming lessons, gymnastics, soccer, and ballet. But even they are not immune to what looms over the family.

“We try not to talk about it, but the kids understand what’s going on,” he says. They cried a lot on September 5, and after the 2016 election. “They always make comments, specifically when my sister and brother-in-law are driving. They get tense. And if a police officer is behind them, they notice it. They ask their parents: Are the police going to come get you? If you get deported, what will happen to us?”

A wall in José's sister's home features religious imagery. "My faith is with people, with actions," José says.

José's three nieces are typical American kids. While the family tries to shield them from the harrowing realities of America's immigration system, José says, the girls understand enough to worry about the future.

The truth is that no one knows. But José tries his best to remain optimistic. Where his family places strong faith in God, José hopes that those on opposite sides of the immigration dilemma can find common ground.

“My faith is with people, with actions," he says. “People have the right to seek a better life, and I hope we get to that understanding."