Stateless In this story of dual ‘uncitizenship,’ the life of an undocumented college student from Salinas diverges from his friend’s — because of a single piece of paper.


Article and photos by Carlos Rene Castro
Reprinted from The (Fresno State) Collegian

Editor’s note: To protect the privacy of Richard Puerta and his family, some names and identifying details in this story have been changed.

Richard Puerta, the youngest of five children, was born in Mexico. When he was six months old, his mother died by suicide. She suffered from postpartum depression.

Before her death, Puerta’s mother failed to register his birth at the local records office in Mexico. Now, as a soon-to-be college graduate at California State University, Fresno, Puerta’s future and livelihood are at a disadvantage.

Puerta is “stateless,” meaning he cannot claim citizenship of any country.

“Besides the people who raised me, the person who has impacted me the most would be my mother,” Puerta said. “Ever since that moment, my life and my siblings’ lives have changed drastically.”

Each of the siblings had their own journeys arriving in the United States. Puerta’s eldest brother, Miguel Puerta, first arrived in 1991 while the rest of the siblings stayed in Mexico. Puerta and his other siblings were shuffled among family members in the Mexico City region.

Puerta and I have similar stories of coming to a new country at a young age. I was born in El Progreso, Honduras, and emigrated to the U.S. when I was 5 years old. Puerta was 2 when he first arrived in the U.S..

We share some of the same struggles. We both had to quickly adjust to a new language and culture at a very young age.

However, what sets us distinctly apart is a piece of paper: I have a birth certificate that includes my name, gender, and date and place of birth.

Thanks to this document, I am one of hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, also known as the Dream Act. DACA provides temporary relief from deportation for young individuals who migrated to the U.S. as children, allowing us to work and go to school.

Through DACA, I’ve been able to get a Social Security number, obtain a driver’s license, receive scholarships, travel within the country and get a job. Puerta can do none of these things because he is stateless.

Though he faces daily challenges with no feasible solution in sight, Puerta remains calm about his situation. “I just see myself as any of the other students,” Puerta said. “There’s no difference between me and my best friend.”

Puerta’s beginnings

Before Puerta began his journey as a journalism major at Fresno State, the laid-back 21-year-old attended Golden West High School in Visalia.

He was a two-sport athlete, participating in the swimming and water polo team and was vice president of the Associated Student Body.

In his senior year of high school, he won the race for homecoming king. For Puerta, taking the crown meant more than winning a popularity contest amongst classmates. It provided Puerta with a sense of identity and belonging, a feeling he has chased from a young age.

“That’s when I realized that I am a part of something,” Puerta said. His earliest memories were in Chowchilla, a rural town 39 miles north of Fresno, where his uncle, Richard Puerta Sr. (also a pseudonym) and his partner took care of the boy. Puerta refers to the couple as his parents.

Raising Puerta Jr. wasn’t easy because his uncle was in his early 20s, working a full-time, minimum-wage job and taking general education classes at Merced College  — while also learning how to care for a newborn. Puerta Sr. had to constantly ask for help taking care of the toddler while making ends meet.

“My nights consisted of calling my friends and colleagues to see who would be able to take care of this baby for me,” Richard Puerta Sr. said. “Making minimum wage does not allow you to afford daycare. I would take him to San Joaquin and Modesto. Sometimes, I would take him to the lady across the apartments.”

Two decades later, Puerta is grateful for the sacrifices Puerta Sr. made for him.

“My uncle was one of the greatest people that have ever had an impact on my life,” Puerta said. “He had to essentially give up his college life and help me and my brother out to raise us, and he had to work at JCPenney to support us.”

After moving to Visalia, the relationship between Puerta and his uncle blossomed as the two shared similar interests that brought them closer.

“He loves comics, like I do. Plus going to the movies. He was my movie buddy,” Puerta Sr. said. “He’s my mini me. We call him little Richard.”

Military dreams

Although I have privileges Puerta does not, DACA does not fix my undocumented status. Since I was 18, my biggest goal has been to join the U.S. Navy and serve the United States, a country I have known for most of my life. However, due to my immigration status, I am ineligible to join the service.

Now, as a 25-year-old, my dream to serve this country is still alive, but this time, the career path I want to pursue in the Navy is much more attainable: as a mass communication specialist. Before journalism was introduced into my life two years ago by my mentor, Claudia Melendez, a longtime journalist and Voices co-founder, I was a photographer with eight years of experience.

Journalism has provided purpose in my life, and my multimedia skills remind me that I belong in this field. I graduated from Alisal High School in 2016, but did not have a clear career path — joining the Navy was out. Before I transferred to Fresno State from Monterey Peninsula College in 2021, I had been a student at the community college level for seven years.

During this time, being a Dreamer has presented me with many opportunities, such as traveling within the country, attending a higher education institution and receiving a scholarship. However, DACA will not solve all the issues I face as an undocumented student. For example, I don’t have the right to vote, though I have lived in this country for 20 years. Additionally, I am not eligible to receive federal funding to further my education.

Still, I have found worthwhile opportunities. This past summer, I lived in New York City for three months, interning with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I am a multimedia reporter for The (Fresno State) Collegian and I have another part-time job as a media relations service aide at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

The Navy is still the biggest goal on my checklist, but my immediate future includes applying to graduate school to further my education in journalism.

What is stateless?

Being stateless wasn’t an issue for Puerta until he was in high school. He realized he could not accomplish the milestone sought by every other high school kid: getting a driver’s license.

“When you turn 16, that’s when you get your license. I was looking around, and I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t do that,’” Puerta said. “I have to either wait for my parents to come pick me up, and they were always busy, or even ask for rides.”

Puerta currently lives with roommates who provide him with rides to school or the grocery store. But being stateless has yet to concern him much. One of his roommates described Puerta’s easy manner.

“He wants to work at a news station, and in all honesty, it seems like he could be able to do it eventually,” said Juan Valenzuela, Puerta’s best friend from high school. “I don’t know how he does it, but everything always ends up working in his favor in the end.”

The United Nations defines a stateless person as  anyone “not recognized as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” As a result, Puerta has no identification documents. He is unable to apply for and obtain a California Identification Card, lacks access to employment and health insurance and is unable to come and go from the country.

“The state of California and the federal government have made allowances for people who are undocumented, particularly in California, to access higher education, certain jobs, driver’s licenses and other opportunities,” said Jessica Smith Bobadilla, a Fresno-based immigration attorney. “But without some proof of who you are and where you come from, you can’t access those easily, and in most cases, at all.”

Statelessness is an issue worldwide but is rarely addressed in the United States. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2022, 4.4 million stateless people were residing in 95 countries. However, the actual global number is estimated to be higher because many cases go unreported.

As an immigration attorney for 21 years in California and New York, Bobadilla said statelessness cases are more typically found in refugees from Middle Eastern countries such as Palestine, who were displaced after the violent birth of Israel in 1948. Though they may strive to begin a new life, being stateless haunts them. The greatest hardship of being stateless is not having fundamental human rights anywhere. The stateless face restrictions even on domestic travel. And without a driver’s license, it’s hard to get a job. In Puerta’s case, signing a lease for an apartment is impossible because he can’t show proof of identity.

Discovering my own roots

On Nov. 15, I will return to my home country of Honduras after 20 years.

Through the California-Mexico Study Center, a non-profit organization based in Long Beach, I will have the opportunity to study in Honduras for a month and a half, then travel to Mexico City in January. The program is designed to allow DACA recipients to return to their home countries and research their cultural identity. At the end of the trip, I must write a 10-page ethnographic paper detailing my experiences before returning to the U.S.

When Samuel Contreras, an assistant professor in Fresno State’s Media, Communications and Journalism department, first told me about the trip, I couldn’t believe such an opportunity existed for Dreamers. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. The problem was the trip cost $5,000, including housing, meals, local transportation while in Mexico and the documents I would need to return to the United States.

The price of the trip was daunting, but a cousin suggested I open a GoFundMe account. I did, and successfully raised the funds within two months. This proved to me that nothing is impossible when you have a strong network of people rooting for you, and I am forever thankful for that.

Before this trip, returning to my home country was never an option. Going home and learning about my culture will be a much-needed healing experience. For much of my life, the American culture and way of living are all I’ve known. I often daydream about reconnecting with my roots and family members, and learning about Honduran culture. It makes me emotional because visiting there is a dream I’ve been chasing.

While in Honduras, I plan to visit my parents’ hometowns. My father grew up in a small community called Omonita near El Progreso, a major city in northern Honduras. My mother is from Arenal, a humble farm town about 150 miles west of El Progreso. Neither of my parents received an education past middle school.

I am not sure how I will react once the aircraft lands at the San Pedro Sula Airport, but one thing is sure: I will return to the U.S. as a new person with a different perspective on life. Returning to my roots and witnessing firsthand the everyday Honduras experience will give me an appreciation for how blessed I am to have the opportunities presented in my life. In Honduras, those opportunities aren’t easy to come by.

The fight for documentation

Over the years, Puerta has tried working with the Mexican consulate to find any means of obtaining a birth certificate. But doing so is challenging.

To obtain a Mexican birth certificate from the registrar’s office, Puerta would have to complete DNA testing to verify and match a paternal or maternal relationship with a Mexican citizen. In Puerta’s case, his mother is deceased, and his father was never part of his life, creating an unrealistic scenario for matching any genes.

When he first migrated to the Central Valley as a toddler, his uncle had an opportunity to help him obtain a birth certificate. But it was not a risk Puerta Sr. would take, for his nephew’s well-being.

To obtain the documentation, Puerta would have had to return to Mexico, raising the possibility that Puerta would not be able to return to the U.S.

“I couldn’t risk that, so that’s why I did not pursue that,” Puerta’s uncle said. “The consulate and immigration didn’t provide any other resources or help.”

Working with the Mexican consulate is not Puerta’s last hope. At his college, Diana Rea Flores is a Dream Success Center counselor who assists AB-540, undocumented and DACA students with the necessary resources to further their education.

Over the past months, Flores and Puerta have worked to find a solution. Puerta’s case is unlike the others Flores has seen in her career, yet she is confident things can turn around.

“It’s challenging, but it’s not impossible. It might take time. But again, it’s not impossible,” Flores said.

She was shocked when she first heard about Puerta’s case, mainly because of his demeanor. “Whatever he has gone through in the past, he still seems optimistic,” Flores said. “I’m amazed that he looks like such a happy individual, regardless of his situation.”

Puerta and I have the same hunger to succeed in life, regardless of our circumstances. I have more opportunities, due to my DACA status. Puerta is focused on obtaining that illusive piece of paper.

But the lack of a birth certificate or a green card will not stop either of us from striving to reach our potential.

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Carlos Rene Castro

About Carlos Rene Castro

Carlos Rene Castro was born in Honduras and has lived in Salinas since he was five. A graduate of Alisal High, his photography has been featured in solo exhibits in Salinas and Los Angeles. He's also a graduate of the youth summer journalism program that's been held in Salinas since 2017.