June 26, 2008 — -- Today, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa may be living the American dream.
As one of the nation's leading brain surgeons, he has built an exceptional career at Baltimore's legendary Johns Hopkins Hospital, surgically treating patients with brain tumors and leading cutting-edge research into cures for brain cancer. And he is one of the doctors featured on the new ABC series "Hopkins."
But his journey to the top of the medical profession didn't start out as many might expect. More than 20 years ago, Quiñones-Hinojosa, known to his colleagues now as Dr. Q, was a teenager with few prospects living in Mexicali, Mexico.
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Although he always had a strong work ethic, Quiñones-Hinojosa -- who manned the pumps at his father's gas station -- seemed destined for a life of menial labor at low-paying jobs in his hometown. For Quiñones-Hinojosa, growing up was difficult.
"At the age of five I started working in a gas station," he said. "It's hard to believe. ... We didn't have enough money to eat, and everybody had to pitch in."
But Quiñones-Hinojosa knew early on that somehow he was meant for bigger things than the dusty backstreets of Mexicali.
"By the time I was 19, I decided I wanted to go to the U.S. and explore," Quiñones-Hinojosa said. "I was tired of the political oppression and the bifurcation of classes, the oppression of the poor that happens in my country."
Desperate for money, and with his sights set on a brighter future, he scaled a barbed border fence across from Calexico, Calif.
"It was a pretty scary experience," Quiñones-Hinojosa remembered. "It was filled with a real adrenaline rush excitement, but also fear, and, you know, fear gives you extra strength and courage. I got caught and sent back, but I did it again the same night."
He worked illegally for more than a year doing backbreaking work in California's fields, mostly picking tomatoes. Like other migrant workers, he sent his hard-earned cash back to his family in Mexico.
Derided by his fellow workers as a dreamer, Quiñones-Hinojosa enrolled himself in community college to learn English. Before long, he found a professor to mentor him. This professor encouraged Quiñones-Hinojosa to seek a scholarship to attend the University of California, Berkeley.
At Berkley, Quiñones-Hinojosa excelled in the natural sciences. He tutored other students, and his grades were such that Harvard Medical School was eager to recruit the young Mexican with so much drive. While at Harvard, Quiñones-Hinojosa earned his U.S. citizenship before being selected to do his residency at Johns Hopkins.
Quiñones-Hinojosa's personal story of climbing over the border fence to gain access into the United States is just a microcosm of the immigration debate still raging in Washington.
Both presumptive presidential nominees Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., favor border fences, just like the one Quiñones-Hinojosa climbed.
McCain, who sponsored a 2005 immigration bill that proposed to legalize the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, now takes a much harder line on immigration. He vowed that he would not vote for the bill he co-sponsored three years ago, and emphasizes that his number one priority is to secure U.S. borders.
At the Democratic debate in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2008, Obama explained why he supported the construction of a border fence.
"There may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing," he said. "Having the border patrolled, surveillance, deploying effective technology -- that's going to be the better approach."
The Bush administration continues to move forward on the border fence construction that Congress authorized in 2005, despite environmental concerns. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court denied an environmental group's plea to slow down construction of a U.S.-Mexican border fence.
After living on U.S. soil for more than half of his life, Quiñones-Hinojosa believes that a border fence is not the solution to illegal immigration.
"I think it's just a patch, and I think that's not going to be a solution," Quiñones-Hinojosa said of border fences. "As long as there is poverty, as long as there's inequality, people are going to look for better ways to survive. It's human nature."