FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE

J. Moises Cedillos came to the United States from war-torn El Salvador in 1984, riding on his uncle’s back as they crossed the Rio Grande. He was three years old. His father had come up first, and Moises, his mother, and three older siblings lived with him in a closet in Houston in an apartment filled with other new immigrants.

His father worked as a janitor. His mother also found janitorial work, and eventually they moved into a one bedroom apartment. Both worked two jobs. Moises learned English watching Sesame Street while his parents worked. “Somehow, my mother knew enough to tune in to PBS.”

By the time Moises was eight, he too worked as a janitor. At night, he and his older brothers cleaned a place called the Petite Academy, a day care center. “I was cleaning up for kids my own age and I could see the toys and everything. But we knew there wasn’t any other option, and it didn’t feel like work because I was with my brothers.” Throughout high school, he worked 30 to 40 hours a week. His brothers picked him up after school to clean office buildings from 4 to 9. Weekends, he worked the graveyard shift.

In high school, Moises began to realize that the way up was through education, and he set his sight on being number one in his class. Even with his work schedule, he participated in science fairs and tried to do track and field though he wasn’t able to find the time. “I joined organizations to put on my resume but I couldn’t be that active. He graduated number 23, which put him in the top 15 percent of his class but “far from the number I wanted.”

His counselor suggested he apply for the CDF Beat the Odds award in 2000. “That was the changing point of my life...People are recognizing the difficulties I go through. I may not graduate number one but maybe I didn’t have the opportunity to do that.” He also received a full scholarship from Rice University.

When the university learned he was living in the country illegally, it rescinded the scholarship. He attended the University of Houston but was expelled after his second year. He couldn’t study or focus. His father had been deported for the second time and his own work permit was withdrawn. “I was thinking, ’What’s the purpose of going to college if I can’t work here?’”

CDF’s Houston office found an immigration attorney to take his case pro bono, and Moises was granted citizenship. He decided to become a lawyer. He attended Houston Community College and then Texas Southern University, while working part-time as a file clerk at a Houston law office. He went on to Ohio State University’s law school, clerked at a circuit court in Michigan, and returned to Houston with a job at the catastrophic injury law firm he’d worked for during college.

Moises attends the Beat the Odds event in Houston every year and says, “In all genuineness, I can tell you that CDF is family to me. I committed myself to donating annually (for a lifetime) to CDF because of all that the organization has done for me and my family. The change is real and palpable!”