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Illegal Farm Worker Becomes Brain Surgeon

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Immigration continues to spark intense and emotional political debates between people who favor expansive immigration policies and those who want more restrictions.

But what is often left out of the conversation is the experience of being in the middle space – between being legal and illegal. All this week Tell Me More will focus on those in that position (or who is related to someone who is) in a series titled "In Limbo."

"In Limbo" begins with the story of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa. His life is like a classic rags-to-riches tale scripted for a Hollywood film. He grew up in the small village of Palaco, Mexico. As a bright young man, he wanted to become a teacher. But he had to overcome many obstacles first, including hunger.

"I am not talking about hungry for success; I was literally hungry for food. My stomach was empty," he says.

Quiñones- Hinojosa was determined to put food on the table for his family, so he did the only thing he could possibly think of: literally jumped over a fence between his native Mexico and the United States and became a farm worker in southern California.

He started by picking tomatoes, corn and broccoli. Later, he operated dangerous machinery in the fields. But things changed for him after a conversation with his cousin.

"The critical portion that got me out of the fields was my own cousin telling me that I was going to spend the rest of my life working as a migrant farm worker," Quiñones- Hinojosa says.

He could not imagine that life. He left the fields and headed north. To pay for community college, he shoveled sulfur and scraped fish lard from tankers — an excruciating job that almost cost him his life.

His journey then took him to University of California, Berkeley, and later Harvard Medical School. After 10 years, since first jumping over that fence into America, he became a U.S. citizen.

Now, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones- Hinojosa is a respected brain surgeon who directs the Brain Tumor Program at John Hopkins Bayview Hospital. He says more needs to be done to help those who can follow in his footsteps.

"Among people who come to the United States today — whether they come from privileged backgrounds or humble backgrounds — is our next Einstein, is our next Nobel laureate, but we just have failed to identify," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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