Students Who Live in Fear


This column was originally published in the Sag Harbor Express.

Maria, an honor student at Suffolk County Community College, lives in fear of being thrown out of the country she knows and loves—the United States.

Coming here was not her choice. Her father came in 1996, leaving a troubled Argentina. His lifelong dream was to come to “America which he saw as the place you could become a better person.” Here “he’s worked in construction—dedicated to building homes and renovating kitchens,” said Maria. She and her mother followed five years later. Maria was 9.

“I’ve grown up in the United States. This is the home I’ve known,” she was saying last week. She has done splendidly here. She has a 3.6 GPA at Suffolk Community—a 4.0 GPA (an A in every course) in her major of psychology. Her goal is to work “with children. I want to give back to children who need psychological help.”

But she lives in dread of “being taken away. I fear that strongly.”  And it’s no theoretical concern. Two months ago, her father went to pick up building materials. “He never came back.” He had a seizure and an ambulance was called. The Suffolk Police also came and arrested him. Upon finding out what happened, “my heart dropped,” said Maria.

“Now he’s facing deportation.” For the past two months, her father has been in a federal deportation facility in New Jersey.  Her four-year-old brother, born here and thus a citizen, can’t understand what has happened. “Yesterday he said, ‘My dad doesn’t want to see me.’”

Maria struggles on. Because she is undocumented, she can’t get a Social Security card, which means she cannot get a driver’s license. “I have to depend on someone to take me to school.”

A March rally in Albany for the New York DREAM Act (Credit: Ted Hesson)

Working is only arranged with great difficulty. She has two certificates in cosmetology from Suffolk BOCES, but has been told by beauty parlors that they won’t hire her without a Social Security number. She works at a pizza parlor, “serving customers, making pizza, doing the cleaning.”

She needs the money badly to pay for college. Suffolk Community and SUNY colleges on Long Island accept undocumented students, but they’re not eligible for financial assistance.

Meanwhile, Maria aims to “reach a Ph.D. level.”

Maria — and I am not using her real name — is one of many undocumented students on Long Island facing a nightmare of a life. Suffolk-based Long Island Immigrant Students Advocates seeks to help them.

Osman Canales, its co-founder and leader, notes there are an “estimated 2.1 million undocumented students” now in the US, some 10 percent in New York State.

The organization also works for the passage of the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would help undocumented students like Maria. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act applies to undocumented young people who came to the US at 15 or younger, graduated from a US high school or received a GED, then graduated from a two-year college or completed two-years towards a four-year degree, or served in the military for two years. If they fulfill those requirements and “maintain good moral character” they would be eligible for permanent US residency. In 2010, the DREAM Act passed the House of Representatives and came within five votes of passage in the Senate. (The votes were largely partisan: Democrats for it, Republicans against.) Also, a New York State DREAM Act was introduced last year that would allow undocumented students access to state-funded college financial aid programs.

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