Like so many other Amityville teenagers, Sheena Henry wanted a driver’s license once she turned 16 in 2006.
Responsibility wasn’t a problem; Sheena’s parents had already given her a credit card, and she was one of the top students in her class at Farmingdale High School.
The issue was her immigration status, stemming from when her mother brought her to the US from Jamaica before her second birthday.
“When I was younger we used to go to the immigration’s lawyer’s office,” Sheena says. “That was probably when we were filing for my mom’s green card. Anytime we’d go there [my parents] seemed really worried, but I didn’t understand why at the time.”
Now her parents were telling her that she couldn’t get a license because she didn’t have a social security number. Sheena started to research immigration law on the Internet, and, for the first time, began to realize the extent of the problem: She was undocumented.
By some estimates, 100,000 undocumented immigrants live on Long Island. Many of those immigrants, like Sheena and her parents, Polly and Errol, have lived here for decades, paying taxes and bolstering the workforce. Yet they are still unable to fully emerge from the shadows of society.
In the past decade, the vilification of undocumented immigrants has served as a rallying point for a range of Suffolk County politicians. Local politicians, including County Executive Steve Levy, portrayed undocumented immigrants as a threat to suburban life, and legislators laced political speeches with violent rhetoric, a phenomenon documented in a 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Errol and Polly Henry in the living room of their Amityville home.
In addition to animosity on the local level, undocumented immigrants also faced more aggressive federal immigration enforcement during the past 10 years. “There was a period of time, if you weren’t getting in trouble, you didn’t have to worry about the authorities as you did after 9/11,” Errol says.
The federal government’s focus on deportations won’t likely change any time soon. With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, chances are slim for legislation that might reform national immigration laws.
For the Henry family – two undocumented parents raising an undocumented child – it was a decade of living quietly, trying to cope with the fear of potential deportation. Living in Eastern Long Island didn’t make the situation any better.
“Suffolk County has become more mean-spirited [in regards to immigration],” Errol says. “Mainly it’s become a political football for some of the politicians.”
In 1991, Polly Henry began traveling to New York City from Jamaica on a business visa that she obtained to purchase clothing for a store where she worked in St. Andrew Parish, just north of Kingston.
After several trips to the states, she decided to stay, partially out of concern for her two sons, who were living with their father in Florida, and partially because of the economic opportunities. She brought her 1-year-old daughter, Sheena, with her.
“I didn’t realize I only had a visa for six weeks,” she says. “I didn’t even know about being undocumented yet. That wasn’t even in my head.”
One-year-old Sheena in Jamaica shortly before moving to the US.
Tapping into a network of friends and relatives from Jamaica, Polly and Sheena bounced from apartment to apartment in the New York area during their first few months as immigrants, so poor that at one point a local pastor needed to pay Polly’s first month of rent so that she could move into an apartment in Roosevelt.
With the next month’s rent bill on her mind, Polly took a job as a home health aid. In the position, she needed to work around the clock in the patient’s home, so she contacted Sheena’s father, Errol, who was living in Pittsburgh, and asked him to move in with her in Roosevelt to help with childcare. Like Polly, Errol was undocumented.
Sheena plays in the snow near her Amityville home.
The couple soon learned that the undocumented life on Long Island was full of ironies.
They worked in the healthcare industry – Polly later became a certified nursing assistant and Errol a home health aid– but they didn’t have medical insurance. On the job, their patients often badmouthed “illegal immigrants,” without wondering about the immigration status of the person administering a sponge bath or helping them down the stairs.
And while they heard a steady chorus of people, both on the news and in person, griping that undocumented immigrants didn’t pay taxes, the Henrys paid taxes and kept records of earnings and employment, knowing that such paperwork would improve their case for citizenship in the future. They didn’t have legal permission to work, but they were able to use the social security number that Polly had been assigned with her initial business visa.
The undocumented life affected child rearing, as well. With no medical insurance, Polly and Errol made sure to wash Sheena’s toys to prevent colds and the flu. “That’s something with the undocumented,” Polly says. “We try not to get sick.”
Bit by bit, Polly and Errol climbed up the economic ladder on Long Island, eventually renting their current home in Amityville, and later marrying.
Sheena excelled in school, not only academically, but in cheerleading and track and field, accruing a bevy of medals and ribbons over the years.
The Henrys knew Sheena was responsible, but that didn’t always quell their anxieties about her immigration status. “Each time she goes out the door, it could be her last day in the US,” Errol says.
Aside from cheerleading, Sheena also ran track and field and played piano.
When, in middle school, Sheena wanted to go dancing with her friends at local youth night event, the Henrys needed to visit the facility beforehand for assurances that there wouldn’t be any illegal activity. They weren’t worried about Sheena misbehaving, but even guilt by association could have had catastrophic consequences for the family.
One of the most difficult moments for the Henrys came when Sheena, then an eighth-grade student, traveled to Florida for a cheerleading competition. As a youth, she was able to travel with only a school identification card, but it was the first time that she had been away from her parents for an extended period of time.
Sheena called the Henrys numerous times each day that she was away. That didn’t stop the anxiety, but they tried not to let her know that they were worried.
“The whole severity of the situation was never really something they burdened me with,” Sheena says. “I didn’t grow up afraid, like I’m going to be deported or something. I’m assuming they wanted to shelter me and not have me carry around that burden.”
When Good Grades Aren’t Enough
In 2008, Sheena started college at SUNY New Paltz, one of a handful of students to major in chemistry in her incoming class.
The Henrys had to pay her tuition and living expenses, roughly $7,500 per semester, out of pocket. As an undocumented immigrant, Sheena wasn’t eligible for state or federal financial aid, including loans.
Polly and Errol had ferreted away money for years with Sheena’s education in mind, but at times that wasn’t enough, Sheena says.
“After the first semester, that’s when it started to become harder,” she says. “[Tuition] wouldn’t be paid on time, and I would get emails about it.”
In June 2009, Polly became a US citizen after more than 17 years living as an undocumented immigrant. The milestone meant that Errol and Sheena could submit a family immigration petition, but along with relief, Sheena felt frustrated with the illogical nature of the immigration system.
“I didn’t understand why my mother can have a status but I can’t,” she says. “Considering that she takes care of me, where am I supposed to go [if I get deported]?”
Sheena and her father eventually became permanent residents later that year, making her eligible for financial aid and allowing her to work legally.
With financial aid, her tuition became a more manageable $2,000, and in her first summer after receiving legal status she was awarded a government research position, a paid opportunity that she believes wouldn’t have been available for undocumented students. “Now I don’t have worry about PayPal, installment plans, or bills being overdue,” she says.
Sheena in her SUNY New Paltz dorm room.
Sheena knows that some young immigrants aren’t so lucky. A month ago, she watched the failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
“I have no idea why anybody would turn that down,” she says. “I think it’s more important that we’re educating the country than punishing kids for something that they didn’t even do.”
Unlike Sheena, many undocumented students won’t have a pathway toward citizenship in the near future.
“I definitely understand how they’re feeling,” she says. “They probably feel even worse because I’ve been waiting [for citizenship], but they’re just sitting around, not waiting for anything.”