By GABRIEL PARIENTE
Monica Sibri sits in the middle of the brown rectangular table with her Macbook Pro to her left and cell phone to her right. She checks both
repeatedly, trying to organize that day’s meeting since many members of her CUNY Dreamers group can’t come or are delayed because of the
multiple jobs they work and other commitments. Her black skirt sash, earrings, gray sweater and love of bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches give
off the image of successful young American woman.
Actually, the 22-year-old Sibri, in her senior year at the College of Staten Island, is
one of thousands of undocumented students in the City University of New York system
struggling to stay in school and find good jobs for the future. Her immigration status
means that she is unable to obtain the resources that are available to native-born
She can’t have an ID, driver’s license, Social Security card and bank accounts or obtain financial aid,
which limits the opportunity for many undocumented immigrants to attend college and make better
lives for themselves and their families.
“Many students work minimum wage jobs like cooking, cleaning, nannies,
dishwashing, et cetera . . . just to make ends meet and give up their dreams of educating
themselves,” Sibri said. Originally from Ecuador, she’s in her second year as
president of College of Staten Island’ s Dreamers Club, a small chapter of the CUNY
Dreamers Club dedicated to fighting for undocumented students’ rights to attend school
and receive the resources they need to do so.
They have made countless trips north to Albany and to the nation’s capital, asking
for help in a country that’s seemingly turned its back on them. The D.R.E.A.M Act failed on
the federal level four years ago, and then a state version failed to pass the New York State
Senate earlier this year. Even with promises that the bill could be passed, the measure,
which would have given the children of illegal or undocumented immigrants the chance for
college-tuition programs like the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, fell two votes
shy of passage in the State Senate.
This will provide no relief from a trend noted by the Fiscal Policy Institute. It found
that of the 4,500 undocumented students who graduate high school every year in New York State,
roughly 10 to 15 percent actually continue their studies while the others simply fall off the
radar into minimum-wage work or other things.
“Within high schools, many administrators don’t realize the number of programs
that can help undocumented students on the CUNY level,” said 20-year-old college
sophomore Antolina Garcia, a member of the John Jay College Dreamers’ club. When
students are undocumented, they can’t receive federal Pell grants; they’re not U.S. citizens
or eligible non-citizens.
“There’s a general acceptance they can simply pay out of pocket, which often forces
students to work two or three jobs just to take classes, ” she added.
Others face more issues like being unable to obtain health insurance
or prescription medication from pharmacies, and inability to sign leases. They can’t
apply for job benefits since they have no way of proving that they’re legal citizens even if
they’ve lived here for decades, and many are victims of crimes which go unreported due to
immigrant fears of talking to the police .
“They will survive, but just survive. They wouldn’t be able to access any of the
things that make America, America or live the American Dream,” said 23-year-old
Brooklyn College Dreamers activist Arshad Bacchus.
Yet despite the setbacks suffered with the State Senate’s failure to pass the Dream Act
and the Republicans, who have not supported immigration reform, now controlling
both houses of Congress, the Dreamers are buoyed by two developments over the past
few months. President Barack Obama’s new executive order for immigration reform
and New York City’s municipal ID law raise the prospect that some undocumented
immigrants will be able emerge from the shadows, take active roles in city life, and
finally get the chance to see their hopes and dreams come true.
Back in July, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the municipal ID act into law; it
goes into effect in January. The law will create a government-backed municipal ID card
available to all residents, giving immigrants access to basic city services. All city agencies
will accept the card as proof of residency and identity.
“The law is a positive step as it will allow undocumented residents to emerge from
the shadows and become active members of the city,” Sibri said. Undocumented residents
will now be able to open their own bank accounts, sign leases, and obtain their own
“Some immigrants became victims of people who produced for them fake ID’s, but
now these ID cards are legal, and not only is this beneficial to all, but it gives foreigners a
ray of hope that they’ll eventually become citizens,” said immigration lawyer Vladimir
Undocumented students won’t have to hide their real identity from their
friends, and will have better chances to obtain scholarships to lessen the burden for
financing their education. But despite the positive outlook, many are still
skeptical of the law’s execution, fearing it won’t lead to widespread changes in getting
more undocumented people into the workforce.
Despite initially supporting the municipal ID law, the New York Civil Liberties Union
withdrew its backing before the bill was signed into law. Its complaint was that law
enforcement agencies like the Police Department or FBI could use it to track down
applicants’ pay stubs, Social Security numbers and children’s educational records
without probable cause. The organization contended that the city could easily trace
people who are undocumented residents, and take actions against them like deportation,
and not have to notify people that their privacy was invaded.
“We understand the privacy concerns, and we’re working with the mayor to ensure
immigration customs enforcement can’t access this information when people register for
the IDs,” said New York City Immigration Coalition communications director Thanu
Yakupitiyage. “We are still supporting the law because it will truly help undocumented
people become valuable members of the community.”
Others who do support the law don’t feel that the law will change the
way they’re viewed by other Americans outside their social group.
“There’s always been prejudice towards immigration here in the U.S, and sadly I
don’t think it will go away soon,” said a Dreamers’ Club member who asked not to
be identified. Originally from Arizona, the New York City Tech senior moved to New York
during her senior year in high school partly to escape Arizona’s new state laws that dealt
with the state’s illegal immigration problem.
“It’s a form of legal racial profiling,” she says. According to the law, police
have the right to ask people to stop and show ID, and other personal information based
on their appearance.
“My father and brother dropped off my sister at the airport bus terminal following
her visiting them, and as they left police asked them for their paperwork. Without them
they were deported, my father came back but my brother can not,” she added.
“Many Americans claim their ancestors never cut corners, and came to the country
legally with U.S. visas, and didn’t violate any federal immigration laws by illegally crossing
over borders,” said Goldstern. He said that “often in times of crisis, many Americans
develop an irrational fear of the unknown and want our borders keep safe from those who
may harm our well-beings.”
Fears of law enforcement or putting their trust in the wrong people often
lead many undocumented families to withdraw into the shadows. They barely interact
with outsiders, hide any evidence that reveals their culture or real identities and often
struggle to make ends meet due to the unstable, poor jobs they’re forced to maintain.
“A lot of undocumented families are mixed-status, and often when one parent is
deported it can cause trauma not only for the children, but also for the other parent who’s
now alone trying to support his/her family,” said Yakupityage.
In 2008, studies by the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project indicated that over 1.5 million
children in the U.S. were living with at least one undocumented parent, and that a third
of these children were living in poverty. Undocumented immigrants have a median income
of $36,000, which is well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S. citizens,
and as opposed to other immigrants they generally don’t make higher incomes
even if they’ve lived in America for long periods of time. This correlates to an inability
for many parents to pay for their child’s education.
In addition, a 2011 study by University of Chicago Professor Roberto Gonzales
showed that 20 percent of undocumented students graduated with bachelor’s degrees,
yet none were able to pursue their desired careers following graduation. More and more
undocumented youth are growing depressed, as they work so hard to fulfill their dreams
only to continually run into obstacles that keep them from doing so.
Feelings of stigmatization, fear of deportation, and uncertainty about their futures
not only led to increased bouts of depression, but also cases of suicide among
undocumented youth, according to the Youth Project. Many students are simply giving up
the effort to get an education, and are tolerating the injustice and persecution they’re
receiving by those outside their respective communities. This fact angers Sibri like no
“There are two groups of Dreamers: those who stand up and speak up, and the
others who stay silent and accept their limitations,” she said. The protests that
CUNY Dreamers have been doing for years have helped to maintain pressure for change.
At New York University, the Dreamers’ club convinced faculty to grant financial aid to
incoming undocumented students who are New York state residents starting in the 2015-
’16 school year.
Despite its flaws, the municipal ID law will give undocumented residents the chance to go
after other jobs as they can now enter buildings with a form of identification and obtain
other city services that can aid them in getting apartments and other things. But at the same
time, the ID law will not do what the state DREAM Act would have done to give tuition aid
to children of undocumented parents.
In fact, students like Sibri, who’s triple majoring in international studies, political science and
sociology along with a psychology minor, can manage to take only five to six credits per semester,
as they can’t pay to take 12 credits or more as full-time college students.
“When I came here my senior year in high school, it was hard for me to apply for college since
my family couldn’t afford tuition and I had no government aid,” said the New York City Tech
student. Luckily, her mom sends her money whenever she can and one of the people she stays
with chips in financially as well. It’s not clear whether or not the DREAM Act will be brought
back to Albany anytime soon, but some remain optimistic.
“Eighty percent of all Americans want immigration reform, and if we keep up our
efforts eventually the law will become legal,” said Yakupitiyage.
In November, Obama announced he would use executive action to
grant work permits to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants, giving them Social Security
numbers, the ability to travel within the U.S. and work legally under their own names.
It will end the “Secure Communities” enforcement program that gave local law
enforcement ability to act as immigration agents, and protect those eligible or who
received deferred actions from deportation.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Garcia said. “We have to embrace
people as they are, disregard our differences and see them as humans first.”
Though she isn’t undocumented, Garcia fights for those who are because in her
mind, “ No human being is illegal,” as author Elie Wiesel wrote. Sibri echoed her
sentiments.: “Immigrants are directly responsible for many of the contributions that made
America the country it is today, and we plan to keep up the fight to ensure America
rediscovers the motto and golden door it was built out of.”
Photo, top: Antolina Garcia, left, and Monica Sibri, before a meeting of the CUNY Dreamers’ Club.
Above: Immigration lawyer Vladimir Goldstern in his Manhattan office. (Gabriel Pariente Photos)