When Irania Sanchez was seven, her mother immigrated to the United States. It was eleven years before Irania was able to follow.
She fled Nicaragua in 1988 with her two brothers, ages twelve and fifteen. A civil war was raging between the socialist governing party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and the United States-supported rebels, the contras. Children as young as twelve were being conscripted into militias, and American relations with the Sandinistas were so poor, the United States ambassador was expelled from the country.
Amid the carnage, Sanchez and her brothers flew 340 miles northwest to Guatemala and hitchhiked nearly 1,500 miles to the United States border. They had barely crossed the Rio Grande when they were detained in Laredo, Texas. Sanchez, just eighteen years old, told an immigration officer that they had fled Nicaragua to join their mother in Brooklyn.
The officer grabbed her by the neck and threw her against the wall. He accused her and her brothers of “trying to steal jobs.”
In her urgency to get out of Nicaragua before one of her brothers was forced into a militia or leaving the country became impossible, Sanchez had not considered the obstacles she would face if she made it to the United States. But inches from a man with the power to undo an 1,800-mile journey, she had her first glimpse of the hostility she would face in her adopted homeland.
Now 44, Sanchez is visibly hardened. Her hair is short, her jaw set, her voice strong. Interviewed in March at the Bushwick offices of Make the Road New York, an advocacy and community organizing group for low-income Latinos, Sanchez spoke rapidly in Spanish, sometimes switching to halting but crisp English to make sure she was understood. She fell silent only momentarily at the most painful points of her story.
After the initial episode with the immigration officer, and after telling him and other officers repeatedly that she wanted to see her mother, Sanchez managed to secure a one-year visa. She flew to Los Angeles, where she was joined by a slew of relatives, many of whom she had never met or could barely remember.
When her visa expired, she chose not to return to Nicaragua. Instead, she joined the masses of undocumented immigrants in the United States — people who exist day-to-day, alternately fearful and hopeful, trying to build lives for themselves.
But in 1996, Sanchez got a reprieve. Her mother, by then a permanent resident, petitioned the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sanchez’s behalf, and she was able to obtain legal status. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants in New York state alone — many of them in Brooklyn, though precise local statistics are not available — have not been as fortunate.
The year she received legal status, Sanchez moved to Brooklyn. No longer undocumented, she let go of much of her fear. But she would learn through wrenching experience, including the deportation of one of her brothers, that the hostility and the possibility of separation from loved ones do not go away with the stamping of a paper.
Sanchez is just one of a legion of immigrants — documented and undocumented — who have gravitated toward local grassroots organizations like Make the Road, which offer them legal aid, emotional support, and, perhaps most significantly, a chance to fight on their own behalf.
While “immigration reform” is bandied about in Washington, analyzed in newspapers, and debated on cable television, here in Brooklyn these organizations are waging meticulously choreographed campaigns for reform. The goals are national, but the work is intensely local. The picture is sweeping, but the day-to-day strokes are as mundane — and, at times, unexpected — as taping a flier to a utility pole in Flatbush or cleaning a chicken coop in Sunset Park.
“It starts with strengthening the community,” says Leticia Alanis, the executive director of La Unión, a Sunset Park-based nonprofit that works with undocumented immigrants.
And if Alanis’s vision is realized, it will end with the passage of legislation providing a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants nationwide — what organizers refer to as comprehensive immigration reform.
At this moment, the chances of meaningful reform seem better than they have in decades. Over the past year, President Barack Obama has signed executive orders granting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants a reprieve from deportation and making it easier for people with relatives who are American citizens to obtain legal status.
In mid-March, the Republican National Committee released a report on the party’s electoral failures and endorsed immigration reform — a stunning turnaround for a party that, just last August, wrote in its platform that it opposed “any form of amnesty for those who, by intentionally violating the law, disadvantage those who have obeyed it.” And this week, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a bill that, in addition to creating more visas for immigrants with in-demand job skills, would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the end of 2011 to obtain citizenship over a thirteen-year period (or five years if they came as children). These immigrants would be able to apply for provisional legal status about six months after the law took effect.
This is far from the timeline immigration advocates had fought for, but the fact that four Democratic and four Republican senators were able to agree on a detailed and far-reaching reform bill is a major step forward.
The shift in the political landscape is driving local organizers to redouble their efforts. It’s also a vindication of the years of work they have already dedicated to the cause of reform.
“The momentum is there now because we have built for that,” says Natalia Aristizabal, a youth organizer at Make the Road.
But while organizations like Make the Road and La Unión keep their eyes on Albany and Washington, they remain focused on the work they do in Brooklyn. “We are trying to work with the president and with the legislators that are willing to work, but at the same time, we don’t feel that they just can dictate what’s going to happen,” Alanis says. “These policies are going to impact people in our communities, so they also should have a say in how these policies are developed.”
For La Unión, the work starts with a plot of land on 34th Street in Sunset Park, where group members grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and a ten-hen chicken coop. It starts in a Lutheran church on Fourth Avenue, where parents who are undocumented gather weekly to speak about the common challenges they face.
It helps, members say, to talk to others who understand the daily fear of deportation, and especially to parents who struggle to comprehend, if they are deported, what will happen to their United States-born children. It helps just to be with others who speak Spanish. And it helps to know that La Unión will support them legally if needed.
“It helps to be in a community where we get informed about our rights as immigrants,” Eugenia Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant and mother of three living in Sunset Park, said after the discussion group ended one evening in February. (Like several of the immigrants interviewed, she spoke in Spanish.) “It helps in terms of the fear that we experience, knowing that you have rights and what those rights are.”
The stated mission of La Unión, headquartered in a second-floor office on Sixth Avenue in Sunset Park, is to promote immigration rights, education rights, civil rights, and food justice — that is, access to healthy, sustainably grown food — for low-income Latinos, many of them undocumented immigrants. Independent since 2008, the group began as a project of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a major community organization in southern Brooklyn. It now claims more than 600 members, many from the Mixteca region of Mexico.
Alanis, the director, is a Mexican immigrant and former nun. She came to La Unión in 2005 after spending time as a community organizer at Make the Road.
Here in Sunset Park, she spearheads La Unión’s lobbying efforts for state and national immigration reform. But she also devotes considerable resources to helping individual families. Alanis and her colleagues have written letters on behalf of members who were at imminent risk of being deported and sued to recoup wages or damages for immigrant workers who were underpaid or mistreated. They’ve worked one-on-one with students navigating the college process, helping them apply to schools and to scholarships to fund their education. This work is essential, Alanis says, but the long-term focus of the organization is on helping immigrants advocate and organize for themselves.
“When you just provide a service, then you see the person as a client,” she says. “Here I feel it’s more trying to spark the leadership in everyone and to organize ourselves to create changes.”
Members of La Unión have written letters to President Barack Obama and to members of Congress; Make the Road takes undocumented immigrants to Albany every week to lobby state legislators. Both groups hold regular meetings in Brooklyn, where members can find day-to-day support and hone political strategies. The ultimate goal of this political action is comprehensive reform, but there are also smaller legislative goals, like New York and federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors — better known as DREAM — legislation.
Currently in the Ways and Means Committee of the State Assembly, the New York DREAM Act would make undocumented New York residents who are under 35 and came to the United States before age eighteen eligible for state-funded financial aid.
The federal DREAM Act, which has gone through numerous iterations since it was first introduced in 2001, would allow undocumented immigrants under 30 whose parents brought them to the United States before the age of sixteen and who earn a two-year degree or serve for two years in the military to obtain legal status.
Last June, after years of congressional inaction on the DREAM Act, President Obama signed an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers a reprieve from deportation for certain young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Helping undocumented immigrants apply for the program has become another major facet of La Unión’s and Make the Road’s work.
This is not as simple as it sounds.
Many immigrants fear they will be deported if they apply for deferred action and are rejected. Others are reluctant to apply because of the fees — while the application is technically free, associated requirements like a background check cost almost $500.
Make the Road in particular has been laboring to spread awareness of the program and to help more people apply. Aristizabal estimates that since June, 2,000 immigrants have come to the organization seeking information about DACA. The coordinator of Make the Road’s deferred action efforts, Natalia Lopez, says about 50 people a month actually apply for deferred action through the organization.
Prospective applicants attend an informational workshop held weekly at Make the Road’s Queens office. They fill out screening forms, and after Make the Road’s lawyers review the forms, applicants attend a separate legal clinic to go over their eligibility. If an applicant is eligible, the lawyers help her complete her application, and she leaves the office ready to mail it.
One undocumented immigrant who has received deferred action is Kym, a 23-year-old who lives in Canarsie. (Because she is currently applying to jobs, Kym asked that her full name not be used in this article.) Kym’s family emigrated illegally from Jamaica when she was ten, and she has spent the years since grappling with the barriers placed before her as a result.
Last year, she graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She wants to earn a master’s degree in social work, but many pieces of the puzzle must come together for that to happen.
Deferred action does not make Kym eligible for state financial aid. And while federal immigration legislation could allow her to stay in the country legally or gain citizenship, it wouldn’t guarantee her access to that aid soon enough for her to take advantage of it. To afford graduate school any time in the near future, she must look to the New York DREAM Act.
While the scope of this act may seem insignificant — at least compared to federal legislation that offers a path to citizenship for 11 million people — it could dramatically change the lives of people like Kym.
But the DREAM Act, too, is capricious.
Consider the case of Monica Sibri, an undocumented Ecuadorean immigrant who lives in Bay Ridge. Like Kym, Sibri was brought to the United States by her parents. She graduated from a public high school in New York City and is currently in her second year at the College of Staten Island. But because she arrived here three months after her sixteenth birthday, she doesn’t qualify for deferred action. Nor would she qualify for federal DREAM legislation. Her only chance to stay in the country legally is comprehensive immigration reform.
Dreams hang from fine threads like these, and it is stories like Sibri’s that need to be told if legislators are to be persuaded to support comprehensive reform. The paradox, of course, is that the most effective storytellers — the people who best understand the human cost of preserving the status quo — are undocumented immigrants themselves. And to tell their stories — to declare publicly their undocumented status — they must ignore every instinct of short-term self-preservation.
They must also see the purpose of speaking up. Many undocumented immigrants don’t realize the full costs of their status or the extent of the barriers they face until they run headlong into them. Without understanding the urgency of reform, and how it might radically reshape their futures, they see no reason to risk their own livelihoods in pursuit of it.
Sibri, for example, did not realize her status would prevent her from applying to most colleges until she started trying to apply. She had wanted to go to Harvard. Instead, she was limited to applying to schools in the City University of New York system.
Kym found out earlier, when, as a freshman in high school, a teacher invited her to attend a college fair with sophomores. She talked to recruiters; she collected brochures; she began to imagine life on campuses far from the city.
Then she came home.
“One of my sisters was like, ‘I don’t know why you’re looking at these schools, because you can’t go there anyway,’” she recalls. She couldn’t go for one simple reason: without a Social Security number, she couldn’t get financial aid, and without financial aid, she couldn’t afford any college outside the CUNY system.
But even after she realized that something had to be done, she was terrified to speak, lest she narrow her opportunities even further. She kept her status a secret even from her closest friends — many of whom, she says, are only now finding out.
Sibri was scared, too. There seemed to be no reason to put herself in the spotlight — she knew she wasn’t even eligible for the DREAM Act. She did not believe speaking publicly would change anything, even when a friend tried to recruit her for an immigration reform campaign in September 2010.
“There’s no leadership in this movement,” she recalls telling him. “You’re out fighting for a cause that’s not there.”
That’s where local organizers came in.
Through their colleges, Sibri and Kym got involved with the New York Immigration Coalition, a statewide organization with nearly 200 member groups, including Make the Road and La Unión. The coalition put them in touch with Brooklyn organizers and undocumented immigrants who were telling their stories at news conferences, at rallies, and on lobbying days in Albany and Washington. Gradually, as they began to develop relationships with other Brooklynites who shared their challenges and fears, their task grew clearer — and it began to seem doable.
“I wasn’t alone,” Kym says. “I was just being reminded that, yeah, it’s scary, but sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest or the scariest thing to do.”
Asked how she overcame her fear, Sibri is silent for a moment.
“I think I’m able to speak publicly in the sense that I’m not crying anymore, but not that I’m not afraid,” she says. “I felt like if I don’t show myself as strong, other people won’t come out. We’ve got to show them we can do this.”
Now, Sibri and Kym are helping to provide the voices that make the movement run. Without the kind of painstaking outreach and organizing that brought them into the drive for reform, groups like Make the Road, La Unión, and the New York Immigration Coalition wouldn’t have so many people willing to go to Albany and Washington. They wouldn’t be able to bring these personal stories to classmates and neighbors and often-antagonistic politicians — to give a face to the movement.
So through workshops in schools and in churches, through diligent follow-ups with people who attend one-time events, these groups help immigrants gain the confidence to speak — or at least raise awareness of the importance of speaking, even in the face of discomfort.
When she became director of La Unión, Alanis says, she found that many undocumented immigrants’ reluctance to get involved with reform activism stemmed from a fear of consequences that they did not fully understand. They didn’t know, for example, what would and would not draw the attention of immigration officials, and they didn’t know what resources would be available to them if they got in trouble.
“We have done a lot of community forums just to tell them that as an organization and with the proper legal advice, we are protecting your rights — but at the same time, if we don’t take action, these voices aren’t going to be heard,” she says. “It’s going to be only the politicians or other people making decisions for our community.”
Alanis becomes visibly enthusiastic when she mentions a fifteen-year-old Sunset Park resident who got involved with La Unión through its summer camp. The camp was focused on college and career preparation, but La Unión stayed in touch with the girl and her family after the summer ended, and eventually found out they were facing deportation.
The parents had immigrated first, she says, because they couldn’t afford to bring the whole family to the United States at once. After they had saved enough money, they sent for their children. But the girl and her younger brother were stopped by immigration officials near the border in California and sent to a shelter. Six months later, they were sent to New York. Now the family is in immigration court.
La Unión made sure they had a lawyer, and Alanis wrote a letter to the immigration judge, stating that the family members were involved in the organization and attesting to their character, which can help in a deportation case.
“Through the interaction, they know that we are here, really, to support each other and to work for the benefit of our communities,” she says. “They understand that if they don’t tell their stories, probably the stories are not going to be part of the discourse.”
The girl spoke at a press conference in January. And another voice entered the conversation.
There are many opportunities for new voices to join the chorus. Irania Sanchez’s came in 1998, when her daughter was born with heart problems and asthma, and the government denied Irania’s Medicaid application because she was not a citizen.
Around that time, she met Yorelis Vidal, a community organizer at Make the Road by Walking (the precursor to Make the Road New York, which was formed through the 2007 merger of Make the Road by Walking and the Latin American Integration Center). Vidal showed Sanchez how to file a complaint with the city and encouraged her to attend an organizing meeting at Make the Road. There, Sanchez found not only moral and practical support but also a vessel through which she could work for something bigger than herself.
Inspired by Make the Road’s work, especially on civil rights issues, Sanchez dove in. She helped organize in support of the Equal Access to Health and Human Services Act (also known as Intro 38), a 2003 City Council bill that required the New York City Human Resources Administration to provide free interpretation services and to translate all official documents into Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, and Spanish. Today, she attends weekly meetings and goes door-to-door to ask residents in and around Bushwick about the challenges they face, whether related to immigration status or otherwise.
This type of community building is both an ends and a means for organizations like Make the Road. At its most basic level, it improves the quality of life of people like Sanchez and gives them a sense of political empowerment and purpose. It creates a pool of immigrants who are willing to tell their stories and advocate for reform. And it helps the group learn about new and emerging challenges local immigrants face, information key to developing future organizing campaigns.
The Brooklyn office of Make the Road — the organization also has offices in Queens and Staten Island and on Long Island — is in Bushwick, a five-minute walk from the clatter of the L and M trains, where Myrtle Avenue, Wyckoff Avenue, and Palmetto Street intersect under the elevated subway tracks. On a frigid, blustery Thursday morning in February, the waiting room is crowded and filled with chatter — the walls plastered with murals, posters, and fliers.
At first glance, the office appears smaller than it actually is. Walk a few yards past the receptionist’s desk, and you’re already at the back door. Beyond that, however, you’ll find a silent courtyard with more murals, at the other end of which is a separate building that stretches to the next block. A door leads into a long hallway lined with small rooms on either side.
The second room on the left is where the leaders of Make the Road’s youth and school partnerships division work. One of these leaders is Jaritza Geigel, who started as a volunteer at fifteen, shortly after transferring to the Bushwick School for Social Justice. (The school, which Make the Road by Walking helped establish and Make the Road New York remains heavily involved in, is only a few blocks away.)
“This was like my second home,” she says, gesturing around the small office she shares with Sarah Landes, the director of the division. In high school, Geigel spent many evenings in the office. Sometimes she would stay so late her mother would call to ask where she was.
“She’s like, ‘So you live there now?’” Geigel, now 22 and a full-time employee, recalls. “I used to love coming here more than coming home.”
Geigel is far from alone: several employees at Make the Road started as volunteers when they were thirteen or fourteen. Once they realize that grassroots work can be a decisive contributor to state-level and national change, she says, they’re hooked. And the issues Make the Road is tackling can be particularly salient to young people, who without reform face a lifetime of alienation and disenfranchisement.
In conjunction with other groups, Make the Road is pushing to revise the citywide discipline code, the set of guidelines teachers and school administrators use to penalize students for misconduct. It is also fighting the city’s “stop and frisk” policy, which allows police, at their discretion, to stop and search people they deem suspicious.
These programs pose a particular threat to undocumented immigrants, for whom any run-in with the police or city authorities is accompanied by a risk of losing almost everything.
Irania Sanchez knows this well. One of her brothers, who crossed the border with her in 1988 and settled in Brooklyn with his wife to raise a family, was deported four years ago under the Secure Communities program, established in 2008 under President George W. Bush. Secure Communities requires police in participating jurisdictions to send the fingerprints of anyone they arrest to the F.B.I., which forwards them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be cross-checked against an immigrant database.
Sanchez’s brother had lived in the United States for 20 years. He was 34 when he was deported, and he left behind two children born in the US. His sons, now twelve and fourteen, live with their mother, who has struggled with depression since she lost her husband. Had the federal DREAM Act been passed when it was first proposed in 2001, Sanchez’s brother would likely have been eligible for legal status — and the family might have remained together.
For many undocumented immigrants, especially parents, when fear creeps in and they dare to think about what might happen to them, the experience of Sanchez’s brother is their worst nightmare.
“I know that there are families that have been separated, and there are children that have been left without the parents,” says Maura, a Borough Park resident who did not want her last name used because she fears being identified by immigration authorities. Maura emigrated from Tlaxcala, Mexico, in 1999. Her two daughters, born in the United States, are four and twelve years old.
Their well-being is the source of her greatest fear. “The children are the ones who suffer the most in this situation,” she says.
Make the Road and its partners have been fighting for years to prevent the police run-ins that can tear families apart. A victory came in late February, when the New York City Council passed a bill that bars police officers from reporting immigrants arrested for petty crimes to federal immigration authorities, greatly reducing the scope of the Secure Communities program in the city and, presumably, preventing more devastating separations.
But the specter of deportation still hangs in the air at the weekly meetings of Make the Road’s community organizing team. Some of the immigrants who attend — Sanchez is among them — have been fighting for immigration reform for more than a decade. On their lobbying trips to Albany and Washington (the latter are more frequent now that the debate over federal immigration reform is gaining steam, says one of the group’s lead organizers, Daniel Coates), they try to tell their stories in a way that will resonate with legislators wary of granting “amnesty” to people who came to the country illegally. They heap praise on legislators who already support immigration reform and strive to win over tougher cases — legislators in southern Brooklyn, for example, who tend to be more conservative than those elsewhere in the borough.
“The most powerful thing that we have are the stories that show both how messed up and broken the immigration system is,” Coates says. “It really takes this debate, which so quickly becomes a very wonky, difficult to follow policy debate, and really humanizes it.”
This, at last, is where the hours and weeks and years of hyperlocal community building pay off. Each voice encouraged and honed through painstaking outreach, legal advice, and personal reassurance becomes a living, breathing example of the human consequences of current immigration policy, and the human rewards of reform.
It is easy for a legislator representing Sunset Park or Flatbush, with their high immigrant populations, to understand these things, says Jackie Vimo, director of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition. But legislators who represent districts with fewer immigrants may not fully appreciate that the people affected by reform, or lack thereof, include their own constituents.
“When they realize that undocumented youth have been sitting in school classrooms next to their own kids, they’re part of their church groups, they’re on the same soccer team, they’re really members of the community,” Vimo says, “that is definitely and always has been the most powerful message.”
While the community organizing arms of Make the Road and La Unión are fighting for a path to citizenship for Brooklyn’s undocumented immigrants, others are working to create the educational infrastructure that will allow them to take full advantage of citizenship.
The Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project is one such group. Flanbwayan, which operates out of a second-floor office on the northern edge of Flatbush, has a simple but vital focus — supporting literacy for immigrants. All New York City residents are entitled to public education through twelfth grade, with or without a Social Security number. So for many immigrants, whether or not they have documents, the first obstacle to educational attainment is the language barrier.
In order to earn a high school diploma in the city, students must pass the Regents Examinations, a series of state-mandated standardized tests. These, of course, require English proficiency. So, in addition to building a sense of community among Brooklyn’s tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants through everything from documentary screenings to dance classes, Flanbwayan works to ensure that every immigrant student has the resources needed to learn English, pass the Regents exams, and get into college.
English learners are “at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of dropout rate,” says Darnell Benoit, Flanbwayan’s executive director. “You’re supposed to be out of the system at 21. But the schools, they don’t want to give you the time until 21. They want to rush you out, just because of the numbers, the school statistics, all that stuff. Everybody wants to keep their school looking good on paper, so they don’t want those kids.”
When Max Miguel emigrated from Haiti in 2008 (legally), Flanbwayan helped him find a school known for its ability to accommodate immigrants and English learners: the International High School at Prospect Heights.
At first, his lack of English proficiency was a serious obstacle, both academically and socially. “Everybody was laughing, making fun of me,” he says. “I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to do.”
These social distractions were compounded by the fact that he had no access at home to the Internet or even a computer. But with the help of Flanbwayan, Miguel’s English improved. Now eighteen, he has completed more than the 44 credits required for graduation and needs only to pass the Regents exams. He is looking at colleges in upstate New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.
That success story, it must be noted, is possible because Miguel has documents.
By contrast, Kym only considered CUNY schools. “I didn’t even look into it,” she says of private colleges and even public universities outside the city. “I just figured that because of my status I would have to be out-of-state, and I wouldn’t be able to afford that.”
She graduated from John Jay with the help of a DREAM Fellowship — a semester-long internship program for undocumented immigrants accompanied by a $2,000 scholarship. (The fellowship is sponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition, the Korean American Community Foundation, and the Fund for Public Advocacy.) But when it comes to the master’s degree she wants to get in social work, everything depends on the financial aid for which she remains ineligible.
As a historically intransigent Congress debates each word in the DREAM Act and begins to contemplate something larger, thousands of immigrants like her are running in place.
But they keep fighting for reform — Kym, Sibri, Sanchez, and so many others — because despite the magnitude of their task, they do not believe it’s impossible. They do not believe that legislators are immovable objects.
If anyone has reason to be jaded, it is Irania Sanchez, who has spent 25 years in the United States — eight undocumented, seventeen documented — achieving incremental victories but also enduring incredible trials.
There was the immigration officer in Laredo who threw her against the wall and threatened her. There was the denial of her brothers’ petitions for documentation, which cast a pall over her own successful petition. There was the rejection of the Medicaid application she filed for her sick daughter. There was her brother’s deportation four years ago, a year after another brother died of brain cancer.
But when asked if she believes there’s a chance for reform, Sanchez doesn’t hesitate.
“I’ve always had hope,” she says.
It is in part thanks to Make the Road that she has been able to maintain it. The sense of agency that comes from fighting for their own rights can be as valuable to people like Sanchez as the tangible results of that fight. In some cases, when they think of the possibility of deportation, it is this agency that undocumented immigrants are most afraid of losing.
Monica Sibri has two years left at the College of Staten Island. After that, if no path to legality has been created, she will have to return to Ecuador — or stay in the United States under a cloud of uncertainty, knowing she might be uprooted at the drop of a hat.
When her family came to Brooklyn four years ago, returning to Ecuador was all she wanted to do. She was rattled by the unfamiliar customs — she was surprised, for example, to realize that students had to ask their teacher for permission to go to the bathroom, and horrified when one teacher told a classmate no — and she felt separated from everything her life had been built on for sixteen years. For the first year, she refused to learn English, thinking she could make her parents send her back.
But now, when she thinks about being forced out of the country, she realizes returning to Ecuador would mean leaving behind not only educational and professional opportunities, but also the sense of self-determination that community organizing here in Brooklyn has helped her build.
“If I think of it in a positive way, I go back to my country, I will open a new business,” she says. “But at the same time, I know that it will lead me to leaving pretty much my life. When I was little, I would just follow and do whatever anyone tells me. My own choices, my own decisions — all that is here.”