Guest post by Rachel Silberstein, News Editor of Brooklyn College’s newspaper, The Kingsman.
NEW YORK—Anayely Gomez looks like your average Brooklyn College student. She wears her dark hair in a high ponytail and a backpack slung over one shoulder. A dimple dots one cheek when she smiles and a determined crease appears in her brow as she describes her new student club. But the 23-year-old bilingual education major will not be able to work as a teacher after she graduates this fall. Teachers in New York State must be fingerprinted. To be fingerprinted, a teacher must submit a Social Security number. Gomez doesn’t have one.
On Monday, October 17, Gomez and Cesar Ventura, a sophomore Latino Studies major, held elections for their student club, “The Dream Team,” the first club on campus to focus on the DREAM Act and immigration issues. Gomez is the new club president and Ventura was elected vice president.
It all began as a Facebook group, where students could post petitions for relatives and friends who were in detention centers or at risk of deportation.
“I want undocumented students to come out and not be afraid anymore. I want them to not be in the shadows,” said Gomez.
On Thurday, October 27, the Dream Team hosted its first event, “The Right to Dream.” Dreamers formed a circle, sharing their stories, and The New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) immigration attorney Gisela Chavez-Garcia spoke about “misconceptions about getting your papers”.
Gomez was motivated to become an activist when she ran into problems securing her final set of credits this semester, a student teaching position which required that she be fingerprinted. She searched the Internet for guidance and discovered NYSYLC, an organization run by immigrant youth endeavoring to pass the DREAM act.
Gomez began attending meetings and met another student who had studied bilingual education and had run into the same problem. Since she was interested in a short-term teaching job, Gomez was advised to say that her Social Security card was on its way, and the plan has worked so far.
At NYSYLC, Gomez learned of the nation-wide “dreamer movement” and the DREAM Act, which would allow students who came to the country before the age of 16 to begin a six-year process which, as long as they complete high school and two years of college or military service, could end in permanent citizenship. She decided that fighting for New York State to pass the DREAM Act was her only chance at achieving a better future.
Although she is the oldest of three sisters who are each about a year apart, Gomez’s siblings have not shared her struggles.
When she was three-years-old Gomez and her parents traveled to the U.S. from Mexico City in the back of a truck, with several other families she did not know. Her sister Alma, who is now 22 and has recently reconnected with Gomez through Facebook, was left behind to be raised by her grandparents. Gomez said that she remembers little about the journey, but recalled crouching under leaves and gardening tools as they drove across the border.
“I remember faintly my mother telling me, ‘Don’t say anything. Be quiet,’” Gomez said.
Gomez’s youngest sister Araceli was born in Brooklyn, NY, making her a U.S. citizen. As the oldest, Gomez always tried to to set an example for her sister, working multiple minimum-wage jobs, sometimes 12-hour shifts, while getting consistent A’s in college. Though the sisters are close now, Gomez initially resented Araceli’s privileges as a citizen.
“I had to be her role model, but it hurt that she had it easier,” said Gomez. “She is able to apply to any school, she can get financial aid, she can travel, she can get a state I.D., and she can work anywhere. We got into fights because she seemed to take it for granted and it didn’t seem fair that I had to work twice as hard.”
When Gomez was nine, her father was almost deported when the factory he worked at was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He managed to hide under a table and made it home to tell his family about the ordeal. Still, Gomez did not completely understand that her family was different since immigration status was rarely spoken about.
“It didn’t hit me until I tried to get a summer job in high school like my friends. I felt very out of place. I thought, ‘I’m not like my friends. I can’t work. I can’t travel. I can’t vote.’ It was very scary.”
Ventura, who will succeed Gomez as president of the club after she graduates this fall, traveled from Mexico City to Brooklyn when he was eight. Like Gomez, he did not have to worry that he was different until high school when he realized that he could not get a job or learn to drive like his friends. In his senior year, he was accepted to most colleges of his choice, but could not attend them.
Some, like Syracuse University, had tuition and living expenses that were too expensive to manage without financial aid or loans unavailable to DREAMers. Even with a 3.6 GPA, Ventura did not qualify for the limited scholarships available to DREAMers at some schools.
“The reality is CUNY has very few scholarships available for undocumented students. Undocumented students can apply to CUNY Honors College. It’s available only to outstanding undocumented students, and it offers a laptop, a stipend and full tuition scholarship,” said Sofia Carreno, communications coordinator for CUNY’s immigration center, Citizenship Now, which Ventura said had helped him.
“If I wasn’t in this situation I don’t think that I would appreciate everything that I have. In the end it makes me work harder,” said Ventura.
He joined forces with Gomez because he wanted to motivate other DREAMers to tell their stories and speak out for immigration reform.
Ventura had strong words for undocumented students at Brooklyn College who might be afraid to put their parents at risk.
“I know that our parents struggled for us to be here, but they brought us here for a better life. We are not making it better by staying in the shadows. We have to act on what our parents wanted for us. If we cannot get a job, then we cannot have what our parents wanted—a better life. It’s something that we all deserve.”
Gomez agreed. “If we can acquire the language and skills to get a better job, then in the end we will be able to better help our parents,” she said.
While so far the group is predominantly Latino, the club’s new treasurer is Indonesian and they are reaching out to DREAM Act-eligible students of all nationalities. Students at other CUNY schools – Lehman College and Baruch College – have recently formed similar clubs to support the DREAMer movement.
Rachel Silberstein is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is a junior at Brooklyn College majoring in journalism, and is the news editor of Brooklyn College’s newspaper, The Kingsman.