Sunday, June 20, 2004

The New York Times > New York Region > The City > Ticket to Nowhere

The New York Times > New York Region > The City > Ticket to Nowhere

HULDA MAZARIEGOS was on the volleyball, softball and track teams at Wyandanch Memorial High School, was a member of Junior ROTC and was class treasurer. She joined the French, yearbook and science clubs. She took college-level classes in science and law, winning a medal as a lawyer in a mock trial. She played the flute. All that while, she lived with her parents and most of her eight siblings in a tiny cottage whose living room was lined with mattresses where some of the children sleep.

"If I had had a desk and some privacy, I could have done even better," Ms. Mazariegos said. Told that a 3.9 average was nearly perfect, she shrugged. "I'm really driven," she said.

Ms. Mazariegos said she believed that the day she graduated as Wyandanch's valedictorian would be the happiest of her life. Awarded a full four-year scholarship to St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, she was just the second person in her family to receive a high school diploma and would be the first to attend college.

But Ms. Mazariegos, who graduated in June 2003, has spent the last year working part time in a deli and volunteering at her church, unable to attend college because she is an illegal immigrant. Born in Guatemala, she entered the United States illegally along with her mother and siblings when she was 7. A deportation order was issued for her family two years later. For a decade now, they have fended off the authorities, living their lives subject to arrest and deportation.

"I wanted to get ahead and do something with my life," said Ms. Mazariegos, now 19. "I wanted to make my parents proud of me." But rather than celebrating, she became depressed. "I cried and cried because my life, my dreams, stopped right there," she said.

Like many colleges, St. Joseph's does not accept undocumented students. It deferred her scholarship for a year in the hope that she would obtain legal residency, said Marion Salgado, the admissions director for the Patchogue campus. "She's a good student, and we would love to have her here," Ms. Salgado said. "We understand her plight."

Ms. Mazariegos said she could not afford the tuition without a scholarship. Illegal immigrants are ineligible for government-backed financial aid, work-study programs and student loans, regardless of academic record.

"You can't blame her for being here," said her lawyer, David M. Sperling. "Her mother brought her here. And she couldn't have left in 1994 even if she wanted to because her family was here."

Neither the census nor public schools count undocumented students, but immigration lawyers estimate that thousands of young Long Islanders are college material in all but their immigration status. Many have lived here most of their lives and find themselves with nowhere to go after high school but into menial, off-the-books jobs, they say.

"We've created an underclass of these students," Mr. Sperling said. "They are fully Americanized, but after high school they have nowhere to go. They hit a wall."

In interviews, several undocumented students said they feared telling anyone they were illegal, even their guidance counselors. School districts are required to provide an education to every child in the district, but officials of several districts, aware of the growing anti-immigrant sentiment on Long Island, said they had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on students' immigration status. As a result, they said, some exceptional students don't apply to college, or are disappointed when they find the doors barred, as Ms. Mazariegos was. And guidance counselors say that the policy of silence means they don't know which graduating seniors are having trouble getting into college until it's too late.

"Hulda isn't the first," said Dexter Ward, the Wyandanch guidance counselor. "And she won't be the last."

Constance Clark, the Westbury superintendent, said that her district had the same policy but that she knew of 10 graduating seniors, including one in line to be valedictorian, whose immigration status could pose an obstacle. School officials are lobbying a private college on the prospective valedictorian's behalf, she said.


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