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Immigrant high school students challenged to 'dream'

About 400 immigrant students were encouraged to pursue college and careers - despite their lack of immigration status - during a symposium Friday at Suffolk County Community College.

The Dreamers' Conference, which drew students from about 15 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, was sponsored by Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates. (Credit: Danielle Silverman)

Christian Franco, an 18-year-old student at Hampton Bays High School, said fear of drug violence where he grew up south of Mexico City persuaded his aunt to flee with him across the Texas border two years ago, and into the United States.

Franco was among about 400 immigrant high school student “dreamers” who were encouraged to pursue college and careers — despite their lack of immigration status — during the fourth annual Long Island Dreamers' Conference on Friday at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood.

“Narco-trafficking is so dangerous in my country, so I want to stay here,” Franco said. “I have a dream to help my family, have a house, have a business, make money for my family.”

The four-hour symposium, which drew students from about 15 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk, was sponsored by Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates. The nonprofit was founded by Osman Canales of Huntington Station, the son of a father living in this country illegally who fled violence in El Salvador in 1989.

Organizers stressed to attendees they could legally attend college or find jobs despite lacking immigration papers, based on executive action taken in 2012 by President Barack Obama.

The order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows individuals to apply for renewable two-year work permits as long as they meet educational and residency requirements. Last year, a federal judge blocked an effort by President Donald Trump to end DACA.

Keynote speaker Cesar Vargas, a lawyer and immigration activist who himself is working under DACA protection, told the students his mother smuggled him over the Texas border when he was 5, and that he grew up on Staten Island.

He said that after earning a law degree from New York Law School in 2012, he successfully sued for admission to the New York State Bar Association in 2013. He initially was rejected because he lacked immigration status.

He urged students to know and agitate for their rights, and to reject dehumanizing labels he said have increased since the election of President Donald Trump.  

“We’ve been dehumanized with language such as ‘gang members, criminals, illegals, aliens',” Vargas said. “We need to organize for a community that has something for everyone.”

Canales, 29, said the organization began as a student club he founded at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington. He said he saw the need to create support networks for children in the United States illegally because so many of his fellow students were dropping out of school.

Melissa Figueroa, the organization’s vice president and a former Hempstead school board member, said the children of parents in this country illegally often shun opportunities out of fear that their involvement could attract the attention of immigration officials, and lead to their deportation.

“We have so many dreamers in Hempstead, but a lack of leadership,” said Figueroa, who was born in Queens to Puerto Rican parents. “We’re trying to engage these dreamers, so they can be leaders themselves.”

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