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Immigrants at conference advised: ‘Don’t sell yourselves short’

Dr. Harold Fernandez, chief of cardiovascular surgery at

Dr. Harold Fernandez, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and the keynote speaker at the Long Island Dreamers Conference at Nassau Community College in Garden City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 to attendees to "be confident" and strive to attain their goals. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Hundreds of young immigrants who are high school students across the region received an inspiring message at an advocacy conference Friday: Though many may lack legal status, their dreams are legitimate.

Speakers urged the students to push for reforms that would provide them easier access to education and to keep fighting for more opportunities.

“Each and every one of you can do it,” said Jose Perez, an attorney with advocacy group LatinoJustice, who last year fought for Cesar Vargas, a New York City immigrant without legal status, to become licensed as a lawyer after passing the bar. The case opened the way for other immigrants to become licensed.

“Change is happening because of students like Cesar who stand up and have a voice,” Perez told them. “Think about law school, think about medical school, about nursing school. Don’t sell yourselves short.”

The Long Island Dreamers Conference at Nassau Community College in Garden City, in its second year, is an effort by the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates organization to spur those students forward, despite pushback against illegal immigration. “Dreamers” are immigrants who were brought to or stayed in the United States illegally as minors.

More than 500 students from schools in communities including Amityville, Brentwood, Glen Cove, Great Neck, Hempstead, Mineola, Southampton and South Huntington attended the event’s morning sessions.

“We want to motivate young immigrants, and especially the undocumented, so that, first, they continue their studies and know that it’s possible to enroll in college,” said Osman Canales, the group’s lead organizer.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Harold Fernandez, shared his story of leaving Colombia as a child, traveling by boat across rough waters and arriving in Miami illegally. His journey was only beginning, as he moved with his parents to New Jersey, held a job, studied hard and made it to Princeton and Harvard.

Now, he’s chief of cardiovascular surgery at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore. He told the immigrant students that education can open doors.

“Be confident . . . Don’t let anybody tell you that because you are Hispanic, or you are African-American, or you have another religion, that you can’t be at the top of your game,” Fernandez said.

An analysis issued three years ago by the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli put the number of Dreamer students enrolled in college in the state at about 8,300 in 2012 and argued for state-funded tuition aid to fill the need for higher-skilled workers.

In a 2012 analysis, the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, D.C., estimated that about 1.8 million Dreamers who came to the country before they turned 16 would qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program protecting them from deportation under an executive action by President Barack Obama that applied to most of those living in the United States as of June 15, 2012. An estimated 110,000 potential DACA recipients were believed to reside in New York State.

As of June 30 this year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 1.5 million requests for “deferred action.” About 1.3 million of those immigrants had been granted the opportunity to stay, attend school and work, pending broader immigration reforms.

Dreamers caught a break last year when the New York Board of Regents approved regulations to allow those immigrants pursuing careers that require state licensing and certification to obtain them, as long as they meet other educational requirements. The move allows them to become nurses, doctors, lawyers or teachers in the state before they have full legal status.

However, a proposal known as The New York Dream Act, which would give unauthorized immigrants access to financial aid for college tuition, failed to move in Albany for the fifth consecutive year, including a narrow defeat in 2014.

Students said they were leaving the event with a new determination to make their dreams real, despite the status question.

“I understand better that I can push forward,” said Geysel Ramos Vasquez, 17, an immigrant from El Salvador and senior at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington.

Sindy Alfaro Ortez 20, also a Salvadoran immigrant attending Walt Whitman, agreed. She wants to be a medical doctor, like the conference’s keynote speaker.

“He was undocumented, and he did it, so I know I can too,” she said.

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