Speaking to hundreds of young immigrants at the third annual Long Island Dreamers’ Conference, Tereza Lee recalled Friday the days when she lived in the shadows of a basement apartment in Chicago as the Brazilian-born child of Korean immigrants.
She had become a dedicated piano player and was offered a chance to pursue specialized musical training, but she had to tell a teacher helping her apply to schools that she lacked “those nine digits” of a Social Security number, given to legal immigrants and citizens.
She and her parents were in the United States illegally.
“We were stripped from all possibilities here, a place that we called home,” said Lee, 34, who’s since obtained legal status and lives in Manhattan, where she is pursuing a doctorate in music. The conference by Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates was held at Nassau Community College in East Garden City.
The Dream Act that has come to define a generation of immigrants brought here illegally as children was introduced in 2001, after Lee’s plight was taken to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), its sponsor. Lee has come to be known as “the original Dreamer.”
The bill stalled in Congress, though, and has become the focus of advocacy as an estimated 800,000 young immigrants stand to lose protection from deportation, because President Donald Trump is rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that exempted many from enforcement.
Lee urged Dreamers to propel themselves forward and keep fighting.
Their cause is “not just an immigration issue,” Lee said. “It’s a human rights issue,” she said. “We are asking to be able to work and to get an education.”
Hundreds filled the room, representing schools from throughout Long Island.
Marlon Rivera, 16, a Salvadoran immigrant attending Great Neck North High School, said the talk made him feel he could realize his goals of gaining citizenship to join the U.S. Army and study computer science.
“I know kind of how it feels to move from a country for a huge amount of circumstances, like war or violence,” Rivera said.
“She’s like a person that she didn’t let documents stop her dreams,” said Indhira Morales, 16, who came from the Dominican Republic and goes to Great Neck North. She wants to become a teacher. “She’s like the kind of person I want to be.”