Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Breakfast participants told immigrant kids 'hit a brick wall'

President of Latino Civic Association addresses event at Renaissance, Grant City

Breakfast dedicated to Boimah Cooper

By Reginald Patrick

Nine-year-old Esteban, an energetic and inquisitive Catholic school student, has a burning ambition: To become a member of New York's Finest. He says he wants to protect people from crime. But Esteban's dream will never come true. His parents are illegal aliens from Mexico, and since they brought Esteban with them, so is he.

Not all the grit or schooling in the world can change that stark reality.

"Kids like Esteban hit a brick wall at some point in their lives because of that status," said Doris Ruiz, president of the Latino Civic Association of Staten Island.

She spoke yesterday at an immigration reform breakfast in the Renaissance, Grant City, before a broad spectrum of local and citywide advocates for immigrants, as well as several elected officials.

The breakfast was dedicated to the memory of a child not born here -- Boimah Cooper, the 6-year-old Liberian brought to Staten Island by Good Samaritan Pat Lockhart. The boy succumbed last week after an operation.

Esteban's situation, Ms. Ruiz said, mirrors that of hundreds if not thousands of other undocumented aliens of various ethnic backgrounds on Staten Island who are barred from attaining the American dream.

The Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, noted: "We're not only talking about Mexicans. This includes such groups as Russians, Albanians, Poles, East Asians and others.

"The impact on Staten Island could eventually be significant. These kids will end up as an underclass, unemployed or under-employed, and adding to the poverty rolls here. We've got to break this cycle."

The Staten Island Immigration Council and other immigration advocacy groups are pushing for passage of a bipartisan bill now before Congress. The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act allows for long-term resident immigrant students of "good moral character" to apply for legal residency so they can pursue their education and find work in a chosen field.

"Immigration is often considered a complex issue, but the DREAM Act is simple," said Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center in Manhattan, the keynote speaker.

"We as a nation have a special interest in treating these special immigrant youth well. These young people deserve a fresh chance. We're talking about youngsters who have excelled in school and only want to work. Often, these are honor students and award winners."

Twenty-eight-year-old Juan, who recently completed a bachelor's degree in business and marketing at the College of Staten Island, confessed he envies classmates for "being able to go out and find a job wherever they want."

"I'm 28 and unable to start a career in my field of expertise," said Juan, who must work off the books as a day laborer.

"It was not my choice to come to this country the way my father had sent me here. But it is my choice to stay and make something of myself."

The breakfast included remarks by Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, who noted that Staten Island boasts some 70,000 immigrants and posted the fastest growth in immigrant population in the city between 1990 and 2000.

"It's up 63 percent, which is huge," she said.

Councilman Michael McMahon (D-North Shore), Assemblyman John Lavelle (D-North Shore), District Attorney Daniel Donovan and Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) received awards for advocating for immigrants.