Olga Reyes stands in the Ridgewood flower shop she works in with her parents. Reyes works at this store, as well as a food cart, while also attending school full time in order to pay for her college tuition.
Standing amidst rows of colorful bows and fragrant flowers, Olga Reyes, 18, props her head up with her elbow and sighs.
The political science major from Jackson Heights has been up since before dawn and is more than a little sleepy. It is about noon, but she still has a long day ahead of her. She will likely be working in a flower shop in Ridgewood until around midnight while trying to cram in some studying and essay writing in between making bouquets.
This is not just a weekend shift for Reyes, the valedictorian of her class at the High School for Arts and Businesses in Corona last year. Nearly every day, she wakes up before the sun rises to work with her parents, either at a food cart or at the flower shop, in order to help pay for the $6,000 it costs her annually to attend the City College of New York full time.
Reyes was unable to land any financial aid to attend school because she is an undocumented immigrant. Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old.
“My parents brought us here because they wanted us to have a better life,” she said. “But right now life is hard. It’s disappointing.”
Reyes’ story is one that has been told time and again in Queens, where many students are living without documentation after their parents brought them to the country as minors. There were about 8,000 undocumented students who graduated from high school in the city last year, according to Make the Road New York, an organization that works with immigrants throughout the five boroughs.
Students, Make the Road officials and federal lawmakers from the state are hoping these students will soon be able to access financial aid, as well as a path to citizenship, if the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act passes. A Senate filibuster blocked the legislation, first proposed in 2001, on Dec. 18, 2010. It is expected to be introduced again this year.
“The DREAM Act would really mean students being able to really take part in society,” said Natalia Aristizabal-Betancur, a youth organizer at Make the Road. “We’re talking about a pool of young people who come to the country when they’re little and grow up in Queens, in these neighborhoods, who know English and go to school here, only to find out they can’t get government scholarships or aid to help them pay for college. It crushes their hearts.”
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), along with a host of other senators, have called on President Obama to stop the deportation proceedings for any youth who would have been protected by the DREAM Act.
“Current law unfairly punishes thousands of young people who grew up here and know only America as their home, holding them back from making a contribution to our country’s military and economy,” Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, said in a statement.
Francisco Cureo, 18, of Astoria was lucky enough to land a full tuition scholarship from Make the Road, allowing him to likely attend Syracuse University to study accounting next year, but he said many of his undocumented friends are stuck in a position where they did well in school all their lives but now cannot go to the school they want to attend because they cannot afford it.
“I have friends who came here when they were babies,” Cureo said. “This is the only country they know. They grew up here, got an education here. This is the community they want, and can, contribute to.”