Carolina was 10 years old when she left her native Brazil and came to the United States with her aunt and sister.
The trio traveled to Boston where they joined her mom, who had arrived two years earlier. Carolina dropped out of high school during her senior year and moved to Philadelphia to look for work.
“I didn’t find out it wasn’t OK for me to be here until I applied for a job,” she said, referring to her illegal status.
Her future husband, Helton, left Brazil as a teenager and joined his parents in South River, N.J. Helton dropped out of high school in his sophomore year to work construction. Now 27, he’s a self-employed contractor.
“I feel like an American,” he said.
But he’s not an American citizen, at least not a legal one, either. The Mayfair couple’s two children — 2½-year-old daughter Gabrielly and 15-month-old son Gabryel — are American citizens because they were born here. Their third child — Carolina is expecting — will be legal, too.
The United States does not have an especially active deportation program right now, but there is a remote possibility that parents who are here illegally can be sent back to their native countries, even if they have young children.
“Our kids can’t hold us here,” Carolina said.
The couple, who didn’t want their last name published, came to the U.S. with six-month tourist visas and never left. They are not eligible for food stamps, medical assistance or college financial aid. They do not have Social Security numbers or driver’s licenses.
“I have to drive really careful,” Carolina said about driving illegally, adding that she once had to walk home when police officers in Massachusetts pulled her over for a traffic stop and arranged for her car to be towed once they realized she didn’t have a license.
Helton and Carolina, though, long for the day when they can become legal American citizens.
“We want to go to work and pay taxes and help the country,” she said. “Our dream is to buy a house.”
Last September, they took a small, but important, step toward legalization. The couple enrolled at the Northeast GED Center, at 1928 Cottman Ave. (just west of Castor Avenue).
Carolina, who works in housekeeping, found the place after Googling “Northeast DREAM Act.”
Various versions of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act have been proposed in Congress, but none have passed.
But last summer, President Obama announced in a White House Rose Garden speech that he was issuing an executive order that included some aspects of the proposed DREAM Act.
Critics accused Obama of trying to curry favor with Hispanics in the heat of his re-election bid. They also suggested he wanted to slow the momentum of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was making progress with his version of the DREAM Act.
Whatever the politics, under the president’s order, for two years, the U.S. will not deport illegal immigrants who were brought here as children by their parents. Those youngsters must have been age 16 or younger when they arrived and no older than 30 today. They must be considered productive and law-abiding, with no felony convictions or multiple or significant misdemeanors. They must have lived in the United States continuously for five years or more. They must be in school or have graduated high school or earned a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a component of the Department of Homeland Security, will make decisions about who qualifies for the DREAM Act on a case-by-case basis.
According to City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, there are at least 20,000 “undocumented” individuals living in the Northeast.
Quinones Sanchez made her estimate based on talks with local Russians, Brazilians, Colombians, Arabs and Asians. She said the figures are evident based on the growing number of businesses catering specifically to these communities.
The councilwoman noted that the last census figures showed Philadelphia gaining in population for the first time in many decades. She believes the increase is due to tens of thousands of undocumented people citywide.
Bonnie Kaye, the director of the Northeast GED Center, was happy to hear from Helton and Carolina.
“These are children who came here. They live here thinking it’s their home,” Kaye said. “But they’ve been living under the radar all these years. They live under fear that a knock comes on the door and they get deported.”
Helton and Carolina, who met in the U.S. and have been married for three years, made their first visit to the Northeast GED Center on Sept. 12. He’d been out of school more than a decade. She’d been out for seven years.
“It came at the right time for us,” Helton said. “We’re adults. We’re married and settled down.”
The couple took classes for six weeks to prepare them for the GED test. They traveled to Temple University in mid-December and passed the test.
“Thanks to Bonnie,” Helton said, “everything she taught was on the test. She was very, very, very helpful.”
Helton and Carolina are the first Northeast GED Center students to pass the exam since the presidential executive order was issued.
Carolina aced the test. Though her dream of becoming a police officer has faded, she would like to attend college or work as a translator.
Kaye said others are studying for the test. In fact, she has asked Helton and Carolina to mentor two young Brazilian immigrants —18-year-old Wanderson, of the Far Northeast, and 20-year-old Ygor, of Rhawnhurst — who are taking the six-week course.
Helton and Carolina are waiting for their diplomas to arrive in the mail. Their next step will be to apply for Social Security numbers and work permits, which would put them on the tax rolls. They’ll then apply for drivers’ licenses and travel documents.
“Hopefully, in the summer, we’ll go on a plane to Florida,” she said of an anticipated vacation.
Min Hwan, an immigration attorney and native of Korea who works closely with Kaye, said the program will help eliminate fraud. He explained that many illegal immigrants are duped into purchasing so-called “international driver’s licenses.”
Helton once had a North Carolina driver’s license. When he was pulled over in New Jersey, police ripped the phony license in half.
Hwan is directing Korean and Spanish clients to Kaye in the hope they can enjoy the rewards of the presidential executive order.
“The only problem is that it’s valid only for two years,” he said.
Kaye is glad to play a role in helping local people start on the path to legalization. She calls these folks — who come from numerous countries — “the invisible people.”
“Now is the time to come back to school while the opportunity is there,” she said. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org