Chasing the dream

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 twar­

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