By: James Barron on May 18, 2014
Desperate to fill classroom vacancies, New York City school officials sent recruiting teams around the world in the late 1990s, promising jobs and help in obtaining green cards that would be a path to citizenship.
Thousands of teachers arrived to educate other people’s children. But those teachers’ children say their own dreams have been dashed for a simple reason: They lost their places in the slow-moving immigration system because they turned 21 before their parents received their green cards.
Now the children’s future and the fate of many young immigrants across the country in the same situation may hinge on an immigration case that the Supreme Court is expected to decide soon, perhaps as early as Monday.
Under federal law, immigrants can name children under 21 as dependents on their applications. But unless the parents receive green cards before the children turn 21, the children “age out” of the immigration system. So they face a painful choice as they approach adulthood: remain here illegally or return to countries they left years ago.
“It’s manifestly unfair,” said Richard P. Alba, an immigration expert and sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “These are young people who have been raised partly or wholly in the United States. Socially and culturally they’re Americans, and to toss them out on this kind of legalism is cruel.”
Some of the New York City teachers’ children say they lost time when they were teenagers because the school system initially directed their parents into the wrong visa category. A spokesman for the city’s Education Department, David Pena, said it provided support for the teachers, including paying for the lawyers who handled their visa applications — but not the applications for their children.
Even so, their tenuous legal standing reflects what critics say is a fundamental failing of the immigration system: It is not structured to keep families intact.
That is one issue in the Supreme Court case, which involves a California woman who immigrated from El Salvador in 1998 and whose son aged out before she received her green card. An administrative immigration tribunal ruled in 2008 that when he turned 21, he lost his spot in the long line for permanent residency and would have to start over.
His mother and her lawyers say that violates a 2002 law signed by President George W. Bush to keep immigrant families together. It said, in essence, that the immigration system would “freeze” children’s ages if they turned 21 before their parents were issued green cards so that the children would keep their places in line.
Immigration advocates say the tribunal, the Board of Immigration Appeals, interpreted the law too narrowly, a point echoed in a brief from lawmakers who supported the 2002 law. The government argued that the tribunal’s interpretation was reasonable because there is no specific immigration category for aged-out beneficiaries.
The government also argued that the language in the 2002 law was ambiguous, a point disputed in the brief from the lawmakers. They called the language in the law “unambiguous” and said they had intended children who aged out to retain what is known in immigration law as their original priority date — that is, the date on which their parents’ green cards were approved.
Should the Supreme Court rule for the mother in the California case, the teachers’ children could then try to obtain green cards, said Alina Das, a co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University’s law school who has been advising some of the children.
There are no reliable figures on how many children of immigrants have aged out, in part because data on immigration are tallied differently by several federal agencies. Elaine J. Goldenberg, who represented the Obama administration before the Supreme Court, told the justices that she did not know how many had aged out, but added that “we have reason to think that the number is quite large.”
New York City’s Education Department said that it hired 6,000 to 8,000 international teachers between 2002 and 2007, and that 1,500 were still employed.
Kira Shepherd, the director of campaigns for the Black Institute, a nonprofit that handles immigration issues affecting people from the Caribbean, said she had been told by Education Department officials that the number with pending green card applications was about 500. The International Youth Association, a group started by two of the teachers’ children who aged out, says that at least 300 children accompanied the teachers, but it is not clear how many of the children had turned 21 without receiving green cards.
Some of the teachers’ children say they have been riding an emotional roller coaster since aging out. Some have taken part-time jobs but were reluctant to discuss them because of their immigration status.
Mikhel Crichlow, one of the founders of the International Youth Association, said he was 15 when his mother was recruited to teach in New York.
“Trinidad didn’t have an architecture school,” he said, “so I always knew I would end up having to leave to go study. So when the offer came for my mom to teach in the U.S. and recruiters came and started making all these promises, my mom jumped at the offer and I was ecstatic. It was a no-brainer for us.”
They arrived in August 2001, three days after he turned 16. He graduated from Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and was a student at the New York City College of Technology when he aged out in 2005. He switched to a different visa category, as an international student, but that meant that he was no longer eligible for in-state tuition. Nor could he take a job to pay his expenses.
“Now they’re calling us illegal immigrants, but we’re not — we came here documented,” he said. “My mom sold her house and her car in the Caribbean to finance the trip here, so I have nothing to go back to. She got her green card in 2010. No one expected it to take that long.”
Alden Nesbitt, who is 24 and also helped start the youth association, said the recruiters’ promises in Trinidad in 2001 were alluring to his mother, Antoinette, who had 18 years of experience as a teacher and an administrator.
Ms. Shepherd, of the Black Institute, said some teachers had been drawn by advertisements in newspapers in the Caribbean. “The teachers came here under the assumption that it wouldn’t be hard for them to get onto a quick pathway to citizenship for themselves and their children, and that did not happen,” she said.
Mr. Pena, the Education Department spokesman, said green cards and a path to citizenship were “never part of the recruitment effort” and could come only from the federal immigration agency. But the department arranged for work visas and assisted immigration lawyers chosen by the teachers, Mr. Pena said. Starting in 2008, the department required teachers beginning the green card process to use lawyers it had hired. The department said it never paid for the applications for children or other relatives.
One immigrant teacher’s son from Guyana remembered how his mother had heard about the job opportunities in New York City in summer 2001. Their travel visas were approved on the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The son — who requested that he be identified only by his first name, Kevin, for fear of losing the odd jobs that pay his bills — said that moving to New York “with limited knowledge of what it would take to get a green card” had been a mistake. He attended Kingsborough Community College, City College and Brooklyn College and received an associate degree in mathematics from Kingsborough in 2010, the year his mother received her green card — and the year after he aged out of the immigration system.
“Nine years is a long time to live here,” he said. “I’m 29 now. I don’t work. I have friends who have their master’s degrees, and then I am asked, ‘What are you doing with my life?’ I just went where my parents said to go.
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