He Came To The U.S. Illegally As A Child, And Now Wants To Help Others In That Situation
May 29, 2011
Squeezed into a plastic folding chair, hundreds of cheering voices echoing in his head, Mariano Cardoso relished the moment he feared he'd miss in the years he spent fighting his deportation.
But there he was Thursday night, walking across the stage at the Connecticut Convention Center as he and more than 500 other students graduated from Capital Community College.
Cardoso decorated the top of his mortarboard with bright stickers and stuck a small Mexican flag in his cap. "I wanted to stand out," he said, smiling.
He didn't need the decorations for that. Cardoso's public battle against deportation to Mexico made him the sometimes reluctant face of a complicated and often heartbreaking immigration issue affecting thousands of young people nationwide. Young people who are American in every way but the bureaucratic one.
Cardoso was just 22 months old when his parents, seeking a better life for themselves and their children, entered the United States illegally. In 2008, he was visiting an uncle in New Britain when immigration officials, looking for someone else, picked him up. In February of this year, officials made the decision to kick him out of the country.
His plight attracted the attention and support of fellow students, teachers, immigration activists and, as every legal option was exhausted, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Dan Malloy.
In April, immigration officials granted 23-year-old Cardoso a rare stay of deportation. Victory. Cardoso was thrilled. But also, changed. The arduous fight to stay in the only home he's ever known had transformed him from a frightened young man fearing for his own fate into a confident and vocal activist determined to help change the fate of others like him.
"In the beginning, I was trying to save myself," he told me when I met up with him earlier in the week. "But as time went on, I realized that I had a voice that not everyone had and that I needed to use it."
And so, Cardoso stood alongside other young activists at the Capitol last week as legislators debated and then finally passed a bill that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. (The governor has said he will sign it.)
Another victory -- of sorts. For all the talk by opponents of the bill about the hordes of undocumented students who would overwhelm the state's universities, and potentially take the slots of American students, the reality is that many immigrants aren't even able to afford the lower tuition rate.
Cardoso certainly can't, which is why he is hoping to do another semester or two at Capital while working to pay for tuition at Central Connecticut State University. (There's also the matter of finishing a 10-page paper on Cesar Chavez to make his graduation official. But, he assured me, he's got that covered.)
More obstacles. But Cardoso isn't deterred from his quest to be an engineer or a math teacher. In the meantime, he is joining other local activists pushing for the passage of the DREAM Act, which would grant young people like him resident status and a door to naturalization as long as they meet specific requirements.
When I wondered aloud if the controversial legislation would ever pass, Cardoso looked at me with a smile that never left his face during the graduation ceremony.
"It will," he said, confidently. "Look at what happened to me. I didn't think this day would ever come, but here I am."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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