By Rafael Benitez, New York State Youth Leadership Council
Philanthropy New York’s Education Working Group, in conjunction with the Donors’ Education Collaborative and the Fund for New Citizens at The New York Community Trust, held a recent briefing to bring greater clarity to New York City’s efforts to help eligible youth apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). One of our speakers at that briefing was Rafael Benitez, a student who decided to apply for DACA, and we’re very pleased to share his story on Smart Assets.
After many years of being ignored, neglected and disillusioned, undocumented youth have finally been given a chance to not be as helpless as we used to be.
I moved from Mexico to New York with my parents when I was six years old. My parents clearly told me that I was undocumented the moment we stepped foot in New York but to “never let anyone know; tell them you were born here. You could get deported.”
Upon arrival, I started going to a public elementary school and led the simple life of any other child. Nevertheless, I couldn’t escape growing up, and I eventually reached high school.
I attended the wonderful Bronx High School of Science for two years. I can honestly say that while those were the two most stressful years of my life, they were also the most fun and most engaging. Sadly, reality hit me. College was right around the corner, and I had no idea whether or not I would apply. “Would colleges accept me? Would I be able to afford them? Is it even worth it knowing I will not be able to practice my profession after graduation?” These were the discouraging questions that flowed through my mind. The worst part was that I was too afraid to mention these thoughts to anyone. Not only did I not want to risk deportation, but I also didn’t want people to mock me or think less of me.
After several months of doing research, I found out that I could actually go to college and I might be able to afford it. Private scholarships were the way to go since financial aid was not an option. However, this meant that I had to excel in my studies and surpass my classmates. The problem was that I attended an extremely competitive school where everyone received high grades, so how was I supposed to stand out from the crowd? The answer was a simple, unwanted one. I left my precious Bronx Science and enrolled in the less competitive Renaissance High School.
My story is one of thousands. They are all different but equally emotional. Undocumented youth face daily struggles they cannot escape. They feel weak and lonely and they fear the future that will bring more serious struggles. Thankfully, President Barack Obama passed his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on June 15, 2012, and that brought some hope back into the hearts of these youth.
I will personally take advantage and tell colleges that while I may not able to receive financial aid, I can legally work in or around campus. I will do my best in college knowing I can actually put my degree to good use. Nevertheless, I am one of the informed, brave ones. Some undocumented youth are still afraid because they do not know the advantages of applying for DACA.
Information is key to applying. Applicants need to know the Five Ws and One H of applying for DACA. They need to know that it’s safe and reliable. They need to know what kind of documents they need to gather and who to go to if they need any help. In fact, they need to know that it is almost impossible to successfully apply without the assistance of someone who is trained to help. They need to know the requirements. They need to know that they may actually be eligible for other types of legal statuses that are not DACA, ones that can actually open a path to citizenship. They need to know that there is a $465 fee, and that application services will cost a significant amount of money unless they are free. School counselors and teachers need to be informed on these matters so they can effectively assist their undocumented students.
I was able to apply without economic troubles, but it is a different story for other people. Some families, especially ones with more than one undocumented youth, will struggle to find the money to afford DACA. That is why I think free legal aid clinics, like the one hosted by the Legal Aid Society that I went to for help in filling out my application, should be provided around the city.
Thank you for your time.