With her mother, Peodora Jimenez; her husband, Wilder Reyes; and her eldest daughter, Elisabeth, in the audience, Inwood resident Laura Reyes told her life story, which includes being born in Mexico, coming to the United States at age 2½, returning to her native country after high school, becoming a “Dreamer,” attaining a Green Card, and now waiting to apply for American citizenship.
Reyes, 33, recounted her tale as an applicant for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created by President Barack Obama in 2012. The federal program allows people who arrived in this country illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year deferral from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.
President Trump ordered the termination of DACA in September 2017, but the U.S. Supreme Court is now considering the program’s legality. Until it reaches a decision, all of DACA’s protections remain in effect. Recipients can still renew their status, but new applicants are not able to enroll.
Reyes and noted immigration lawyer Michael Wildes spoke before a gathering of the National Council of Jewish Women Peninsula Section at the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre on Nov. 14. Wildes, who grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, is also the three-term mayor of Englewood, N.J.
“My grandmother tied a string from her leg to my leg,” Reyes said. Her grandmother, she explained, later told her that that was how scared she was about losing Laura on their harrowing trip to the U.S. in 1989. “My mother lost contact with my grandmother for days on end,” she added. Reyes’s parents and other family members were already in Inwood.
DACA and the American dream
Before Reyes and the more than 660,000 so-called Dreamers could ever conceive of DACA, Wildes said, the seed for the program was planted in the 1970s. “In 1971, a client calls my dad and asked for a meeting,” said Wildes, whose father was Leon Wildes, a renowned immigration attorney. “Who knew that six years later, the face of immigration would change?”
The client was John Lennon. The case was Lennon’s possible deportation from the U.S., based on a 1968 conviction for marijuana possession in his native England. President Richard Nixon was pushing for the deportation, fearing the former Beatle’s political views and influence over millions of young people who could vote in the 1972 presidential election. But Lennon was never deported, and was issued a Green Card.
“Sound familiar?” Wildes said, underscoring the similarity between Nixon’s and Trump’s willingness to use a fear of immigrants for political gain. “Trump’s narrative is scaring people,” said Wildes — who nonetheless has helped Trump obtain visas for contestants in his beauty pageants, and helped members of his family — his wife, Melania, and her parents — become U.S. citizens.
Reyes faced the problem all Dreamers do after coming to the U.S. Not being legal, she couldn’t take driver’s education with her Lawrence High School classmates or obtain a driver’s license, and dreaded applying to colleges without a Social Security number — stories she recalled with tears at the Jewish Center. Her mom told her the truth about her citizenship status when she asked to take driver’s ed. “That day, my world, as I knew it, was shattered,” Reyes said. “I was angry and felt ashamed. My mother held me tight.”
Speaking first in Spanish, she translated her sentiment about considering a return to Mexico, which was nixed by her family. “I am not from here, nor from there,” Reyes said. She applied to Nassau Community College, was admitted and eventually graduated with an associate’s degree in 2007. Two years later she married.
In 2011, she enrolled her daughter Elisabeth in the Five Towns Early Learning Center. She became a teacher’s assistant at the Inwood school in 2014. Her younger daughter, Sophia, now 5, also attended the ELC.
Reyes earned a child development certificate through the Child Care Council of Nassau Inc. in 2016. The nationally recognized credential adds to the professional development of those who working with children. Two years later, she was the valedictorian of her licensed practical nursing class, and is now on track to graduate with an associate nursing degree at the Helene Fuld College of Nursing next year.
“We just want the opportunity for a better life,” Reyes said, “just like the immigrants before us.”
Past and present connections
NCJW Program Chairwoman Carole Tolkin recalled her own brush with the immigration issue. “My husband, Marvin, and I went to Bulgaria in 1998, and we met a man who wanted to come America,” she recounted. “He wanted to go to business school. We helped him to get to the U.S. Alex applied to colleges in the U.S. and came to Long Island. He received a degree in business administration and became a citizen. Then, after working for another company, he opened his own accounting firm. His American dream came true.”
Tolkin looked over at Wildes and said, “We went to Leon Wildes for help.”