Undocumented students seek justice

BRIGHTON — Kemberly Gil is a SUNY Brockport sophomore who is studying international relations.

The Colombia native also is an undocumented student who at times feels alone on campus. But she knows she is one of the lucky ones to have the opportunity to pursue higher education, thanks to the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation.

Gil shared her story during a panel discussion before Rural & Migrant Ministry’s annual Harvesting Justice dinner Oct. 29 at Temple B’rith Kodesh. The discussion, which focused on "Creating Opportunities for Immigrant Youth," kicked off with a screening of the film, "DREAMers Among Us."

"I feel sometimes like I have to be super woman: to work to help (my parents) pay for my tuition and rent and do well in school," said Gil, who moved to the Untied Sates with her family when she was 3. "But I’m not super woman. I’m human. I’m a regular college student trying to figure things out. … There are steps you can take to help me and other (undocumented students). Stand with me. Bring more people to have this conversation and create more spaces to hear our voices."

Others on the panel said that they could relate to her experience, including Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Union, and Bolgen Vargas, outgoing superintendent of the Rochester City School District. Betty Matthewson García, director of Opening Doors Diversity Project, also was a panelist.

Although his mother only had a fifth-grade education and his father never stepped foot in school, Urbanski said that his parents were "brilliant" and found a way for the family to escape communist Poland. He started out shining shoes on Clinton Avenue and went on to receive a doctorate degree from the University of Rochester.

"Immigration is the history of America," he said. "The details are different, but the story is the same."

This national story includes immigration opposition, scapegoating, stereotyping and public calls for building walls to keep "them" out, Urbanski said. Such actions took place at the turn of the last century and the century before that, he added.

"(And) our goals are the same: fairness, opportunity for everyone and social justice," Urbanski said. "We also believe that can best be achieved through a collective voice."

Vargas said that it was painful to hear the undocumented students in the film talk about the injustice of "broken promises" — their immigration status keeping them from a college education after years of hard work in high school. In New York, DREAM Act legislation to allow undocumented students to apply for financial aid has stalled for several years.

"My teachers never asked me if I was undocumented," noted Vargas, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. "I know they saw the potential in me."

Gil said that she finally saw the importance of students like her speaking up for themselves when she joined R&MM’s Youth Arts Group. She began taking part in protests and rallies in support of the DREAM Act. And then, she and her brother came up with the idea to make a film to educate everyone about their struggle, Gil said.

The film took four years to make, and all of the students in the film also helped create it, she said. Their mentor, filmmaker Roberto Romano, died before the film was finished, but they never gave up, Gil said. The 22-minute film is dedicated to him.

The documentary has been shown at film festivals, schools, congregations and conferences and is raising awareness in a way that she could not have even envisioned, Gil said. In one high school, administrators and parents tried to block the film from being shown because "we don’t have an immigration problem," she said. Then, the school’s prom queen revealed that she was an undocumented student, Gil said.

"Open your eyes," she said is the main message of the film. "Even if you don’t agree on (legislation). We’re here."

Following the panel discussion, R&MM also presented several awards, including the Jim Schmidt Award to Dr. John "Lory" Ghertner and Nancy Ghertner, for their support of migrant workers, specifically women and youths. Nancy Ghertner made a film about farmworker women called "After I Pick the Fruit."

Ghertner said that he had a difficult time accepting the award because the fight for the rights of farmworkers, and especially undocumented students, is not over.

"It’s hard to accept an award for something when you have not succeeded," he said. "My godson has a lot of trouble walking out of the door every day afraid for what’s going to happen for him and his son. And until, and I have a whole lot of questions of when and when is this going to stop, but until I don’t have to answer those questions, we haven’t really solved the problem. And we haven’t really changed the world."

Keynote speaker Dr. Alfredo López from St. Joseph’s Hospital Medical Center in Syracuse agreed that the work continues for justice for migrant workers. A native of Mexico, he moved with his family to California when he was 5 years old and began working in the fields, he told the audience of more than 200 people at R&MM’s dinner.

When finally allowed to go to school in third grade, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. to work in the fields until it was time to go to school. López then walked to school, and after school returned to work in the fields until 10 p.m.

He decided to become a doctor upon witnessing a hospital refuse to care for his mother because of the family’s immigration status.

"I said to myself I will never let that happen to another human being ever," he said.

When he moved to upstate New York for his work, he was surprised to learn there were migrant workers in this area. And when he found out there were women delivering babies in migrant camps, he set out to help them. López also serves as medical director of obstetrics and gynecological services at Upstate University at Community Hospital.

"I have a passion to actually make a difference (for) the people I can take care of," he said. "All of my work has been treating people in clinics that nobody wants, that nobody thinks anything of."

López said that he was especially honored to see students at the dinner, who reminded him of himself at that age.

"I know what it’s like not being to stand up and speak," he said. "I was right there. … And my dream is still on."

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