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College Student With A Dream Fights Deportation

Goes Public With Story Of Coming To U.S. As A Toddler And Growing Up As An American

Mark Spencer

March 06, 2011

Not so long ago, Mariano Cardoso Jr. felt alone and beyond help as he faced being forced to leave the country where he grew up, deported to Mexico as an undocumented immigrant.

The 22-year-old Capital Community College student saw his dream of becoming a math professor or civil engineer evaporating.

Brought to the U.S. when he was 22 months old first to the Bronx, then to New Britain he learned early to live in the shadows.

"I was always the shy one, the quiet one," Cardoso said. "I was raised to be cautious, to not attract any sort of attention."

But in 2008 he was picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and he's been fighting deportation ever since. Ordered deported after a hearing last year, he got a letter last month from immigration officials informing him that his appeal had been denied.

With his only chance of staying legally in the country the longest of long shots, he decided to do the exact opposite of what came naturally.

He went public.

Cardoso has overcome his fear and shyness and now shares his story with anyone who will listen. He explains that it was not his decision to come to the U.S. illegally. He says he feels as American as anyone else who grew up here, except for having the piece of paper that makes it official. A good student, he talks about what he can contribute to his community.

"It's just not fair," Cardoso said. "It just doesn't seem reasonable for me to be kicked out of my home. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a monster."

His case quickly drew community support.

The Trinity College student group Stop the Raids has demonstrated on his behalf in front of the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Building on Main Street. Another rally is planned for noon on March 12 in Room 206 at Capital. Teachers and staff at the school advocate for him on their own time to avoid any conflict as state employees.

About 650 people have signed a Facebook petition asking that Cardoso be allowed to stay.

One day last week, when he was in the seventh-floor library at Capital, a student approached him who had never met him, but had heard about him during a classroom discussion about immigration.

"I wish you well on your journey and completing college here in the U.S.," Denise Zuniga, of Hartford, told him. "It's something that hits home."

With a shy smile, Cardoso thanked her and asked her to sign his Facebook petition.

"I feel I have the support of my peers and I'm not running in the dark by myself," he said.

For Cardoso, the darkness descended on an August afternoon in 2008 while he was spending time with his family in his uncle's backyard. Five immigration agents and a New Britain police officer came into the yard, holding a photo of a woman they were looking for who they said was a drug dealer.

The officers wanted to search the house and got annoyed when his uncle refused because they didn't have a warrant, he said. The men and the women were separated and the officers ordered Cardoso, his uncle and cousins onto their knees while they looked over their documents.

Cardoso thought it was all a misunderstanding until he and two relatives were handcuffed and put in a squad car. He ended up in a detention center in Rhode Island for two weeks before his family posted a $5,000 bond to get him out. He finally got a hearing in Hartford immigration court in February 2010, but was ordered deported. He received the letter Feb. 7 denying his appeal.

He could file another appeal but his lawyer, Anthony Collins of Wethersfield, has advised against it, saying it would be expensive and he has no chance of winning.

"There's really no remedy available to him and that's what's so awful," Collins said.

Although illegal immigration is a controversial issue, young people in Cardoso's situation have perhaps attracted the broadest sympathy. The long debated DREAM Act would give them a chance to become legal. In its latest version, the DREAM Act applies to young people who were brought to the U.S. when they were 15 years old or younger, have lived here for at least five years and graduated from an American high school, among other conditions. They would be given "conditional status," allowing them to remain legally in the country.

After 10 years, those who complete two years of college or serve in the armed forces for two years, stay out of trouble and pay back taxes can apply to be legal permanent residents, the first step to citizenship.

Backed by the Obama administration, the act passed the House of Representatives in December but was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Barring immigration reform, Cardoso's only chance is to get a U.S. senator to introduce what's called a private bill, identifying him as someone who should be allowed to stay in the country.

Gaby Pacheco, of United We Dream, a national organization that advocates for undocumented students, said she knows of only three or four private bills that have been introduced in the last five years. Former Sen. Christopher Dodd introduced one in 2007 for two brothers, born in Colombia and raised in Florida.

During campaigns for the DREAM Act, and especially last year, students across the country stated publicly that they were undocumented. Some allowed themselves to get arrested at sit-ins, exposing themselves to potential deportation.

"These young people have lived their whole lives here," Pacheco said. "Unfortunately, because of a broken immigration system, they fall into a limbo."

There's no way to know when Cardoso could be deported. With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, officials focus on deporting those with criminal convictions for drugs or violent crimes. They could show up at his door in days, months, or years from now.

"It's just a ticking bomb and no one knows when it will go off," Pacheco said.

Cardoso says he now knows he is not alone and is determined to do what he can to bring reforms. There is too much at stake, he said, to do nothing.

"Everybody I know is here," he said. "Everything I hope to become is here."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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