In truth, it was a long time coming — that moment Mariano Cardoso Jr. retreated to the secluded stairway on the 11th floor of Capital Community College.
He had received the letter from immigration officials last month, the one full of jargon that he didn't totally understand, but that instinctively made his heart sink.
But really, the realities of his undocumented status had been closing in from the moment his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby.
To the days he was growing up in the Bronx and he first heard the words: undocumented. Illegal.
To the three months the family briefly returned to Mexico in an effort to straighten out his father's status and he looked around and felt like an outsider.
To his teenage years in New Britain, when he wanted what all his friends had: a job, a car. And again, his parents told him, he couldn't.
The 22-year-old also couldn't get the financial aid he needed to go to college to become a math teacher. But he and his father cobbled enough money together to pay tuition at Capital Community College, where he is scheduled to graduate in May.
If he is still here.
The letter he received Feb. 7 was clear: His appeal of the deportation he'd been fighting since he was picked up by immigration agents in 2008 was denied.
It seemed as unreal as the August day immigration officials descended on his uncle's home looking for a woman they believed was a drug dealer who didn't live there.
When his uncle refused them entry into the house because they didn't have a warrant, they separated everyone and looked over their documents. Cardoso spent two weeks in a detention center in Rhode Island before his family was able to post a $5,000 bond to get him out.
And now, after a hearing and an appeal and a rollercoaster ride of emotions, his fate was right there in black and white: He had to leave the only home he's ever known.
After two years of trying to remain hopeful, of bottling up his stress and fear, Cardoso took to that school stairwell and finally broke down and cried.
He cried again when we talked the other day at the school's seventh-floor library.
"Can we do this another time?" he asked, clearly embarrassed by his emotions.
As much as I wanted to say yes, I couldn't. You may not have much time left, I told him. There's no real way of knowing when he'll be deported. But it could be any time.
He's out of options, his lawyer Anthony Collins told me when I called after meeting Cardoso.
And in the pause that followed, he heard the question he's been getting from a growing number of Cardoso's supporters — the Trinity College student group that has demonstrated on his behalf. The teachers and staff at the school. The hundreds of people who have signed a Facebook petition asking that Cardoso be allowed to stay.
When people hear his story, Collins said, their first reaction is that there has to be something that can be done, some way to keep this from happening.
Collins then told me what he's forced to tell anyone who asks: "There's no legal remedy available to him." Cardoso could lie low. He can hope that his deportation is deferred.
But the only real, lasting answer for him and so many others like him is to fix our broken immigration laws, to finally pass the Dream Act , which would grant young people like Cardoso resident status and a door to naturalization so long as they meet specific requirements.
And before opponents start crying about the legislation being an unfair reward for those who violated immigration laws, let's stop and get real.
These young people are here. They are growing up in our towns, our neighborhoods. They are being educated in our schools. They are American in every way except the bureaucratic one.
And they want nothing more than to be productive members of a country that they are proud to call home.
Before we parted, Cardoso was very clear that he doesn't want to be just another sob story. And even if it might buy him more time, he also doesn't want to slip back into the shadows.
"I want everyone to understand that this is real and it doesn't make any sense,'' he said. "Why should I or anyone else like me have to leave a country that's our home?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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