April 2006


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 27 Apr 2006 07:45:39 -0700
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April 26, 2006

Student's Prize Is a Trip Into Immigration Limbo


A small, troubled high school in East Harlem seemed an unlikely place 
to find students for a nationwide robot-building contest, but when a 
neighborhood after-school program started a team last winter, 19 
students signed up. One was Amadou Ly, a senior who had been fending 
for himself since he was 14.

The project had only one computer and no real work space. Engineering 
advice came from an elevator mechanic and a machinist's son without a 
college degree. But in an upset that astonished its sponsors, the 
rookie team from East Harlem won the regional competition last month, 
beating rivals from elite schools like Stuyvesant in Manhattan and 
the Bronx High School of Science for a chance to compete in the 
national robotics finals in Atlanta that begins tomorrow.

Yet for Amadou, who helps operate the robot the team built, success 
has come at a price. As the group prepared for the flight to Atlanta 
today, he was forced to reveal his secret: He is an illegal immigrant 
from Senegal, with no ID to allow him to board a plane. Left here 
long ago by his mother, he has no way to attend the college that has 
accepted him, and only a slim chance to win his two-year court battle 
against deportation.

In the end, his fate could hinge on immigration legislation now being 
debated in Congress. Several Senate bills include a pathway for 
successful high school graduates to earn legal status. But a measure 
passed by the House of Representatives would make his presence in the 
United States a felony, and both House and Senate bills would curtail 
the judicial review that allows exceptions to deportation.

Meanwhile, the team's sponsors scrambled to put him on a train 
yesterday afternoon for a separate 18-hour journey to join his 
teammates from Central Park East High School at the Georgia Dome. 
There, more than 8,500 high school students will participate in the 
competition, called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science 
and Technology) by its sponsor, a nonprofit organization that aims to 
make applied sciences as exciting to children as sports.

"I didn't want other people to know," said Amadou, 18, referring to 
his illegal status. "They're all U.S. citizens but me."

Most team members learned of his problem only yesterday at a meeting 
with Kristian Breton, 27, the staff member at the East Harlem 
Tutorial program who started the team, inspired by his own experience 
in the competition when he was a high school student in rural 
Mountain Home, Ark.

Alan Hodge, 18, echoed the general dismay. "We can't really celebrate 
all the way because it's not going to feel whole as a team without 
Amadou," he said.

Amadou's teammates have struggled with obstacles of their own. When 
Mr. Breton called a meeting of parents to collect permission slips 
last week, only five showed up. One boy's mother had a terminal 
illness, Mr. Breton learned. Another mother lived in the Dominican 
Republic, leaving an older sibling to manage the household. One of 
the six girls on the team said her divorced parents disagreed about 
letting her go, and her mother, who was willing to approve the trip, 
lacked the $4 subway fare to get to the meeting.

But Amadou's case stands out. As he tells it, with corroboration from 
immigration records and other documents, he was 13 and spoke no 
English when his mother brought him to New York from Dakar on Sept. 
10, 2001. He was 14 when she went back, leaving him behind in the 
hope that he could continue his American education.

By then, he had finished ninth grade at Norman Thomas High School in 
a program for students learning English as a second language. But his 
mother left instruction for him to take a Greyhound bus to 
Indianapolis, where a Senegalese woman friend had agreed to take him 
in and send him to North Central High School there.

"It was the same thing when I was in Africa," he said, describing a 
childhood spent shuttling between his grandmother and the household 
of his father, a retired police officer with 12 children and three 

The woman in Indiana, who had four children of her own, changed her 
mind about keeping him after his sophomore year, and he returned by 
bus to New York in the summer of 2004. "I had to find a way to help 
myself for food and clothes, and to buy some of my school supplies," 
he said, recalling days handing out fliers for a clothing store on a 
Manhattan street corner. "I ended up living with another friend - I'm 
under age and I can't live alone."

Taking shelter with a taxi driver, a friend of the family who could 
sign his report cards, Amadou enrolled in 11th grade at Central Park 
East. Under longstanding Supreme Court decisions, children have a 
right to a public education regardless of their immigration status, 
and in New York, as in many other cities, a "don't ask, don't tell" 
approach to legal status has prevailed for years.

But after the 9/11 attacks, practices around the country changed. On 
a rainy highway in Pennsylvania on Nov. 7, 2004, Amadou met a very 
different attitude when he had the bad luck to be a passenger in a 
car rear-ended by a truck. The state trooper who responded questioned 
his passport and school ID, and summoned federal immigration 
officers, who began deportation proceedings.

There is no right to a court-appointed lawyer in immigration court, 
and though Amadou's friends hired one for him at first, records show 
that the lawyer soon withdrew. "We really couldn't afford to pay," 
Amadou explained.

By the time the case was finally sent to a special juvenile docket in 
federal court after several adjournments, Amadou had already turned 
18, closing off some legal options that can lead to a green card for 
juveniles, said Amy Meselson, a Legal Aid lawyer who took on the case 
last week.

At this point, she said, his best chance is probably a long shot: a 
measure included in an amendment to many Senate immigration bills, 
known as the Dream Act, which offers a path to citizenship to young 
people of good character who have lived in the United States for five 
years, been accepted to college, or earned a high school diploma or 
the equivalent.

Opponents say the measure will encourage illegal immigrants, and 
subsidize their education at the expense of American children and 
their taxpaying parents.

But mentors for Amadou's team, which calls itself "East Harlem Tech," 
seem to have no ear for such arguments.

"He's been a hard-working and diligent student with mathematical 
ability and a scientific mind," said Rhonda Creed-Harry, a math 
teacher at Central Park East. But though he has been accepted at the 
New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, he said he could not 
attend because he does not qualify for financial aid.

Ramon Padilla, a team mentor who stopped a year short of a college 
degree himself and now works in the audio-visual department at 
Columbia University, called the news that Amadou faced deportation 

"I'm telling you, he's a great kid, a very talented kid," he said, 
adding that Amadou played an important role in building the robot, 
with help from Frank Sierra, a buddy of Mr. Padilla who repairs 
elevators. Starting from a standard set of parts, each team had six 
weeks to design a robot that could move down a center line and throw 
balls into a goal. In the last round of the competition, Amadou 
helped his team form a winning alliance with teams from Morris High 
School in the Bronx and Staten Island Tech, which both advanced to 
the finals as well.

Mr. Breton, who made last-minute trips to the Bronx to gather 
parental permissions, said he was determined not to leave Amadou 
behind. "I started with 19 people, and I want to take 19 people to 
Atlanta," he told the student. "I want to make sure that everybody 
has the full opportunity, because I feel you've earned it."

Amadou returned the compliment. "Because of him, it happened," he said.

Yet on the train to Atlanta, accompanied by another staff member, 
Amadou was still worried. Bloomberg L.P., which is underwriting the 
full cost of the team's trip to Atlanta, plans to display its robot 
at the company's headquarters in New York and invite the team up to 
celebrate their achievement. He said he was afraid that for lack of 
the right ID he might be turned away from the building.