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Honor NYC’s immigrant students: CUNY’s chancellor on what young Dreamers deserve

2019-08-30

Sana Batool, who came here to flee persecution in Pakistan when she was 15, spoke little English and faced all the hardships and cultural barriers common to immigrants. Last year, she graduated from CUNY’s honors college and, this spring, won one of the nation’s most hard-earned academic honors, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. (PDSOROS.org)

I recently spent an afternoon with new City University of New York students who embody our university’s long history of opening doors and helping people up the ladder of opportunity. These freshmen were DREAMers — talented and motivated young people who were brought to this country by their parents at a very young age. They are undocumented, but in every other sense, they are Americans.

Their pride and hope as they begin their college studies was tempered by a palpable trepidation, and the uncertainty that clouds the future of many immigrants in these times.

As a historian and the leader of the public university for this city of immigrants, I take their fear to heart. I can’t help but be acutely mindful of the tens of thousands of students and families every time an eruption of nativistic policy proposals or anti-immigrant rhetoric wafts across the country from Washington. Incidents like the mass shooting in El Paso serve as a stern reminder of the fatal consequences of the escalation of this rhetoric.

The American immigration story is a story not of public burden, but civic contribution. CUNY is a template for that history — an educational Ellis Island providing a gateway to high-quality, affordable education and upward economic mobility.

From Jonas Salk to Colin Powell, from WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann to Cristina Jiménez Moreta who co-founded United We Dream — and hundreds of thousands more without famous names — immigrants, refugees and their children have been educated at CUNY through its storied 172-year history and become successful contributors in American society.

That tradition has never been stronger. Today more than a third of CUNY students were born outside the mainland U.S. They count 200 countries of origin and speak more than 170 languages. They assimilate and excel. To cite just one example of many, among our graduates this year was Sana Batool, who came here to flee persecution in Pakistan when she was 15. She spoke little English and faced all the hardships and cultural barriers common to immigrants. Last year, she graduated from CUNY’s honors college and, this spring, won one of the nation’s most hard-earned academic honors, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. This month she begins her studies at Harvard Medical School.

As the first member of a minority group to lead our city’s outstanding and vital public university system, I am proud that Gov. Cuomo and New York State legislators have put a priority on welcoming and protecting immigrants at a time when the federal government is focused on locking the gates.

I am heartened that the start of my tenure coincides with the recent passage of the New York State DREAM Act. Named for the late State Sen. Jose Peralta, a proud CUNY graduate via Queens College, it will make thousands of immigrants newly eligible for state financial aid for college.

Undocumented immigrants who want to pursue a college degree are as American as Lady Liberty herself. Their hearts are here and so are their futures. At CUNY, they have a place to realize their dreams. In turn they bring a resolve and commitment to education that inspires their peers and their teachers. They make our campuses, our city and our country better.

More broadly, the university stands ready to help immigrant New Yorkers in these times of turmoil and uncertainty. Through CUNY Citizenship Now!, the first university-based immigration law program in the country, immigrants have access to high-quality and confidential citizenship and immigration law services absolutely free of charge.

Our attorneys and paralegals assist more than 15,000 individuals each year throughout the five boroughs. In conjunction with the New York Daily News, a partnership that goes back 15 years, CUNY is hosting a National Citizenship Day event on Saturday, Sept. 21, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It will be the largest citizenship application assistance event ever held in New York City.

CUNY’s message to immigrant New Yorkers is straightforward: We know and treasure your incredible talent and persistence. We have your back.

The author is chancellor of the City University of New York.