Long Island City, NY—Like all college students, Katherine Taberas has lofty dreams. The LaGuardia Community College honor student plans on graduating, transferring to a senior college and then on to law school, which will pave the way to a career as an immigration lawyer. There is one major obstacle in her way: her undocumented status.
But Katherine, a 17-year-old immigrant who arrived to this country from Colombia in 2010 on a tourist visa that later expired, refuses to hide in the shadows. Instead, she has become one of the voices and faces of the Dreamers, a united group of undocumented students that is lobbying for the passage of the New York State Dream Act. For the 12,000 Dreamers in the New York State, passage would mean access to state financial aid and scholarships for higher education.
“Nationally, statewide, this is the moment,” said Katherine who explained that the bill passed in the State Assembly, but is stalled in the Senate. “We cannot let this opportunity pass.”
The Assembly’s one-house budget proposal included $975 million for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which is an increase of $25 million in the proposed executive budget put forward by Governor Cuomo. The increase would cover the proposed Dream Act.
As a student leader of Make the Road NY, a non-profit organization that advocates for immigration reform, Katherine, a confident teenager with short-cropped hair, has tirelessly traveled to Albany hoping to change the minds of policymakers who are against the legislation. “When I meet with them, my question to them is, ‘can you seriously be against something that would be beneficial to the state?’” she said. “I tell them, ‘when you are investing money in education, you are investing money in New York State.’”
Whether Katherine is speaking to legislators in Albany or to concerned New Yorkers at town hall meetings on immigration reform, like the recent one at LaGuardia, hosted by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, she candidly tells her story and about her family’s struggles, and explains why it is important to allow Dreamers to have access to higher education.
“It is morally wrong to deny talented people the opportunity to achieve their dreams because they do not have a nine-digit number,” she said to an audience of legislators, faculty, staff and students. “One day we will obtain passage to citizenship, so it is important that we acquire the education needed to become contributing members of the community.”
She tells the audience that her personal story began in Cali, Colombia, where she, and her mother and father were living a comfortable, middle class life until 2005 when her father, an accountant for Cadbury Adams, lost his job during the economic slowdown.
Unable to find work after searching for five years, he decided that the family should immigrate to United States where he hoped there would be better economic prospects and where his daughter would be able to pursue higher education.
The family settled in an apartment in Corona and began their new life. With little knowledge of English, Katherine attended LaGuardia’s intensive summer English language program, and that fall entered International High School at LaGuardia as a junior.
In the friendly, close-knit high school community made up of recent immigrants, Katherine flourished. With a newfound confidence and leadership skills, she was elected to serve as the president of the student government. In the high school’s five-year academic program, where students can take LaGuardia credit courses in their junior year, Katherine excelled in her high school and college work. With a near-perfect G.P.A., she graduated seventh in her class in 2012, and entered LaGuardia that fall.
By enrolling at LaGuardia, the five-year program entitled her to another perk: a tuition-free first year. “I would have been unable to afford my freshman year if it was not for this program,” said Katherine who explained that her father returned to Colombia after working at low-paying jobs for one year and she and her mother found themselves working to pay for food, rent and Katherine’s education.
Her mother works as a home health care aid for a family in Manhattan and only sees her daughter three or four times a month because of their conflicting schedules.
“It is unacceptable that single parents, like my mother, have to work day and night to save money so that their children’s dreams are fulfilled,” said Katherine who sees her mother on Saturdays when she helps her at her job. “Having financial support from the state, for me, would mean the opportunity to continue my education, but, most importantly, it would mean the chance to see my mother.”
And so Katherine actively continues her dual quests. As the determined activist, she continues taking trips to Albany in the attempt to change the minds of legislators on immigration reform. And as the stellar college student, she continues to pursue her American Dream—a career as an immigrant lawyer—despite the fact that she is not sure how she is going to afford her second year of college.
“As an immigration lawyer,” said Katherine, “I will be able to help people like my mother fight for their rights.”
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LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.