Opinion: What a Brooklyn assistant principal chose to tell the president
Last month, I met with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House. This meeting signified the most recent part of an improbable journey for me, but after my conversation with the president alongside five other DACA recipients, I’m more determined than ever that more stories like mine will be possible for millions of other young people.
I came to the United States from Senegal, West Africa, when I was just seven years old. Though I struggled academically in my earlier years living in the U.S. because I was a non-Spanish-speaking English Language Learner, being an undocumented child growing up in New York City generally shielded me from experiencing the full weight of the hardships that come along with being undocumented.
New York City extends relatively more welcoming policies and resources to its undocumented community members — especially those in its K-12 public school system. But as I grew older, I was forced to confront the harsh realities that came along with being seen as an undocumented adult.
At age 17, I began the process of applying for college, and I remember suddenly being asked to fill out my Social Security number on applications. After finding out that I didn’t have one, I spoke to a counselor at my school, and asked for her help in directing me to the scholarships available for people like me who didn’t have socials. She replied very plainly and definitively, “You can’t go to college.”
I was devastated. I looked online for scholarships that would help me pay for college, but the only opportunities I found at the time specified that applicants had to be people of Latino or Central American descent — nothing seemed to exist for Black immigrants like me. Pursuing higher education had always been part of my dream, and I couldn’t understand why my future and my opportunities were seemingly being taken from me.
In 2012, when the Obama-Biden Administration established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, I applied for and was granted work authorization and protections from deportation. I was able to work, and used what I earned to pay for college.
When I graduated, I wanted to become the type of educator that I had needed in my corner as a young person in that counselor’s office. One who knew it was possible for a Black young person to be undocumented — even if they didn’t have any detectable foreign accent. One who could push their school to offer more support and resources to this doubly-marginalized and criminalized community.
Now, six years later, I co-lead a school as an assistant principal of a middle school in Brooklyn. We serve a high population of Black immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa. I see myself and my own story in so many of them, and I strive toward achieving more equitable outcomes for them as they progress in their educational journeys.
As I told President Biden, I was able to be in the Oval Office that day because I was lucky enough to be eligible for DACA, which was a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of young people like me. But the opportunity to live our lives free from fear, to pursue higher education, to reconnect with separated loved ones, and to thrive — none of that should come down to luck.
The last four years under the Trump Administration made it painfully clear that DACA protections aren’t permanent and that an antagonistic government could once again put all of us — and millions of other people like us — at risk of being torn out of the workforce and ripped from our families and communities. Without the permanent legislative protections that only Congress can provide by passing a pathway to citizenship, we continue to live in limbo.
Our young people deserve so much more than having to count on luck as they work toward and plan their futures. They deserve the relief and security that comes from knowing that they can live freely, safely, and fully with their families in the country that is their home. A pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented in our country — including DACA recipients and TPS holders, farmworkers, essential frontline workers, and millions of others — can provide that opportunity and that relief. I told the president that millions of people like me are counting on his administration and Congress to deliver it.
In addition to being the assistant principal of Canarsie Ascend Middle School, Astou Thiane is an advisory board member of ImmSchools, an organization that helps undocumented students, and a DACA recipient.
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