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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What to do?

Amadou Ly boarded a train Tuesday for a robotics

Student's Prize Is a Trip Into Immigration Limbo

Published: April 26, 2006

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.

Kristian Breton held a meeting with his team of robot-builders before they were to leave for Atlanta.

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," Amadou, 18, said, 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.

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 Supreme Court decisions dating to 1982, 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.

posted by Steve @ 12:01:00 AM

12:01:00 AM

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