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Immigrant grads exit newcomer school for changing landscape

Classes had already ended for the year at International High School when President Obama announced that he would pull back on deporting undocumented youth, but Principal Nedda DeCastro made sure to deliver the news to her students anyway. She cut out a newspaper article and brought it to the school’s prom, where it quickly circulated on the dance floor.

The celebration continued Monday at the school’s graduation ceremony, when English teacher Suzannah Taylor told the 50 graduates, “Class of 2012, you live here too and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It was a lesson that many International students have not always gotten. The school caters specifically to young immigrants who are still learning the English language, and many of them are undocumented. The school’s unique profile gained national attention when it was portrayed in “The New Kids,” a book that tracked a year in the life of immigrant students at the school.

The seniors on stage inside the auditorium at the Prospect Heights Campus Monday afternoon represented 16 countries and spoke 18 languages, Taylor said. And for at least some of them, those who immigrated illegally with or without their parents, Obama’s surprise announcement two weeks ago opened new possibilities.

The policy change was a small, but important step in the right direction, said Principal Nedda DeCastro. Living in constant fear of deportation was “kind of a hope-killer” for International’s graduates, DeCastro said. “So they’re feeling more positive about it.”

Javlon Rustamov, a documented immigrant from Uzbekistan, was one of the students to learn from DeCastro about Obama’s immigration announcement at the prom. He said he began celebrating with friends when they heard about it.

“I was happy about it,” Rustamov said outside of the school as he and his family prepared to go inside for the graduation ceremony. Rustamov will attend Staten Island College this fall but said many of his friends were still undocumented. “Now they will have the same opportunity as ordinary citizens.”

Some crucial restrictions still exist for Rustmov’s undocumented friends, however. Obama’s policy change won’t necessarily make college more affordable for undocumented students. They still aren’t able to apply for government financial assistance or private bank loans, a barrier that continues to stand in the way of many immigrants who can’t afford tuition.

“It’s like the DREAM Act-lite,” said Steve Watson, a math teacher and senior advisor, referring to federal and state legislation that immigration advocates have long sought as the ideal policy for giving undocumented youths a path to citizenship.

Kiara Paredes said she knew almost no English when she arrived here from the Dominican Republic in 2008 and enrolled at International. For weeks, she said she was too frightened to speak, but over time she and her peers became more comfortable and began relying on one another to learn the language.

“In this school we are all learning English so you can get help from another person because you know that person’s also learning, just as you,” Paredes said.

Immigration reform policies have yet to fully catch up to the need of students at International, but Taylor told the school’s seniors that their graduation was a significant achievement.

“You arrived here with your families in pursuit of the American dream,” Taylor told the students. “And I stand here before you today to let you know that you are achieving it.”

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