“In my heart, I’m American”: One man's immigration nightmare of broken promises

NYC recruited his Caribbean mother to teach, promising her family a new life. Now we won’t let him be a citizen

Published February 23, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

       (Rafael Martinez)
(Rafael Martinez)

Mikhel Crichlow’s Facebook News Feed frustrates him. On it, he can see updates from all of his friends and classmates from college: their internships. Their jobs. Their lives.

“I’ve pretty much not kept in touch with anyone from college, just because it’s so embarrassing to see how far they’ve gone,” Crichlow, 28, said without bitterness. “I’m pretty much stuck at the starting line.”

Crichlow was 16 years old when he arrived in the United States from his birthplace in Trinidad. He had always envisioned studying here to become an architect, and in 2001 he thought he had his chance.

Crichlow’s mother was one of hundreds of Caribbean teachers who arrived in New York at that time. According to the Black Institute, recruiters for New York City’s Department of Education promised teachers in the Caribbean work visas, green cards and the possibility of American citizenship for themselves and their families.

Immigration law allows workers to keep their children as dependents on their visas until the age of 21. That is what Crichlow and his mother did, believing that they would receive their green cards before then. But, when that didn’t happen, Crichlow needed to obtain a student visa instead. After graduation, the visa expired and, when he was unable to find a job during the depths of the recession in 2008, he became undocumented.

Crichlow is not alone. He co-chairs a group, the International Youth Association, which fights for comprehensive immigration reform in order to retrieve status for himself and others like him, charging that their plight has been pushed aside in the debate.

“We were asked to come here,” Mikhel Crichlow said. “The government didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.”

Crichlow and Alden Nesbitt, 23, formed TIYA in 2011. Initially created simply to help Caribbean teachers’ children, the group has expanded its focus on the plight of all young undocumented immigrants. The organization has hosted forums on immigration law and was among several groups that targeted New York Rep. Michael Grimm for his views on immigration reform last year.

There is no data for how many Caribbean teachers’ families are in this predicament. According to the Black Institute, the think tank of which TIYA is a part, 500 Caribbean teachers came to New York City during its teaching shortage between 2001 and 2003 to teach in at-risk schools. New York City’s Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Alina Das, co-director of New York University Law School’s Immigration Rights Clinic, which is currently searching for a legal pathway to citizenship for these youth, said that hundreds of Caribbean teachers’ families have been affected by the problem in New York. “We are still trying to estimate the impact nationwide,” Das said by email.

After their arrival, many Caribbean teachers were not given the proper visas that they were promised, delaying applications for permanent residency for themselves and their family members. The United States’ Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on the record for this story, citing privacy concerns.

Because of the delays and hurdles, many teachers’ children, like Crichlow and Nesbitt, aged out, becoming undocumented immigrants. New York City’s Department of Education refused to provide legal assistance at first to these young people, because they were not department employees.

Ultimately, there are very few avenues for undocumented immigrants to receive legal citizenship; Crichlow’s and Nesbitt’s mothers have both since received their green cards, but the sons were too old to reap the benefit. Permanent residents are allowed to apply for family members’ permanent residency but, if those family members have been undocumented for more than a year, doing so raises a bar on their loved ones from entering the country for 10 years.

Even if their parents became citizens, that may not help matters. President Obama signed an executive order that lifted that bar on immediate family members, but adult children, like Crichlow and Nesbitt, cannot benefit from that change. “Immigration laws do not treat you as a nuclear family past the age of 21,” Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School and a co-founder of the Safe Passage Project, said.

Immigration efforts seemed to be picking up steam not too long ago; in 2012, President Obama signed the executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed young undocumented immigrants to receive work authorization. But those efforts all but stalled recently, particularly after Speaker John Boehner announced that the House of Representatives would not take up the Senate’s immigration reform bill.

Even the current attempts seem to fall short. DACA, which automatically enters a conversation with an immigration lawyer who works with youth, has a number of criteria for applicants. For example, it limits eligible recipients to those who entered the country by the age of 16. Crichlow isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to receive DACA; he arrived two days after his 16th birthday. Seven months after his application in May, Crichlow still hasn’t heard anything, and has been told that a response can take up to a year.

The stalled progress has been difficult for TIYA’s members. Alden Nesbitt’s sister, Anthea Nesbitt, who has a 9-year-old son who is an American citizen, is considering returning to her birth country, like many people Crichlow and Alden Nesbitt know. At one TIYA meeting that I attended in November, there were just six people in attendance; two of them were Crichlow and Nesbitt. “We’ve seen a lot of our membership go into the shadows,” Crichlow said, in part due to the risk of deportation.

Mikhel Crichlow says that he’s frustrated, but he continues to fight to receive what was promised to him, his mother and to others in the same predicament. Though it’s difficult to stay in the United States, his dream deferred, he says he has no other option. “My mom has a house in New York. That’s going to be my house,” he said. “In my heart, I’m American. I just don’t have a piece of paper saying I’m American.”

By Makini Brice

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