As Fear of Stalled Legislation Increases, An Activist is Left Defiant and Fighting

Monica Sibri Continues to Motivate People to DREAM

By Clifford Michel

Tears began to stream down Monica Sibri’s face in the middle of a political science course.

When her professor asked her what was wrong, Sibri walked out of the classroom, quickly washed her face, and quietly returned.

She was watching a livestream of the New York State Senate killing the Dream Act, a bill that offers to provide state financial aid for undocumented immigrants seeking a college education.

Now, a little less than a year later, she’s stopped crying. Somewhere between her eight to twelve hour days on campus, Sibri can often be found furiously typing away on her laptop and organizing for CSI DREAMers, a subsidiary of CUNY DREAMers, in CSI’s Club Room.

The group made headlines across the city recently when CUNY announced that it would pay tens of thousands of dollars back to over a 100 undocumented immigrants who paid out-of-state tuition in the past.

The Dreamers are also in the center of the New York State Dream Act debate and have been visiting legislators, attending campaign events and doing media avails to raise awareness.

This year the Dream Act is included in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget– rather than being presented as some standalone bill–and is also linked to a GOP-favored tax incentive, giving immigration activists reason for hope.

Sibri founded CUNY DREAMers, an advocacy organization for undocumented students, in November 2013 by painstakingly reaching out to students in every last one of CUNY’s 24 campuses. It took nine months to fully establish.

The group focuses on informing and representing the needs of CUNY’s 6,000 undocumented students.

Getting students to join CUNY DREAMers was not an easy task. Many undocumented students were hesitant of revealing their immigration status and were fearful that joining the group will make them easy targets for deportation.

In a recent trip to Albany, Sylvia, a CSI freshman, flushed bright red when she realized she would have to speak directly with elected officials. She pulled Sibri aside and chatted briefly.

When I asked Sylvia, clinging to Sibri’s side, how her legislative visits went, she beamed.

“She did a lot of the talking at first, but it was awesome,” Sylvia told me. “I can see why this is important and I just really want to do it again.”

She turned to Sibri and asked, “Do we have another visit scheduled?” Sibri, who is highly politicized, is a strong believer of working within the legislative system and often leads lobbying sessions so students can learn to advocate for themselves more effectively.

In early November, the CUNY DREAMers held a meeting to set their goals for the upcoming year.

Several new and overzealous members hijacked the conversation and talked about how “the system was broken” and politicians only “visit when they need votes.”

A steely eyed Sibri gave a quick glare to the newcomer before swiftly redirecting the conversation to Albany’s upcoming legislative visits.

“When they first come they’re motivated, yet unclear of the process,” Sibri said. “But by meeting new people and learning about the system they learn another way to make change.”

Anyone who has met Sibri within the last two years would have a hard time imagining anything else than the zealous character who runs around campus, but she often gives credit to those who’ve come before her.

“I would never be as outspoken as I am if it weren’t for dreamers before me,” said Sibri. “I owe it to them, I have to do this. This is the way things get done.”

Sibri left Ecuador at the age of 16 with her two younger sisters for what her parents told her would be a short visit to the United States. That visit turned out to be permanent and opened a difficult chapter in her life.

She attended Fort Hamilton high school in Brooklyn, where she learned that she was undocumented from a brash college counselor.

Discouraged, Sibri took a year off from high school to work and improve her English. She then enrolled in the College of Staten Island, where she thought she was the only undocumented immigrant.

Sibri said she’d often stay quiet when classmates would debate immigration reform and use hurtful words such as “illegals.”

“It was like living a double life,” Sibri said.

Her parents were also nervous about her pursuing higher education.

“My mother expected me to not talk about my immigration status, get married, and just work at a minimum wage job,” said Sibri. “She was scared that going to college would get me deported.”

Paying for school is another challenge and a constant source of stress. Since she started college, Sibri has worked different odd jobs, used her parent’s savings, and has been depending on several different scholarships.

It was when she received a fellowship in her sophomore year at CSI to work in the New York Immigration Coalition where she worked on projects surrounding the Dream Act.

This was the first time Sibri opened up about her immigration status to others outside her family and learned about other undocumented students, ultimately leading to the creation of CUNY DREAMers.

An overwhelming feeling of community presided over the group’s first meeting.

A little over 25 students met at John Jay College and were visited by Vice Chancellor Matthew Sapienza, who offered his support.

The group accomplished a lot within its first year, helping to restore the Academic Achievement Award scholarship at the city level and making sure undocumented students were charged in state tuition, but ultimately failing to get the Dream Act passed in the New York State legislature.

For this, Sibri blamed the group’s naivety about the state of New York politics.

“There were political realities that we didn’t know about,” Sibri said.

Sibri said the group aimed to make themselves visible by attending many of Governor Cuomo’s events during his reelection campaign last year.

During an advocacy day in Albany with more than 300 immigration advocates in early March, Sibri took on the task of visiting Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Assemblywoman who has openly opposed the Dream Act and has voted against it both this year and last.

“The Dream Act, would put aside 27 million dollars for tuition assistance for individuals,” Malliotakis told The Banner in an earlier interview. “I believe we should assist citizens who are struggling to make ends meet to pay for higher education before those who are in the country illegally.”

“I’m not trying to change their mind about what’s right or what’s wrong, sometimes you can’t change that,” said Sibri. “But they need to know, someone needs to tell them–someone has to be that voice.”

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