‘Dreamer’ won’t return to living in the shadows

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By Laura Lane

llane@liherald.com

Nelson Melgar, 27, has his own office in State Assemblyman Charles Lavine’s Glen Cove office, where he works as a constituent liaison. Although he was born in Honduras, he can recite the presidents of the United States in chronological order, knows his adopted country’s history and has an American flag as a screensaver. A Glen Cove High School graduate, he attended Nassau Community and Hunter colleges, and plans to go to law school.

A son of a coffee bean farmer and a cleaning woman, Melgar says that if he were told he could have anything he wanted, he’d choose to become an American citizen.

“It takes 10 years to go through the process of getting a permit, a green card, residency and then citizenship,” he said. “When people ask me why I’m not a citizen, I tell them, ‘I’d easily trade everything I have right now for that document.’ But there is no clear path.”

History of DACA

Melgar is a ‘Dreamer,’ having been brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, but protected from deportation by former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted in August 2012.

Those who entered the U.S. before they turned 15 and were no older than 31 as of June 15, 2012, are eligible for the program. They must be enrolled in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school or a GED, or be honorably discharged from the armed forces or Coast Guard.

The program has protected approximately 14,000 young immigrants on Long Island.

On Sept. 5, President Trump announced his intention to end it, and gave Congress six months to find a legislative fix to protect the so-called “Dreamers.” Those with protective status expirations date between Sept. 5 and March 5, 2018, were required to apply for a two-year renewal by Oct. 5. The filing fee is $495. Trump has said that this would be the program recipients’ last opportunity to renew their DACA status.

But Melgar is not eligible to renew, because his expiration date is next November. Unless Congress makes changes, he will no longer be able to work for Lavine — or even keep his driver’s license — after his status expires. He would then be living in the U.S. illegally, and could be deported.

“It’s a way to force people to leave,” said Mary Ann Slutsky of Long Island WINS, an advocate group in Syosset. “In order to become a ‘Dreamer,’ when they applied, they had to give all kinds of data and their fingerprints. Theoretically, ICE could come looking for expired DACA recipients,” she added, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Nelson is a rising star. To punish him this way is beyond heartbreaking.”

Lavine said that losing Melgar would be a detriment to the community. “I have great praise for him as a human being and a professional,” Lavine said. “His work is nothing less than extraordinary. He’s smart, sophisticated and has a wonderful way with people.”

The assemblyman also sees the loss of Melgar’s status as a waste of American assets. “We’ve invested in these people by educating them,” Lavine said. “They are every bit American as my own children are. The only difference is my children were born here.”

In order to get a green card to continue to work and live in the U.S., Melgar would have to be sponsored, which is difficult.

“He will have to go back to Honduras if changes aren’t made to DACA,” Slutsky said. “Without their DACA status, people will have no ability to make an income legally. Twelve percent of DACA recipients own a home … and won’t be able to pay their mortgage.”

Life with few opportunities in Honduras

Melgar describes his father as an “intuitive” businessman who struggled to make ends meet for the family, depending on the ever-changing coffee market. He had a small coffee farm in Marcala, Honduras, but also worked for bigger coffee farms. The family was poor.

“My earliest memory is getting up every day at 3:30 a.m. so we could be in the fields by 4 a.m. to pick the coffee,” Melgar said. “I was 3. Our days ended at 4 p.m. Then, during the rest of the season, the processing of the coffee took place.”

School in Marcala begins in January. When Nelson was old enough to attend, he found it to be a great place to sleep. “I try to forget my childhood,” he said, “because I was always working, and in school I was the poorest performer. When I got home from school, I had to go to work, and worked also on weekends.”

His mother left for America when he was 6, leaving him and his younger sister, who was 4, in Honduras. “There was a point in my life when Dad wasn’t home weeks at a time,” Nelson recalled. “We ended up living with a relative, and Mom sent money from the U.S.”

Nelson and his sister joined their mother in Glen Cove when they were 13 and 11.

Early years in Glen Cove

Here, life changed drastically for him. He no longer had to work, and could focus all of his energy on schoolwork at the Robert M. Finley Middle School. “I liked school, even though I didn’t speak a word of English,” he said. “My science teacher made me read aloud every day. That pressure made me more anxious to learn the language.”

His history teacher gave him a Spanish-language history book. “He only required that I write a sentence every day in Spanish to pass me,” Melgar said. “I read that book every day in class and at home.”

There were bullies at school, but he wasn’t intimidated. He was focused on becoming assimilated in his new country.

By 10th grade he was moved from English as a Second Language classes to honors classes. He ranked at the top of his class. Soon he was taking Advanced Placement courses, and set his sights on going to college.

Then, however, he found out that he wasn’t eligible for college financial aid. The principal at Glen Cove High School offered to write letters of recommendation for him. But he also needed help.

“My dad was in the U.S. by then, but … my parents didn’t know anything about how to apply for scholarships or the college application process,” Melgar said. “So instead of moving forward academically in school, I moved backward. I figured, what’s the point.”

His guidance counselor, Margie Tockman, saw that his grades were plummeting. “She encouraged me to go to Nassau Community College,” he said, “and she offered to do all of the work that was involved in the application process.”

College years

While at NCC, he washed cars for $3.80 an hour, and worked at a supermarket deli counter. He tended bar and worked in construction. He saved enough money to attend for two semesters without working.

He received DACA status in 2012, when he was 22. Shortly afterward he began working 20 hours a day, six days a week in a restaurant and at a convenience store. On Sundays Melgar filled out college applications. After eight months he quit both jobs to attend Hunter. But he soon found he couldn’t survive without a job. So he worked part-time at the restaurant. While at Hunter he became an activist, joining student groups. It took him eight years to finish college.

Helping others

Today he visits high schools to speak to ESL students, and encourages them not to give up on school. He speaks at conferences, and occasionally at rallies.

Melgar began working for Lavine in 2015. “Working for Chuck made me realize the sincere distrust for Latinos people have in Glen Cove,” he said. “So I founded the North Shore Hispanic Civic Association in 2016. We serve as advocates, accompany a family to meetings where they need guidance, like with the school district. I’ve accompanied a woman to court, too. We often serve as interpreters.”

Melgar’s goal is to build unity in Glen Cove. “We share the values of Glen Cove residents, and yearn to be involved in the community,” he said. “This is where we grew up.”

In the meantime, he is trying to find a way to become a citizen. “I won’t work off the books,” he said. “I lived in the shadows for many years, and I’m not returning to that.”

He plans to continue to report to Lavine’s office, but as a volunteer. He is committed to continuing his work in his community as well.

DACA recipients are afraid and disheartened, Melgar said. “If the rest of my community is afraid to speak, it’s my duty to speak on their behalf,” he explained. “Theodore Roosevelt stood up for what he believed in, and persevered despite the odds, and accomplished things not expected of him. By making his way, he defined what an American is. In that light, I am the same.”