Immigration / Politics

Mexican activist returns after two-year ban

Angelo Cabrera speaking at CUNY Xpress

MASA founder says he’ll resume fight for immigrant rights

Angelo Cabrera remembers the moment he stepped off the plane in March as one that was both sweet and saddening. He had just touched down in New York after two years of being denied a work visa from the United States, trapping him in his native country, Mexico. He knew upon landing that he would be subjected to interrogations on U.S. soil.

The fight didn’t end as he shuffled through immigrations; in fact, now that he’s here he is ready to take on more. After a two-year ban from the country he lived in for 24 years, Cabrera, the founder of the Mexican American Students Association, is back to continue the work he has committed his life to: immigration justice for the Mexican community.

“I want to continue helping and supporting my community, but I also want to be involved in others’ to help create an impact,” said Cabrera, 41. “My case is one of the first ones and hopefully it will open the doors for others.”

Cabrera spoke at a press conference at CUNY Xpress Immigration Center in Washington Heights on April 5 to announce the approval of his immigration waiver and thank the many people who made his return possible. He crossed the border for the first time illegally at age 15, leaving his family in Mexico behind. He lived and worked in New York for 24 years, until he was offered a position at Baruch College. In order to accept it, he was forced to return to Mexico to make his residence in New York legal. But then the U.S. refused to let him reenter.

Cabrera co-founded Mexican American Students Association, MASA, in 2001 as a response to proposed New York state legislation that would’ve made undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition. A student at CUNY’s Baruch College at the time, Cabrera organized protests and went on a hunger strike. Out of these efforts, Gov. George Pataki signed a law revoking the out-of-state tuition provision in 2002, and MASA was created.

At the time, MASA was a small group that met in church basements, with the majority of staff working as volunteers. They tutored students and their families in an effort to break down the barriers to education that existed for Mexican students.

MASA has grown tremendously since Cabrera’s detainment in Mexico. Two years ago, there were only four people working for MASA, and two of them were volunteers. But now the organization has a staff of 23, nine of whom are full-time members. Aggressive fundraising and newfound support enabled MASA to legitimize in a new Mott Haven location in November, at 2770 Third Ave.

MASA now offers programs that extend beyond the traditional afterschool homework help, including robotics, intensive literary and ESL classes. The organization also offers family support and legal services for immigration matters.

“The idea has always been for MASA to listen and to provide a space for a community,” said Aracelis Lucero, the executive director of MASA, who remembers meeting Cabrera first when she joined as a volunteer in 2007. “As we grow we have been very conscious of staying grassroots, making sure that community members are able to advocate for themselves.”

Lucero said that Cabrera will continue to serve on the executive board and is excited for him to finally see the growth of his idea since his departure.

“Angelo is a community person,” said Lucero. “He’s part of the networks to improving the education of the Mexican community.”

During the press conference, Cabrera stated that he also plans to work with Mexican Initiative for Deferred Action, which is dedicated to providing assistance for immigrants to reaching legal status. He’ll have his own case to use as reference. Cabrera’s work visa expires in September. He must then return to Mexico or live without documentation if he can’t remain here legally. The fight continues. But he is optimistic about his work.

“I believe that there is an opportunity for everyone,” said Cabrera. “We have to get involved. We have to talk about our experiences, not being afraid. We need to come out of the shadows.”

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