Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Keith Scalia, More Than a Teacher

Part 1: The Redemption of Mona Mahraoui

Scalia and Mona at her high school graduation (June 2014). Submitted Photos

Scalia and Mona at her high school graduation (June 2014). Submitted Photos

In November 2013, Mona Mahraoui, a 17-year-old senior, showed up in the office of English teacher Keith Scalia at a New York City high school. She was crying, distraught, and badly frightened. What happened afterward would change both of their lives.

Scalia had been teaching in this school, which at his request shall remain nameless, since 2007. According to School Digger, the school had about 2,000 students, 92% of which were listed as Hispanic, Asian, or African American. Seventy-nine percent of the students were eligible for free/discounted lunches. Scalia saw opportunity there. “I thought I could do a lot for those kids in that environment,” he said.

Mehdi Mahraoui (third from left) with President Obama and Vice President Biden in the oval office (March 13, 2014).

Mehdi Mahraoui (third from left) with President Obama and Vice President Biden in the oval office (March 13, 2014).

Mona was born in Morocco, where she had lived with her parents and older brother, Mehdi, until she was two. “My father asked Mehdi what he wanted to be when he grew up,” Mona recalled, “Mehdi said he had been watching [a peddler] sell bleach and wanted to do the same.” Despairing for their children’s future, her parents emigrated to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1998, hoping to gain permanent resident status. When this didn’t happen, they stayed on, disappearing into the shadowy world of the undocumented.

Keith Scalia and Mona Mahraoui on a visit to the SUNY New Paltz campus (winter 2014).

Keith Scalia and Mona Mahraoui on a visit to the SUNY New Paltz campus (winter 2014).

In 2010, Mona was assigned to Scalia’s ninth grade English class. Scalia quickly marked her as someone special. The two developed a lasting rapport. “Some students were worth staying in touch with,” Scalia said, “I knew we would get along when I saw her Beatles shirt [on the first day of class].” Now, three years later, Mona was in his office, and she was terrified. Through tears and sobs, she told Scalia that she was facing deportation proceedings upon graduation from high school. Graduation was less than seven months away. She was the only one in her family being targeted by the INS, she said.

Mona goes public on a video she and Keith Scalia made in NYC after her return from Washington in March 2014.

Mona goes public on a video she and Keith Scalia made in NYC after her return from Washington in March 2014.

Mona’s mother had recently been turned down in her application for a green card. As a result the entire family had been targeted for deportation. Subsequently, her brother had married an American and was removed from the list. When Mehdi and his wife had a child, Mona’s parents, now the grandparents of a U.S. citizen, were also removed. That left only Mona, who because of her scheduled deportation hearing, was barred from applying for DACA protection. Mona had been living with this gnawing fear for years, having earlier been told by her father why she could never return Morocco. Now her worst fears were being realized.

Students of the New York Immigration Coalition, of which Mehdi Mahraoui was a leader, rally at the U.S. Capitol (March 13, 2014).

Students of the New York Immigration Coalition, of which Mehdi Mahraoui was a leader, rally at the U.S. Capitol (March 13, 2014).

This was never supposed to happen. To bring some order and stability to a murky immigration policy, the so-called Dream Act was proposed in 2001. The bill aimed to create legal status for foreign born children such as Mona. Unfortunately, the Act has never been able pass both houses of congress. Consequently, in 2012, President Obama announced his DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) policy, which would finally confer legal status to kids like Mona. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said. DACA offered renewable two-year work permits to immigrants who qualified. Mona was unable to apply for DACA status, due to her mother’s earlier request for permanent resident status. It was a horrible catch 22.

Mona (second from left) and her brother Mehdi in the capitol building with Senator Charles Schumer after Mehdi’s Whitehouse visit with President Obama (March 13, 2014).

Mona (second from left) and her brother Mehdi in the capitol building with Senator Charles Schumer after Mehdi’s Whitehouse visit with President Obama (March 13, 2014).

Scalia was dumfounded and deeply moved. He had been unaware of Mona’s situation. She had been one of his most promising students, with plans for college and a career in international relations. She was an “A” honors student, a National Honor Society inductee, and a leader in school organizations including the 30-member [student council] and the Model U.N. Club, which was her favorite. Now she was going to be being sent to a country and a culture which was foreign to her. Mona never asked for Scalia’s help during this meeting. She simply had no one else with whom to share her grief. “She was ashamed of her situation and insisted that I not tell anyone,” Scalia said. She came to the right person.

Since an application to DACA was now impossible, Scalia and his wife considered adopting Mona but found it was too late for this. Next, he thought of having her go back to Morocco, obtain a [foreign] student visa (through the U.S. consulate) and then return to the U.S. Since it was uncertain that such a visa would be issued or that she would be allowed reentry to the U.S., this plan was also abandoned. Mona literally had no options. “Every door was closed to her,” Scalia said, “But admission to a four year college might mitigate in her favor.”

During the winter of 2014, Scalia arranged for campus tours and meetings at the admissions offices of numerous area colleges. He would take Mona to the meetings in his personal car on weekends or off school days, recording the travel on his phone and in one case, convincing an admissions officer to allow an audio recording of Mona’s interview. The answer was pretty much the same at all colleges. They would love to have her, but because of her undocumented status, could not offer much in the way of financial support. Things looked bleak. Mona was not eligible for federally insured student loans, and without a green card or DACA status, was not eligible for work study.

A bright spot was the fact that New York was one of the states that offered instate tuition to qualified undocumented immigrants. It also had the largest comprehensive system of higher public education in the U.S. Mona applied and was accepted at SUNY New Paltz (State University of New York at New Paltz), 54 miles north of NYC, one of the many colleges that she and Scalia had visited together. Additionally, she was offered a merit scholarship and a chance to pay off the rest over time. (Her father faithfully sent in $1,300 monthly payments during her first year there.)

Having been accepted at college, Mona agreed to accompany her brother to Washington, where as a leader of the NY Immigration Coalition, he had been invited to meet with President Obama on March 13, 2014. “We went there to argue comprehensive immigration reform and to fight social injustice,” she said. While there, she and her brother also met with Senator Charles Schumer who was, and still is under intense pressure from New York voters to reform the immigration laws. After returning to New York she again came to Scalia. This time she was fighting mad. “I want to go public,” she told him, “That’s the only way we’re going to get anything done.”

Scalia proposed that they make a video, deliver it to area politicians, and post it on YouTube. Scalia had run for political office (three times, unsuccessfully) and had made friends along the way. With only a smart phone and tripod, he and Mona shot a lengthy video (edited down to 28 minutes and replete with captions and music) and did it in just two days. Scalia entitled it “The Golden Door.”

Scalia and Mona traveled all over the city shooting Mona in front various city landmarks and government buildings. They started with a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. Then, after editing, they got back in Scalia’s car and personally delivered copies to all five Long Island congressmen, ten New York state legislators, and Senator Schumer’s chief of staff.

The video caused a sensation at the high school. At least eight more students went public after that, Mona said. No longer shy, Mona had become a leader of the movement. “Students now looked up to her as a role model,” Scalia said. The push for immigration reform picked up steam in both Washington and Albany after publication of the video. A few months later, Mona was notified by the INS that she was now eligible to apply for a green card (which would bring with it, a path to citizenship). The card was issued in time for her sophomore year at New Paltz, allowing her to apply for federally insured student loans. Upon college graduation last June, Mona enlisted in the army (She is currently billeted at Fort Lewis, Washington), which she felt would help her to pay off her student loans. She will seek a career in international relations when she gets out.

Mona’s appeal for justice on the video was compelling, perhaps galvanizing. She painstakingly and poignantly related the details of her life, and how every day had been filled with dread. “Although I am a typical American teenager, the way society treats me makes me different,” she had said. “How am I supposed to get a future [when I am legally barred from working or driving]? I no longer want to be regarded as an alien in a nation which I see as my home,” she said. “I knew I needed to create change, not only in my life, but for all those in similar situations.”

Mona says she would not be where she is today without the support of Scalia. She is grateful that he pushed her and didn’t allow her to settle for less. “[Mr. Scalia] is a different kind of teacher,” she said, “He’s not looking for a reward for himself. He just cares about his students.” Next edition, Part 2 – The Crusade.

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