Nearly a decade before Byron Pullutasig became a Queens College student, he traveled through seven countries in a span of three months until he illegally reached the United States.
An uncertain future now awaits the 19-year-old as he strives to pursue a degree in physics in hopes of becoming a professor, an aspiration that will be unsuccessful without legal documentation.
Pullutasig crossed the Mexico-California border at age eight, holding two toys while pretending to sleep in a car driven by an agent. The agent was part of a network of people in the “border crossing business” called “coyotes,” who told Pullutasig that he should “pretend as if he fell asleep playing with toys on the way.” He obeyed, so that the immigration authorities could not match his face to the American passport borrowed from a coyote’s U.S. citizen relative.
The three month journey to America from Quisapincha, Ecuador, Pullutasig’s hometown, began in November 2000. His parents hired a “coyote” to bring him and his 11-year-old brother to New York in hopes of a better chance at education.
“In my town, only the well-to-do families got to go to school and we didn’t belong to a rich family. So my parents spoke to the coyote and my aunt, and told me and my brother that we were going to meet our mom and dad,” said Pullutasig.
The first bus ride, from Quisapincha to Lima, began as Pullutasig wondered why he had an identification card with a name that was not his. The identities continued to change as Pullutasig and his brother traveled to Panama and then to Costa Rica lying under a truck and passing through trees. They traveled in desolate areas of the countries, stopping at perfectly mapped checkpoints where the next coyote would take them to the next station.
From Costa Rica, the brothers flew to Honduras because they were the youngest travelers.
“For me this was an adventure,” Pullutasig said. “But I could see that the adults in the batch [of 10 people], who later joined us in Honduras, were terrified on a boat that almost tipped over and killed us.”
Pullutasig journeyed to Guatemala from El Salvador and then arrived at Tijuana, Mexico’s tip and the border of California.
“Crossing the California border and flying to New York with that same passport was one of the biggest moments of my life despite the almost drowning, long walks, bad conditions and bad food, because I was seeing my parents after five years,” he said.
The trip to America was a success when he arrived in January 2001; but there were more obstacles to overcome after his illegal entry.
As a fourth-grader, he stood in long lines waiting to get all his vaccinations to start an American life, attending P.S. 71 in Ridgewood, Queens. Proof of address, past school records and vaccinations were main components for enrollment in an American elementary, middle or high school.
“School was fun, I took ESL and I picked [English] up really quickly,” Pullutasig said. “And my first teacher, Miss Chen, always encouraged me to speak in English. I remember my first full sentence, ‘May I go to the bathroom?’ and all my classmates applauded, kept me for almost 10 minutes to congratulate me.”
Pullutasig realized his undocumented immigration status three months after he arrived in Ridgewood. His class assignment was to fill out a form for a library card and it required a social security number.
“My parents didn’t know what to do when I asked them for my number and they told me that I didn’t have one. I told them that my teacher told me not to leave any part blank. My dad at the time got a driver’s license which had a nine digit number so he used that. They didn’t really check, so it worked and I got my library card.”
Pullutasig barely felt the effects of being an illegal immigrant until he applied for a driver’s license and then later when he applied to college.
A New York education law allows admission and remittance of in-state tuition for undocumented students who have studied in New York high schools. However, they can only pay for college through private scholarships or out of pocket.
Some peers in the college community resent any relief for illegal immigrant students.
“I do not feel [bad] for the situation. Illegal immigration contributes to the dramatic population growth overwhelming communities across America,” said John Walsh, 22, QC senior and political science major.
Without legal immigration status, Pullutasig will be ineligible to work legally after he graduates or receive government financial aid if he chooses to study further. To raise awareness of this he has spearheaded the Queens College Dream Team.
Pullutasig is not the only undocumented student facing this dilemma upon graduation.
“I am almost done with my anthropology major,” said Francis Madi, an undocumented QC senior. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen after I graduate. I won’t get to work legally or even contribute to the U.S. economy even though I want a chance.”