Updated: May 19, 2014 2:15PM
A tall woman with blond hair and blue eyes nervously grabbed a microphone to tell her story about growing up in despair because she is undocumented.
“Does my lack of a social security number make me less of an American?” the woman, Egle Malinauskaite, asked rhetorically Wednesday at a Coming Out of the Shadows event at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville. Malinauskaite came to the U.S. at age 6 and knows no other home.
Similar events took place this year in downtown Chicago, in nearby suburbs, at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Northern Illinois University and Waubonsee Community College.
Speakers shared gripping stories filled with fear, frustration, sadness or anger as they unburdened themselves.
Every speaker at IIT also mentioned invaluable skills — in medicine, engineering and other sciences — they offer this country. All arrived as children. All are being held back by their undocumented status.
Malinauskaite talked about arriving from Lithuania as a 6-year-old with her family. Two years later she was folding towels in the laundry room of a motel to help out with her family’s cleaning service. At 15 she swept car dealerships and vacuumed thousands of square feet of carpet in office buildings.
“I also fell in love in with this country,” she said. “I was the first to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was the last one standing after the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
She wants to be a doctor, specifically a neurosurgeon. We need her to succeed.
Malinauskaite told me she graduated with an A average from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. She began assisting in research in epilepsy at the University of Chicago while in high school and has continued at IIT.
She helped prepare a 7-year-old suffering from epilepsy for brain surgery by monitoring the girl’s brain functions. Months later she returned to visit the girl after successful surgery. “She was completely a new person,” Malinauskaite recalled. “She was amazing.”
That’s when Malinauskaite set her goal on neurosurgery. “I’m terrified of applying for medical school and not qualifying for a loan,” she said, adding that she did not qualify for a pre-med program at a nearby hospital because she is undocumented.
President Obama’s 2012 deferred action order has allowed young adults such as Malinauskaite to work and move freely without worries about deportation. But the measure is temporary and companies take note of that when hiring.
Corporations become reluctant to hire someone if they don’t know how long he or she will be able to work legally. That’s a theme Daniel Garcia, a 2012 IIT graduate, is all too familiar with as he seeks work in material science and engineering. It’s also a complaint he sees often as a moderator on the DREAM Act online portal.
Garcia interned for researchers in solar energy as a high school student in Miami and pursued similar work at IIT. He should be working on projects in renewable energy, a significant need in our country, but his undocumented status keeps closing doors.
He has made the best of his situation with steady work in the nonprofit sector. He has been accepted to attend a Data BootCamp training in Washington held by the New Organizing Institute. To fund it, Garcia has launched a crowdfunding website.
Stubborn and tone-deaf members of Congress who refuse to pass comprehensive immigration reform need to speak to Malinauskaite and Garcia for a little while.
They cannot risk letting such brilliant minds go to waste.