Excerpt from Green Card Stories

Randolph Sealey

Randy Sealey breezed through the college applications for the nation’s top universities. He listed his student awards and honors. He wrote an essay about his dreams of becoming the first person in his family to attend college, and of becoming a doctor. But on each application, there was one question he left blank: Are you a citizen of the United States?

He was sure his grandparents were working out his immigration status. It seemed like just a technical matter. He felt as American as his beloved New York Yankees.

Randy was born in Mexico in 1974 to a mother who was a German go-go dancer and a Panamanian father who sang in a Motown-era band called “The Crooners.” His parents divorced and his father took him to Panama when he was five to be raised by his grandparents.

Randy’s grandfather was from Barbados and a U.S. naturalized citizen who worked in the Panama Canal Zone. His grandmother was from Jamaica, but held an American green card. When Randy was eight, he and his grandparents moved to Brooklyn to be closer to relatives.

Randy loved his public school and the bustle of New York. In their public housing high-rise apartment, Randy grew up with a mix of calypso, salsa, and Motown classics, and Caribbean dishes of peas and coconut rice. His family went to Coney Island in the summer. His grandfather brought him to his first Yankees game, sparking his love of baseball.

Randy bonded with his cousins, but with so much commotion in the cramped apartment, Randy locked himself in a bedroom to do his homework.

By junior high, Randy won a spot in the David A. Boody Magnet School and then was referred to the Oliver Scholars Program, a private entity that sends black and Latino urban youth with exceptional academic records to the best boarding schools in the Northeast.

Randy was accepted into the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. For the first time, Randy was a minority among the white, suburban students. He had grown up as part of the majority in the urban diversity of Brooklyn. Though he’d spent his early years in Mexico and Panama, had a white mother and was raised by Caribbean grandparents, Randy considered himself just another black American kid.

An inner confidence told Randy he could compete. Soon he was on the Dean’s List. A few years later, acceptance letters and scholarship offers arrived from Duke University, Vassar College, and Franklin & Marshall College.

But he had to answer that question. Was he a citizen?

His grandfather had died the year before, unable to fix Randy’s immigration status. Now Randy and his grandmother met with attorneys, none of whom could help. The colleges withdrew their government-backed scholarship offers. He could still attend, but he would have to pay the full tuition—tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Randy felt frustrated hearing classmates talk about college plans. He’d worked just as hard as they had, was just as American. And now all of a sudden a barrier rose between them—much thicker than race or class—and he was on the outside looking in. At night, he lay awake wondering if officials were going to come and take him away. If they deported him to Mexico, where would he go?

In 1992, his senior year, Randy and his grandmother met another attorney who offered some hope, with a risk. They could apply for “suspension of deportation.” Randy had to show that he was present in the country for seven straight years, that he was of “good moral character,” and that his removal would cause a hardship to a U.S. citizen or resident. If he won, Randy got a green card. If he lost, he’d be deported.

They decided to go for it. Meanwhile, he obtained a temporary work visa. But he still didn’t know how he’d afford college.

Lawrenceville officials had good news. An anonymous donor gave 30,000 dollars for Randy’s first year of tuition at Duke University in North Carolina. Randy threw himself into his studies while seeking ways to pay for his remaining years at Duke. A financial aid director cobbled together private scholarships and low-interest loans that would help Randy meet his financial needs. One summer, Randy worked at the Gap and held a research internship at a hospital that specialized in joint diseases. He developed an interest in orthopedic surgery.

But always in the back of his mind lurked the pending immigration hearing.

In 1994, in his junior year at Duke and a week before finals, Randy flew to New York and took the subway to the courthouse in Manhattan. An immigration judge peered over his record and transcripts. After a few minutes, she looked up and asked, “Why aren’t you in class?” She ruled in his favor, and officials granted him a green card.

Still, even as he graduated from Duke and went through medical school at the State University of New York, Randy couldn’t shake the feeling that he was an outsider.

That changed on May 17, 2001. That night, he attended his graduation ceremony from medical school at Carnegie Hall. But first, the same morning, gathered with hundreds of people from all over the world at a courthouse in Brooklyn, Randy was sworn in as an American citizen. Finally, he belonged.

In 2007, Randy joined a private practice in southwest Connecticut as an orthopedic surgeon. He married a woman named Symone who was born in Jamaica but grew up in the United States and became a permanent resident in her youth. They had a baby girl and named her Phoenix.

On the kitchen countertop in their home rests a jar from a ceremony he and his wife held during their wedding. Inside is a mixture of sand, from the places that make up a piece of who they are—Panama, Jamaica, and Coney Island.

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