February 16, 2009
By: Nina Bernstein
Three years ago, Amadou Ly was a shy East Harlem high school student with a secret. He quickly became front-page news when his robotics team unexpectedly won a spot in the national finals in Atlanta, but he could not board a plane because he lacked government identification.
Born in Senegal, Amadou had been abandoned in New York at 14 by his mother, who wanted him to try to finish an American education. At 18, he was facing deportation as an illegal immigrant, with no way to attend the college where he had been admitted.
But by the time he arrived at the robotics competition by train, the response to an article in The New York Times had unleashed a news media whirlwind that brought members of Congress, Hollywood stars and volunteer lawyers to his side. They persuaded immigration authorities to drop deportation proceedings and grant him a foreign student visa to stay and study in the United States.
Now that happy ending has been eclipsed by another: Mr. Ly secured a juvenile green card just before his 21st birthday this month, thanks to his legal helpers and obscure changes in New York State law that extended the age of eligibility.
He is on track to graduate in June from Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, after struggling to pay tuition because as a foreign student he could not work more than 20 hours a week.
And he has already begun a very American career, winning parts in two independent films and a music video, and even an offer of a small role in an episode of “Law & Order.”
He had to turn down that television show last year, he said, because of the work limits imposed by his visa. But now, as a legal permanent resident, “I can work as much as I want, and I can travel,” Mr. Ly exulted last week, between college classes in Brooklyn and a film rehearsal in Harlem.
In April, he plans a trip back to Senegal, his first chance to see his grandmother since he came to the United States at 13. But he will not stay too long.
“I feel like I belong in this country,” he said, recalling how he longed to vote in the presidential election. “As soon as I have the next opportunity to become a citizen, I will take it.”
Mr. Ly (pronounced Lee) originally wanted to become a computer engineer. But he changed plans after he took an acting class in an effort to improve his public speaking style, and he visited producers at Universal Studios in Hollywood. He switched his college major to performing arts.
Amy Meselson, the Legal Aid lawyer who first took his case, said she was initially worried about his new ambitions. But she has been impressed by how hard he works, she said, and how much poise he has gained.
“When I first met him I was very struck by how shy he was,” she said, recalling the scared teenager who had been placed in deportation proceedings in November 2004, after he was a passenger in a car accident in Pennsylvania and a state trooper reported him to federal immigration authorities. “Even his voice was so quiet it was hard to hear him sometimes.”
“He’s always been a principled person who had a sense of the right way to act,” she added. “I feel like at every turn he has really taken the best from his environment and left the worst.”
He is still aware of his good luck, especially after visiting Senegalese friends when they were held for months without legal representation in an immigration detention center in Elizabeth, N.J. “There are people who have nobody to visit them,” he said. “They are just there alone.”
He now sits on a regional planning committee for the annual robotics competition, known as First, which has its robot-building trials on March 6. And he is trying to organize a robotics team in Senegal, said Kris Breton, who was Mr. Ly’s robotics coach in East Harlem and now works for the city overseeing free after-school programs.
Whether Mr. Ly succeeds in show business, returns to engineering or finds a different path, Mr. Breton added, he will make a fine American.
“Amadou has character,” he said.