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Sean Kirst: For Buffalo's 'dreamers,' hopes on hold as end of DACA looms

Mike Taheri forwarded the text message. He made sure that it was OK with Diego Reynoso, the young man who sent it.

To Taheri, the text made the point:

Good afternoon Mike,

I just wanted to tell you I have a 95 'solid A' overall grad so far in EMT …. I haven't failed any skills nor received a test grade lower than a 90. I will have an update for you on nursing after our second exam Monday night.

The text wasn't a boast. Taheri has tutored Diego, 24, since the young man was in high school at Bennett. Part of the deal is that Diego lets him know how everything is going. This was a note from a fine student at Erie Community College who intends to be a paramedic and a registered nurse, a student whose original dream was to serve as a police officer.

As a teenager, he learned that couldn't happen.

Diego is undocumented.

He is a "dreamer," one of about 600,000 young Americans still enrolled in the DACA – or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – program. He and Taheri met at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy on the East Side, where Taheri runs the education ministry.

Like many at the mission, Diego speaks of Taheri as a second father.

"Even when I mess up," Diego said, "he's still there."

Sean Kirst: At St. Luke's, a mentor and a child who rose above despair

Taheri is a criminal lawyer in Buffalo. In every conversation, he emphasizes that he is only one of many volunteers and donors who embrace St. Luke's as an act of faith. His passion is helping children faced with overwhelming odds gain traction with learning skills, and then – if everything comes together – to move on with college.

At the beginning, he worked primarily with boys and girls born into poverty. St. Luke's is a refuge. The staff often supplies temporary housing to families that have none.  One by one, Taheri's group began including undocumented children, until the number grew to eight or nine.

Their situation, for years, was all but impossible. Brought to this country illegally by their parents, the only choice was life in an American netherworld. Yet in 2012, by order of then-President Obama, those young people fell under the protection of DACA.

It allowed them to obtain Social Security cards and two-year work permits, each requiring a $465 fee. They finally had a chance to earn a check and pay their taxes.

In September, President Trump announced he would end the program in six months, and challenged lawmakers to find a solution. The clock is ticking. Unless Congress arrives at an answer by early 2018, these young people could be deported.

The chances for a political compromise seem to rise, slip back and then tremble every day. Taheri knows first-hand what's at stake. He asked a few of his students to meet a journalist.

Taheri sat at a table with Diego, his brother Cristian, 22, and their friend Marina Rumbo, 23. All are from Argentina.

Since they're at risk of being told to leave this country, Taheri at least wants us to know who they are.

Diego and Marina are in college, while Cristian – who earned an associate's degree at ECC in computer-assisted design and drafting – works as a fabricator and draftsman at an engineering company.

Mike Taheri, who runs the education ministry at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, with the Reynoso brothers and Marina Rumbo, undocumented young people he's tutored at the ministry. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

The Reynoso brothers said the full nature of the limitations became evident in their teen years. They intended to join the  military, as a way of proving their allegiance. This was before DACA. At that time, a recruiter told them, enlistment was impossible because of their status.

Diego said he feels a certain relief at Trump's decision. At least, he said, it will force a resolution. Taheri is not so confident. He fluctuates between hope and intense concern.

These students  receive no government help, no student loans, no public assistance, he said.  They attend college only through the goodwill of donors who contribute to a scholarship fund at St. Luke's. It is a myth, Taheri said, that they somehow exploit the system.

"They get nothing," he said of the young people at the table.

That point is why Diego agreed to an interview.

"I just want people to understand we're not looking for handouts," he said, "and we're certainly not leeching off the country."

He said he would advise anyone against coming here illegally – not because he doesn't understand the desperate circumstance that leads to those decisions, but because he's seen first-hand what it can do to families once they cross the border.

"The worry, the anxiety, I wouldn't want anyone else to go through it," he said.

The two brothers and Marina followed the same trajectory. When they were young children, their parents left Argentina for Canada, hoping to find decent jobs. Eventually, they made their way to Buffalo.

Diego, Cristian and Marina were in grade school. Their parents sought help at St. Luke's. The ministry provided temporary housing. Taheri tutored the children. By the time they were in high school, Taheri already envisioned them as college students - and eventually as citizens.

"This is home," Marina said. "I've made my whole life here."

She is in the honor society at Buffalo State. Her goal is to be a fashion designer. None of that seemed attainable a few years ago, when she was a teen on the East Side. She was on the bus one night when she saw Diego, then attending college at Trocaire.

He made it there, he explained, for one reason.

"I met this man at the church."

He was speaking of Taheri, who had found an open door at several schools. That included Erie Community College, where Taheri spoke with Erik D'Aquino, director of admissions.

"Mike was Mike," D'Aquino said, "and we talked and I asked myself: Why can't we do this?"

Colleges ought to be in the "yes business," D'Aquino said.

As long as they qualified academically and were part of the DACA program, ECC began accepting undocumented students.

Taheri freely uses the word "love" in describing the young people he mentors. He said they work hard. They stay out of trouble. They show up for the mandatory tutoring and communal meals that Taheri said hold the group together.

Cristian recalls a period in high school when he despaired. What other teens saw as routine seemed impossible for him. It was a moment when he easily could have drifted into trouble, but Taheri sensed it. He wouldn't let it happen.

"Mike said to me, 'You're going to college,'" Cristian said.

These next few months involve both steep risk and fragile promise. Diego, now enrolled at both ECC and Trocaire, said he was terrified when he learned DACA would be ending. For a few days, he struggled to sleep. He kept thinking of how he willingly provided the government with information about who he is and where he lives.

It was easy to slip into fantasies about immigration agents banging on the door.

Yet Taheri had spent years teaching a coping skill that offered both hope and an escape.

"I remembered I had a test," Diego said.

Forget fear. He had to study.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.



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