When the phone range at State Assemblyman Chuck Lavine’s Glen Cove office, his constituent liaison, Nelson Melgar, saw that it was U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi calling. Melgar was eating lunch, and let someone else answer, certain that Suozzi was not trying to reach him.
“I was surprised that he wanted to speak to me,” Melgar recounted, adding that when he got on the phone, he still had a mouthful of food. “When he asked me to go with him as his guest for the State of the Union [address] in Washington,” Melgar said of Suozzi, “I couldn’t process it.”
Melgar, 27, of Glen Cove, is a “Dreamer,” having been brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, but protected from deportation by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted in August 2012. President Trump announced last September his plan to phase out DACA, saying he would terminate it on March 5.
“Why bring Nelson to the State of the Union?” Suozzi said. “This is not about [President] Trump, or about Democrats or Republicans. Nelson is a great example of people who want to live in the United States who we want to stay here.”
A son of a coffee bean farmer and a cleaning woman, Melgar was born in Honduras. When he arrived in Glen Cove at 13, he spoke no English. He eventually mastered the language and graduated with honors from Glen Cove High School.
When he was 22, he obtained DACA status. Shortly afterward, he began working 20 hours a day, six days a week in a restaurant and on the night shift at a convenience store to save money to attend Hunter College.
Now a Hunter graduate, Melgar said he would like to go to law school. But he added that he believes that he and others like him are “under attack,” and may have to leave the country.
Suozzi held a news conference on Monday to announce his plans to take Melgar to D.C. They stood outside the convenience store where Melgar was once employed, Hardy’s QuickMart in Glen Head.
“It’s an honor and privilege, and I feel humbled by Congressman Suozzi’s invitation,” Melgar said, “but at the same time, I am troubled. I will be in Washington at a time when there is so much hostility toward me.”
Suozzi had included Melgar in a news conference last September, too, at which Melgar shared his story. Suozzi said he believes that what is needed is to put a face on the issue of DACA. “I know when Americans hear the personal stories, they will say people like Nelson should have protective status,” he said. “Nelson is a symbol. I’m excited to have him come to D.C. with me.”
Suozzi, of Glen Cove, is a vice chairman of the House of Representatives’ Problem Solvers Caucus. The bipartisan group submitted a plan on Monday to solve the DACA problem. “There are 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats in the caucus,” Suozzi said. “We plan to sit together at the State of the Union, and the Democrats will wear red ties and the Republicans, blue. These are reasonable Republicans and Democrats who want to solve this problem.”
If there is no compromise on immigration policy, Melgar will no longer be able to work for Lavine — or even keep his driver’s license — after his status expires in November. If he remains in this country, he could be deported. “It presently takes 10 years to go through the process of getting a permit, a green card, residency and then citizenship,” he said. “When people ask me why I’m not a citizen, I tell them, ‘I’d easily trade everything I have right now for that document.’ But there is no clear path.”
The plight of “Dreamers” is personal for Suozzi. His father, Joseph, who died in 2016, was an immigrant. A former two-term mayor of Glen Cove, Joseph Suozzi was a State Supreme Court justice, and went on to be appointed an Appellate Division justice.
“My dad lived in the Orchard Neighborhood where Nelson lives,” Suozzi said. “Dad’s goal was to ‘Be a real American’ — that’s what he wrote in his yearbook. When Dad was 18 in 1939, people were suspicious of Italians. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. There are so many people that came here undocumented.”
For Melgar time is running out. “I am an American, though I may not be a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I may not have a birth certificate from the U.S. But I am as American as anybody else, because I love this country, and I would love nothing more than to be successful here and contribute back to our society.”