The FIRST international robotics championship is supposed to be about the world's best young engineering wizards showing off their skills. But for an illegal immigrant getting a U.S. education under the threat of being deported to Africa, it meant a secret revealed.
An upset victory the East Harlem Tech robotics team scored over elite New York City schools had unintended consequences for 18-year-old Amadou Ly. He had to tell his teammates about his immigration problems because he had no valid ID to board a flight to Atlanta.
"I never wanted to share this with people," said Ly, a lanky senior from Senegal.
Three days a week for six weeks, as long as janitors didn't kick them out of spare rooms, Ly and his 18 teammates worked with donated tools to build a robot capable of shooting balls into a goal.
His teammates' elation over the chance to compete with hundreds of teams from the U.S., Canada, Israel and Brazil turned to shock when they learned Ly would have to take an 18-hour train ride to get to the Thursday-through-Saturday competition.
"I felt real bad," said 17-year-old Glenn Wright. "If I was him ... Just thinking what college to go to is hard for me, I don't know how I could handle it."
Ly and his mother came to the U.S. on a visit to New York in 2001, when he was 13. His mother knew no English, but decided to overstay the tourist visa to give her son a U.S. education. About a year later, she returned to Dakar broke and left him in the care of a friend in Indianapolis, who soon changed her mind and sent the teen back to New York.
He found another Senegalese acquaintance and enrolled in high school, where he is three months shy of graduation. He dreams of studying math and computer science at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, where he's been accepted, but doesn't have enough money -- or perhaps enough time.
Car accident revealed immigration status
Ly is in the middle of deportation proceedings that started in November 2004, after a police officer asked for his visa when he was injured in a car accident. Federal immigration officials detained him after he was treated at a hospital, he said.
Ly will be in court in July, with deportation possible by the end of the year in the worst-case scenario, said his lawyer, Amy Meselson of the Legal Aid Society.
Ly says he hopes to stay in the U.S. long enough to master English and get more education, so he can go back and help his countrymen.
"In Senegal, I may eat breakfast today but tomorrow it is not promised," he said. "I don't have a problem going back but I want to finish my education. I admit being overstayed, but at least I'm not doing anything bad for the country."
And if he's sent back to his family in Dakar, what will he miss the most?
"Everything," Ly said, a wistful smile spreading over his face.