by Neil Gouveia and Susan Edelman · August 4, 2018
When Guyanese-born NEIL GOUVEIA immigrated to New York at age 7, his mother made a devastating decision to leave one child behind to expedite the family exodus. Six years later, they became US citizens. Now 39, gay and newly conservative, Gouveia takes a tough, unpopular stance against those who cross the border illegally. He shared his story with The Post’s Susan Edelman.
You’ve heard news about families being separated at the US southern border. Legal immigrants have to deal with separation as well. My mother made her own “Sophie’s Choice.”
In Guyana back in 1986, an immigration officer broke the terrible news. After a three-year wait, my mother, Bassodai Gouveia, arrived at the US embassy in Georgetown to pick up visas for our family of nine to go live in America.
“Mrs. Gouveia, we can’t give you the visas,” he told my mom. “You have a sick child. If you brought her to the United States, it would be a huge government expense. And you can’t abandon her.”
When immigrants apply to come to America, they have to go through a complete physical. My sister, Vera, 9, had cerebral palsy. She couldn’t walk or talk and was mostly bed-bound. But she smiled and laughed. When I got a spanking for misbehaving, I would hug Vera, who was 17 months older than me, for comfort.
My mother walked away from the immigration officer, dejected, then suddenly turned around and went back: “Sir, I have an aunt who can take care of my child while we’re in America,” she told him, fibbing. (She actually had a friend who would look after Vera.)
It tore my mother apart, but she had to make a decision to leave Vera behind — or start the application process all over again. She had to sacrifice Vera to save the American dream for the rest of us — me and five kids from her previous marriage along with my father.
When we came to America, we lived in a basement apartment in the South Bronx. Mom and Dad had to hustle and get jobs. There was no time to relax. Dad, a customs official in Guyana, became a janitor. Mom, who had left school when her father died at age 9 to sell fruit, cleaned houses.
Neil Gouveia came to America in 1986 with parents Augustine and Bassodai Gouveia, who were forced to leave his ailing baby sister, Vera (pictured), behind.
One day, a woman whose house she was cleaning saw her crying and asked what was wrong. My mom explained that she had to leave her daughter in Guyana. It so happened that the woman was the principal of a special-needs school. “I’m going to help you.” she promised.
The principal and my mother pleaded with local politicians to petition on her behalf. About six months later, she had a letter granting permission for Vera to enter the US. My mom went back to South America and brought her to New York.
About a month later, Vera came down with pneumonia and died. We were heartbroken, but my mom still felt vindicated. One of her greatest satisfactions in life is knowing that she never gave up on her daughter.
I learned a lot about American culture and traditions from watching sit-coms: “Three’s Company,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons.” I went to some of the worst elementary and middle schools in the South Bronx but won a scholarship to Monsignor Scanlan High School and escaped a cycle of subpar education. It gave me the discipline I was not exposed to in the public school system. I earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from St. John’s University in Queens and a master’s degree in education from Baruch College.
Those experiences shaped my “conservative” views on immigration. It took five years after we arrived in the US before we could apply for citizenship. While I was exempt because of my age, 13, mom and dad had to prepare for a naturalization test on American history and government. Mom was the nervous one — she did not have a formal education and the thought of taking an exam terrified her. She and my dad studied for hours to answer the 100 questions that could seal their fate.
On test day, an immigration officer asked 10 questions, and my parents had to answer at least six correctly. Dad passed easily, but mom barely made it. At the official ceremony, I stood with my parents, bursting with pride, as they took the citizenship oath and pledged allegiance to the US flag. At that moment, I, too, became an American citizen. If under age 18, the children of a naturalized parent are automatically granted the same status.
I remained defiant because my parents’ journey here was not easy, and I could not betray the country that has done so much for me
Today, if someone hops the US border and gives birth to a child, that child gets the exact same benefit that took my parents eight years to achieve. They waited their turn, but babies born to illegal immigrants in the US automatically become citizens. That’s a huge flaw in our immigration system.
What President Trump is pitching is already practiced in Australia and Canada. They’re very selective about who they admit. I also think it’s legitimate to separate children, initially, to verify whom they really belong to. If these people don’t have documents to prove the children belong to them, border agents have to act in their best interest. Human and child trafficking is a huge problem.
Before the 2016 presidential campaign, I didn’t fully understand how the left and right operated. I was always fed the narrative that since I was a person of color — my mother of Indian descent, my father Portuguese — an immigrant and gay that I had to follow a script: Support the Democratic Party and liberal values; conservatives were the boogeyman.
After Trump won the election, my friends instantly wanted him to fail as a leader. I would explain that if he failed, we failed. This point of view was met with heavy backlash and a barrage of insults. Anyone who showed any type of support toward Trump was deemed the enemy.
People accused me of turning my back on minorities and their struggle. I remained defiant because my parents’ journey here was not easy, and I could not betray the country that has done so much for me.
But speaking my mind became isolating. People with whom I had shared many amazing years of friendship allowed politics to divide us. Dozens of my liberal friends stopped talking to me or un-friended me on social media. I tried to suppress my political views when meeting new people. I was passive and bit my tongue on many occasions. I wasn’t being true to myself. I felt like I was in the closet all over again.
Amid the backlash, however, I did meet people who looked past politics and not only accepted me but admired that I dared to be different in liberal-dominated NYC. One of those people is my partner, Dan. Although he does not agree with many of my views, he respects them.
I’m fortunate to be a US citizen because I’m able to live a quality life and enjoy the benefits this country has to offer. I find it disheartening when people gripe about being oppressed in America, especially other immigrants. I firmly believe that living in America is a privilege. This country is truly the land of opportunities.
Neil Gouveia, 39, lives in Washington Heights and works as a higher-education fund-raiser
New York Post · by Neil Gouveia and Susan Edelman · August 4, 2018