Lawmakers gathered in Elmhurst Wednesday, Aug. 31, to celebrate the life and legacy of the late state Senator José Peralta, who fought tirelessly to pass the New York State DREAM Act, which allows thousands of undocumented young people across the state access to higher education.
The elected leaders from every level of government joined educators and students at P.S. 89 to celebrate The José Peralta School for DREAMers.
The event was organized by Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who was born in Colombia and came to Queens at the age of 9, and grew up as a DREAMer in Queens.
“José believed that an undocumented 17-year-old should focus on their SATs and college application, not avoiding deportation and working two jobs to help out at home,” Cruz said. “Because of his life’s work, now undocumented young people in New York can access financial aid for college and focus on their success.”
A young P.S. 89 student called the gathering “the most amazing event in our school’s history,” and Cruz noted that it was fitting that this particular school, located at 82-28 Britton Ave., was renamed in his honor.
“Not only was this one of his favorite schools, but it is also the school with the most DREAMers and greatest number of undocumented families in our district,” Cruz said. “And now, as kids go into school every day, they will see his name and will learn that someone cared about them. José fought for their chance to be somebody, and we should honor him by continuing that legacy.”
Peralta died at age 47 in 2018 from leukemia. He represented the largely immigrant communities of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Corona for 16 years in the Senate and Assembly. He had moved to Queens at the age of 8, was the son of Dominican immigrants, and attended Queens College.
“José Peralta was a great man, neighbor and representative of Queens, and I was lucky to have met and worked alongside him during our shared time on the New York State Assembly,” Congresswoman Grace Meng said. “Peralta was a fearless and lifelong advocate of DREAMers and left behind a legacy that politicians can only dream of replicating.”
Peralta first introduced the DREAM Act in 2013 and kept reintroducing it year after year while Republicans controlled the upper chamber.
“He worked on it even when it wasn’t popular in this country or even in this city,” Meng recalled. “He fought for our DREAMers, fought for our kids who are here through no fault of their own but didn’t have that one piece of paper that made them more legitimate. I am so pleased to see his legacy memorialized with the naming of the P.S. 89 José Peralta School for DREAMers.”
The state Legislature finally passed the DREAM Act in January 2019, just over a year after Peralta died. He had lost progressive support in his party when he joined the Independent Democratic Conference that caucused with Republicans, which effectively gave them control of the Senate. His controversial decision cost him politically and he lost to Jessica Ramos in the 2019 Democratic primary election.
“One would ask why did José fight so hard, because he understood that when you have an education, no one can take that away,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “I was honored to celebrate the renaming of P.S. 89 to The José Peralta School for DREAMers with the Elmhurst community, and with it José’s legacy of advocacy for our immigrant communities. While it breaks all of our hearts that José wasn’t with us long enough to see the renaming of the school and his landmark Dream Act pass, I know he’s looking down on us today with pride. We’ll continue to advance his dream of high-quality education for all our families, regardless of their ZIP code or immigration status.”
CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said he has seen firsthand how the financial assistance made possible by the New York DREAM Act has changed the lives of so many undocumented students.
“As a proud CUNY alumnus, Senator Peralta knew personally of our university’s deep bond with New York’s immigrant communities,” he said. “It would be hard to name anyone who was a better ally to immigrant students, or whose commitment had a greater impact, than José Peralta. So, it’s very fitting that a man who helped make higher education accessible to so many, is now the namesake of an elementary school where generations of Queens children have begun their educational journeys. I look forward to seeing today’s students from P.S. 89: The José Peralta School of DREAMers follow in his footsteps to CUNY campuses a few years from now.”