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Christian F. Reynoso has done almost everything to qualify for the free college education promised by Buffalo’s Say Yes to Education program.

He’s on track to graduate from Hutch-Tech with a Regents diploma in June, and he has been accepted into Erie Community College’s computer aided drafting/design technology program.

Christian’s only mistake?

He was born into the wrong family.

Despite his roots in the Buffalo Public Schools and the city he has known since fourth grade, Christian is an undocumented immigrant whose family fled Argentina for Canada before ending up here – and Say Yes is not open to such students. Christian, who lives with his family at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on Walden Avenue, picked ECC because “I didn’t see any other colleges nearby that I could afford.” Say Yes excited him – until he learned he couldn’t qualify.

It’s hard to blame a program like Say Yes with the potential to do so much good for so many Buffalo kids. The aid it promises – on a sliding scale – will cover 99.9 percent of city public and charter students, officials say. That includes making allowances for refugee graduates who are here legally, said Executive Director David Rust.

But Say Yes is a “last dollar” initiative, meaning it fills the gap after students have applied for state and federal aid – aid that students like Christian can’t apply for. Also, because they’re undocumented, there’s no way to plan for them, Rust notes. In fact, Buffalo Public Schools officials say their records show “no incidence of undocumented alien students in the BPS.”

But none of those reasons makes much sense to Mike Taheri, director of Our Lady of Hope Child Services, run by the mission. He can’t comprehend subsidizing a City Honors student with two working parents, but not a young man like Christian living in a mission.

“They’re excluding the most needy population in Western New York,” he said, citing other states and some colleges that aid such students. New York’s Assembly also proposed help, but it was not in the state budget, meaning it would have to come in a separate bill.

Christian’s older brother, Diego, is attending Trocaire College, thanks to a private donor, while Taheri has an immigration lawyer trying to help both brothers. Say Yes also will replicate the legal task force it has in Syracuse to help students qualify for aid. But neither legislative nor legal help is likely in time to help Christian pay for ECC this fall.

What would he say to Say Yes? “I would ask them for a chance,” Christian said. “I’ve seen people just throw away the chance to go to college.”

One can then ask a question bigger than Buffalo or Say Yes: Why should children here illegally get aid when there’s not enough money to do all we want for children born here? Yet undocumented kids didn’t do anything wrong themselves, so why should they be punished?

Ultimately, one fact weighs heavily on one side of the scale: Students like Christian are here; they’re not taking Mitt Romney’s advice to “self-deport.” So is it in society’s best interest that they get a college education, or not?

We need to figure out a way to say yes to young people like Christian – if not for their futures, then for Buffalo’s.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com