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Desperate action

Many blame Brazilian immigrant’s suicide on the pressures, limitations of illegal status

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 10, 2010

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MARLBOROUGH — In the grief-stricken search for answers, one thing was clear: Gustavo Rezende had hit a wall. He had dreamed of joining the military, getting a driver’s license, and becoming an American citizen.

But the 19-year-old Brazil native was in the country illegally, a hard fact that put his dreams out of reach.

At Marlborough High School, he was popular, a talented artist. Then his friends went off to college and Rezende stayed behind, stocking bottles of soda at a sports complex. He got into trouble with the law and feared deportation to a country he hardly knew.

On March 4, weeks before Rezende’s 20th birthday, police found him hanging from a tree in the woods near his house, next to Marlborough District Court.

The stunning public act, within sight of court clerks and commuters, has shaken a community and triggered an anguished cry for help from his family and friends, who believe Rezende killed himself in despair over his immigration status.

“He always said, ‘I’ve been here 11 years and I have no rights. . . . I have no right to a driver’s license, no right to continue studying, I have no rights to anything,’’’ said his mother, Deusuita, weeping on her couch, near an array of photographs of her son. She added, “I don’t want what happened to my son to happen to someone else.’’

Immigrant groups have invoked Rezende’s death in the heated debate over illegal immigration. They have increasingly been pushing for Congress to pass the Dream Act, federal legislation pending since 2001 that would allow immigrant youths to apply for legal residency if they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, lived here for five years, and enrolled in college or the military.

“The story about Gustavo Rezende is one of the most compelling cases for immediate federal action to end suffering in our communities,’’ said Kyle de Beausset, a 24-year-old activist who said he met last Sunday with Senator Scott Brown to urge him to support the legislation.

Others say Rezende’s death should not factor into the debate, since nobody can say why he took his own life. Though friends and family said he often worried about his immigration status, he didn’t mention it in a note he left at home saying where they could find him.

“It’s exploiting the dead,’’ said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors stricter controls over immigration. “You can’t second-guess that stuff because suicide is not a rational response that you can somehow adjust policy to address.’’

Colin Reed, a Brown spokesman, said the senator confirmed the meeting with de Beausset and would review the Dream Act. Reed said Brown told de Beausset that he favors streamlining the process for legal immigrants but remains opposed to amnesty for those here illegally.

Health care workers say suicide is usually the result of more than one issue, such as undiagnosed depression, mental illness, or drug and alcohol problems. But, they say, undocumented youths may be at greater risk because they are ineligible for many programs that might help them.

Rezende, nicknamed “Goose,’’ was born in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso and came to the United States when he was 9 with his parents and younger sister on visas they later overstayed.

In 2000, his mother applied for legal residency through work — she cooked for a Brazilian restaurant — but was denied, she said, because her boss was underpaying taxes. She vowed to continue trying, though her marriage ended because her husband wanted to go back to Brazil.

“The kids didn’t want to go,’’ she said. “They liked it here as if it were their country.’’

In Marlborough, a small city of tidy houses centered on two scenic lakes, Rezende grew from a chubby boy into a fit and charming teenager who loved to draw, listen to music, and hang out with friends. He and one of his best friends, Kyle Hedin, planned to open an animation company someday.

During most of his schooling, Rezende did not face questions about his immigration status because a 1982 Supreme Court ruling allows undocumented students to attend public schools. But that protection ends after high school, making him ineligible for financial aid for college.

Even before graduation, Rezende felt the pressure of his family’s predicament. He helped his mother clean offices at night, leaving little time for homework. He fell behind in school. When he was 17, police were called to his house after he argued with his sister and punched a hole in a door.

After he graduated in 2008, he tried to find work at a supermarket and fast-food restaurants — but most turned him down because he didn’t have a green card. Finally, through a friend, he found work at an ice skating complex. He also got a part-time cleaning job.

Kyle Hedin said Rezende wished he could have the same opportunities as his former classmates.

“He always said, ‘These kids go to school. They go to college, and they complain about it and they don’t do anything worthwhile,’ ’’ Hedin said. “He was saying he would trade shoes with them in a heartbeat.’’

In February, Marlborough police found Rezende trying to change a flat tire, while allegedly intoxicated. Police arrested him on misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and driving without a license.

The March 17 hearing in the case weighed on his mind. He had been caught with a fake driver’s license from Brazil, and his mother said he feared he would be deported.

He had talked about suicide in the past, including in the weeks before his death, according to friends and the police report filed after his death.

“He had a hard time asking for help for himself,’’ said Jane Hedin, Kyle’s mother. “That’s what’s heartbreaking. . . . He had so many friends he didn’t reach out to. Everybody loved him.’’

Mario Rodas of the Student Immigrant Movement, an advocacy group, said immigrant youths often fear deportation if they talk about their problems. The group regularly holds support groups to help the students.

“We tell them not to give up,’’ Rodas said.

Two days before he died, his mother said, Rezende couldn’t sleep. He was nauseous and called in sick to work.

The next day, his grandmother arrived for a visit from Brazil, the first time he had seen her since he left in 1999. In the early evening, Rezende hugged his grandmother, kissed his sister, and left the house carrying a rope, according to police, saying only that he “needed it.’’

Police found him the next morning about 150 feet into the woods, in a tree he used to climb, a dusting of snow on the ground.

About six weeks after his death, Rezende received a letter from the US government telling him to register for the draft. It wasn’t a mistake: Federal law requires that all men ages 18-26 register with the Selective Service System, including illegal immigrants who cannot serve in the military, said agency spokesman Patrick Schuback.

Registering could help illegal immigrants if they ever apply for legal residency, he said, because it would show that they followed the law.

At home, his mother clutched the letter and wept.

“If that letter had arrived before, he would have been so happy,’’ she said.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described his birthplace. Mato Grosso is a Brazilian state.

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