Welcoming our local immigrants

Given the aggressive anti-immigrant drumbeat from the White House, the immigrants in our communities need a little extra help these days — if only in a welcoming smile.

If most of us have been shaken by our president’s lack of any understanding or compassion for immigrants either inside our country or at our border, families who are new to this country, and whose status may be uncertain, must feel quite traumatized to find themselves here. What is their future? Is this the country where they dreamed of feeling safe?

Few of us have forgotten the 32-day government shutdown barely three months ago, by which President Trump assumed he could force Congress to fund a wall they had voted against at our southern border, and his determination to build the wall by declaring a National Emergency. Although there was bipartisan outrage at discovering nearly 3,000 Central American children separated from their parents, Trump has chosen the policy’s designer, Kevin McAleenan, to replace Secretary Kirstjen Nielson as Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has also made clear that he intends to end the long-standing policies of visa lottery and family-based immigration (which he denigrates as “chain migration”).  Moreover, he has tried to terminate Temporary Protected Status, created in 1990 for nationals of countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters. Terminating TPS would affect thousands of Haitians, Hondurans, Nepalese, Nicaraguans, Sudanese and Salvadorans living in our country. It is currently being blocked by the courts. The President’s latest policy change is to force Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they await their court hearings in the U.S. Since this policy goes against international law regarding the rights of refugees, it will also be challenged by the courts.

Most of us know a Central American gardener or housekeeper, and it’s difficult not to notice the immigrants stocking shelves in the grocery store or washing dishes in our area’s restaurants and cafes. If we know the person, there’s no harm — and only good — in asking how they’re doing, and sharing our own discomfort and even shame at this anti-immigrant siege. Though we may feel shy of intruding on their privacy, it may also be useful to tell them about Vecinos Seguros, a local group headed by Reverend John Carter that provides legal, financial and other supports to immigrants facing sudden challenges.

According to the American Immigration Council, in 2015, over half a million Connecticut residents were immigrants, or foreign-born. Surprisingly, the top countries of origin for Connecticut’s immigrants were India (6.6 percent of immigrants), Poland (6.4 percent), Jamaica (6.3 percent), the Dominican Republic (5.1 percent), and Mexico (4.8 percent). The American Immigration Council also estimates 120,000 “unauthorized immigrants” in Connecticut, or just under a quarter of the immigrant population. Between 2015 and June 2018, the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles issued drive-only licenses to more than 42,000 undocumented immigrants living here. 

Despite our president’s lack of sympathy for the violence driving young families to flee Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a number of families have passed their initial “credible fear” interviews at the border and made their way north to our area to await their court hearing. According to Evelyn Garzetta, Director of Latino Outreach for Grace Church in Millbrook, Dover Plains has recently become home to 17, and Millerton to 30, Central American asylum-seeking families. Though these families have arrived with little but the summer clothes they were wearing, local people and organizations have reached out to support them with housing, furniture, clothing, jobs — and, as important, the protection of community.

The needs of recent immigrants, who are uncertain they will even be allowed to stay in the U.S., may seem overwhelming. But these newcomers are no different than you or me: they want to feel that there’s a place for them here and they are safe. Imagine yourself in a new country where everything is unknown. A welcoming smile in the grocery store could make someone’s day.    


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.