Approximately 20 friends and neighbors recently filled the room at the Asylum Hill Family Center to hold a community café sharing a meal and discussing recent events related to immigration. Children were welcomed and in a separate session, they learned about European immigrants who arrived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The adult portion of the evening started with a brief icebreaker where people discussed where they and their relatives came from. Many came from the Caribbean; a few had come to Hartford from Latin America. While everyone’s stories were different, they all shared at least one thing in common: all of them or their ancestors came to America in search of better lives for themselves and their children. Then the group was shown a news report about President Donald Trump's second executive order on immigration which bars citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and halts refugee resettlement efforts.
Participants were asked to discuss their feelings on the proposed ban at their tables with each table reporting out their views to the larger group. The consensus was that this proposed ban unfairly targeted Muslims based solely on their religious beliefs. Neighbors discussed how this puts the country in a bad light by making America look unwelcoming to people based on their country of origin and religion. People from the neighborhood were pleased that several states had challenged this ban in court and a federal judge recently extended a suspension on the proposed ban to prevent it from being implemented.
One of the café participants talked about why this is such an important topic for the Asylum Hill community.
“We live in communities where our neighbors and friends are immigrants whether documented or undocumented. There is widespread fear in our community and a lack of understanding and education on the topic of immigration. Many of the immigrants in our community aren't aware that they too have rights, and others in the community are oblivious to immigrants ‘daily plight.’ One of our goals as Parent Ambassadors is to inform our neighbors and friends. It's just natural to use a community café forum to get the word out.”
While participants were opposed to the proposed immigration ban, their more immediate concerns were the aggressive actions taken by the current administration in regards to detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. Neighbors shared a wide variety of stories of how even people with permanent legal residency were being detained and harassed, and how this has caused many to become afraid to travel out of the country and visit their families. In fact, several people who were invited to attend the meeting at the Family Center decided not to participate due to fears that local agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would find out about the event and arrest them.
Attorney Erin O’Neil-Baker, a partner at the Hartford Legal Group, was invited to present at the event to inform people of their rights should they be confronted by ICE agents and to dispel some of the common fears related to the rights of permanent legal residents to travel in and out of the country. O’Neil-Baker stressed the fact that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, has Constitutional rights including the basic right to remain silent. She discussed the fact that no one can be detained unless they are formally being arrested, and no one is required to produce documentation to prove their citizenship or legal immigrant status. O’Neil-Baker also reminded people that ICE cannot enter a building and arrest suspected undocumented immigrants without a warrant and anyone can deny them entry without one.
‘”I think the atmosphere at the Center allowed people to honestly share their concerns and fears about being deported and losing their children,” said O’Neil-Baker. “The community's fears for their children and future are pervasive and paralyzing during this time of increased immigration enforcement. It is critical that a safe place like the Center is available to discuss fears, myths, rumors and solutions. The community café provided a trusted environment to those who do not always have the time or luxury to talk about their own crippling fears and an open dialogue is one step toward understanding the issues, allaying fears and finding solutions for the future. I was grateful to be part of such an informative and necessary discussion with caring and proactive staff and community members.
According to one of the attendees:
“We noticed that some of the families are not coming to family center programs that they had regularly participated in like “Dinner and a Story.” When asked why they said “we are afraid to leave our house due to fear of being detained.” They did not know their rights and were afraid to find out. The travel ban also really scared them because they had friends and family members that had been detained while traveling.”
Attorney O’Neil-Baker also clearly defined “sanctuary cities.” Cities like Hartford, New Haven, and Windham have refused to provide any assistance to ICE in their efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants; these cities have sought to provide all their residents with access to additional resources for themselves and their families. O’Neil-Baker also discussed the fact that Governor Malloy had come out against the current tactics being employed by ICE agents and had ordered the State Police not to cooperate in these efforts.
O’Neil-Baker encouraged all undocumented immigrants with children to make a family preparedness plan to identify who will serve as their children’s guardians in the event that the parents are detained or deported. She also emphasized the fact that even if one is detained, they have a right to a hearing before any deportation can occur. In closing, she encouraged anyone in need of additional information or legal assistance to reach out to her and her colleagues. Attendees were encouraged to take and share a variety of informational pamphlets available in English and Spanish.
Neighbors expressed appreciation for this valuable information which they planned on sharing with their friends, families and others they know. As one person stated “If you don’t know your rights, it’s like having no rights at all.”
Another participant said that “a weight had been lifted” from her; now she understands where she stands and the rights she has. Before the café I was not even going to the grocery store or leaving my house.”
At the end of the café, the group discussed possible actions they could take in response to the issues covered that evening. They are now planning an event where concerned neighbors can write letters to their Congressman to express their concerns about the current activities related to immigration enforcement. Parents at Asylum Hill are also planning a community café for neighborhood youth so that they get information on current events including the immigration ban.