“Governor, no more excuses!”
The plea resonated throughout the parking lot of the former Gateway Community College Long Wharf campus. The phrase “not one more deportation” emblazoned a placard in Spanish. Another one read, in capital letters, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
Brandishing these posters and banners, over 50 immigration activists and community members convened at 60 Sargent Dr. Tuesday afternoon to protest Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s dismissal of a federal request to temporarily house up to 2,000 undocumented children from Central America.
The rally stressed the plight of these displaced minors, who have crossed the southern U.S. border often in flight from violence, and called for comprehensive action from Malloy to ensure their well-being in Connecticut. Activists also sought to put a human face on the issue: several Guatemalan children, most of whom crossed the border little over a month ago, spoke up during the event to share their stories of hardship and hopes for asylum.
Activists and community leaders took turns to address the gathering crowd. Alok Bhatt, of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, read off a list of demands that included forming a statewide task force, enforcing the TRUST Act to curb deportations, and making state facilities available other than the old Southbury training school, the site the feds had sought to have Malloy open to 2,000 children. Malloy responded that the facility is too dangerous and an inappropriate place for warehousing people.
“The governor himself has admitted that there are smaller state facilities that are suitable for housing children,” Bhatt said. Organizers held the rally outside the now empty former Gateway building to demonstrate that alternative sites exist. Bhatt told the Independent the rally was not meant to endorse that particular site, but to highlight the existence of unused locations across the state.
Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights & racial justice at the Center for Community Change, commended the efforts of Massachusetts, Vermont and New York — states, she said, that have “gone out of [their] way” to absorb the influx of undocumented children and find them housing.
“And has our governor responded favorably?” Matos asked.
“No!” the crowd chanted.
“Is that a shame?” she continued.
“Yes!” they responded.
Malloy: We’re Working On It
Since Malloy’s refusal last week to utilize the Southbury facility, and the backlash from immigration advocates, his administration has instructed the Department of Children and Families to provide assistance to those children with relatives in Connecticut. Rally organizers hope this rally will spur the governor into taking a more meaningful and lasting approach toward the current immigration crisis.
In a statement issued after the rally, Malloy reported that the DCF has so far placed 320 children with families in Connecticut, and that his administration is looking at the possibility of using the old Gateway site. He added: “However, I do not believe that the long-term detention of minors is the appropriate policy.”
“I continue to work closely with the federal government on this important issue,” Malloy reported. “Today, I participated in a conference call with the White House and the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. It appears that substantial progress has been made to diminish the need for housing children for extended periods in large scale institutional settings. For example, the facility at Nogales now houses 22 children, down from more than 1,000. Much of this work has been accomplished by pursuing the appropriate step of placing children as quickly as possible with relatives, a position that we have advocated for the past week.”
But for John Lugo, of Unidad Latina en Acción, “the DCF move doesn’t make any sense. We don’t need the DCF if there are already families waiting,” he said in an interview at the rally. “It’s demagogy. Some kind of solution that is not a real solution.”
As he talked to the crowd, Lugo (pictured at the top of the story) admonished elected officials at the local and federal level for “playing politics” and worrying more about elections than looking after young immigrants.
Guatemalans Speak Out
Lugo, Matos said, has been attempting to relocate about 30 undocumented Guatemalan mothers and children who have recently come to New Haven to reunite with their loved ones. Children such as Wendy, who spoke into the microphone and said she didn’t want to be thinking every day about returning to the violence in her hometown. Antonia, who pleaded for compassion from the American government.
Or young Edwin (pictured), who said he wanted an opportunity to live in peace.
Then there was Lidia González, a mother carrying her toddler, who asked for a halt to deportations.
“I’m terrified of going back to my country,” she said in Spanish.
Hazel Mencos Jiménez, 13, recounted in an interview how she left Guatemala to escape the menace of gangs and killings. Hazel, pictured, said she traveled all the way to Connecticut without a chaperone, passing through Mexico with little to no food or water.
“Whenever we made stops, drug dealers in our group would threaten to kidnap us, and other people in the group wouldn’t let that happen,” she said.
She was detained in San Antonio after crossing the border, and a month later she was reconnected in West Haven with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in eight years.
The horror of her story notwithstanding, Hazel was forthcoming and friendly at the rally. A lawyer is currently helping her to obtain asylum, she said.
For advocates such as Rosario Caicedo, harrowing journeys like Hazel’s call attention to the humanitarian crisis driving the surge in young unaccompanied immigrants. Caicedo, pictured, volunteers with Unidad Latina, and was a social worker in New Haven for over 30 years.
“It takes enormous courage and desperation to cross a border,” she said.
Mayors in New Haven and Bridgeport have already expressed interest in housing some of the 2,000 children. New Haven mayoral Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes said Tuesday afternoon that other cities have been brought into the conversation about presenting a plan to Malloy soon; he also said religious and other community groups have offered to help find homes for children. “We want to make sure it’s humane,” Reyes said. “We’re not going to warehouse children.”
To fail to respond in a meaningful way, Kica Matos said in an interview, would be a step backwards for the state.
“This decision doesn’t align with the values of Connecticut residents,” she said. “Malloy’s position is also inconsistent with that of other state leaders.”