New London - The workshop at Encuentros de Esperanza begins with a prayer.
Debra Pennuto waits about five minutes for any latecomers, but she's got to get started; there's a Thursday night church service at 7 in the First Hispanic Baptist Church the next room over and she only has about an hour.
"¿Qué es Acción Diferida?" the first slide of the presentation reads. A close-up of the Statue of Liberty serves as the slide's background.
In the next hour, Pennuto gives a crash course, all in Spanish, on the finer points of applying for deportation deferral, or deferred action, a new program that went into effect Wednesday that is designed to give children of undocumented immigrants the chance to live in the U.S. without fear of deportation for two years at a time.
Every two years the applicant can renew the deferral as well as obtain a permission form that would allow the young immigrant a chance to hold a legal job.
Nationwide, an estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants could take advantage of deferred action. There are restrictions: the applicant must have arrived before his or her 16th birthday and can be no older than 31, must have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years, must be in school, have graduated or earned a GED and must not have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor or pose a threat to national security.
Military veterans can also apply. There's a lot of paperwork to collect and file and a $465 charge for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process the information.
The next generation's American dream
In New London and Norwich, there are approximately 12,900 Hispanics, or close to 20 percent of those two cities' combined populations, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Those numbers generally don't include undocumented immigrants, but they still reflect about a 12 percent increase in the Hispanic population since the 2000 Census, said Pennuto, Encuentros' director.
It makes the work that her organization, whose name translates to Encounters of Hope, does that much more essential.
Over the past two years, Pennuto said, Encuentros has provided free assistance to hundreds of clients on immigration, college and work issues. When news of the deferred action was announced in June, Pennuto prepared to assist those looking to apply.
The organization is keen on advocacy, she said, and a big part of the mission is to educate and assist those in need of resources. She scheduled dates for workshops around the Aug. 15 release of the paperwork to file for deferred action so families would have time to find and collect the necessary documents.
About 10 people attended Encuentros' workshop on Aug. 7 to learn more about deferred action. For Cris and Mirta, who attended and were scheduled this week to meet again with Pennuto, the effort is worth it for their 17-year-old daughter, who is entering her senior year in Ledyard High School's agricultural program.
The family asked that their last name not be used.
The Paraguayan family came to the U.S. in 2000 on a 10-year tourist visa. They first settled in the Bronx, N.Y., Cris said, but had heard of the "tranquilidad" - tranquility - of Connecticut, similar to their home country. Cris works in construction. Their daughter, Nathalie, was 5 when the family moved to Connecticut.
The family had intended to stay current on their visa, they said, but immigration laws became stricter after the 9/11 attacks. To renew the visa, the family would have to return to Paraguay, a country notorious for making it difficult for people to leave a second time. The family stayed after their visa expired in 2010.
Now 17, Nathalie is a high honors student studying to be a veterinarian. She dreams of going to college, and, Mirta says, deferred action will help make that a reality.
"It's a dream, and it brings me tranquility to know little by little the dream can be reached," Mirta said in Spanish through Pennuto, who acted as an interpreter. "For as much as our children live in the obscurity of things, we know their voice is being heard."
Nathalie, her parents said, is like most American 17-year-olds. English is practically her first language, and she's had all her schooling in the U.S. Nathalie does want to learn about her parents' culture, they said, but has had little chance to do so since she's never visited Paraguay and the family has few relatives in the immediate area.
Cris and Mirta came for the American dream, like many immigrant families, but haven't necessarily found it. Mirta said deferred action will give the next generation of immigrants a chance to find that dream.
"We as parents have already lived our lives, but they need this change to live theirs," Mirta said of the young, undocumented immigrants. "This opens another door so this can make a reality of their dreams."
'No tengan miedo'
Cris and Mirta were the first among several families to fill out the newly released paperwork with Pennuto Thursday at Encuentros, which operates in a new building at the First Hispanic Baptist Church on Redden Avenue. Pennuto said while the first workshop was in Spanish and designed for Latino families, depending on interest, she is open to holding sessions for undocumented immigrants of all nationalities.
With the assistance of immigration attorneys, Pennuto, a paralegal, will help each applicant through the process by going over the necessary forms and telling families what paperwork they must gather. There are no estimates on how long it could take for the government to process applications, and each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis, Pennuto said, so she's urging those interested to start the process as soon as possible.
Most importantly - and Pennuto repeated this throughout her workshop - "no tengan miedo" (don't be afraid). Applicants' information will be forwarded to immigration authorities like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Pennuto said, but only to verify information, not to prosecute or deport undocumented immigrants.
Pennuto, a daughter of Italian immigrants who grew up in Middletown, said she gravitated toward helping others at an early age. Growing up in the heavily Hispanic area of north Middletown, Pennuto said she learned Spanish and loved working with the immigrants she met.
For Pennuto, it doesn't matter whether they're Sicilian, Filipino or Mexican. She wants to help.
"That's my niche, being a voice for people who don't have one," Pennuto said. "What I did at the end (of last week's workshop) was to tell them: The information you have, pass it on, and if you're not sure how to do that, send them to us. We want to make sure people have the right information."
For more information, visit Encuentros de Esperanza at 35 Redden Ave. in New London, call (860) 439-0034, or visit www.uscis.gov.