Attorney fields questions at packed immigration forum for New London parents

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New London — With the reality of deportation a growing concern among those who immigrated illegally, the school district took a step Monday to allay fears for parents of school age children in the city.

Several hundred people attended a “We All Belong," forum, packing the gymnasium at the C.B. Jennings Elementary School to ask things like “What do Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents look like,” and “What would happen to my children if ICE detained me?”

Michael T. Doyle, director of the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London, attempted to answer most of the submitted questions during the hourlong forum and found himself surrounded by a crowd afterwards.

“This is the time to learn your rights,” Doyle said. “And as a parent, this is the time to start planning. You have to be ready.”

Doyle outlined basic emergency preparation for family members who may have questionable immigration status. He emphasized the need to keep written records and especially information of anyone in the family who has citizenship or residency.

“These people are important should something happen to a single parent, for example,” Doyle said.

He also urged people to memorize important contact information in the event someone was detained and had to place a phone call from memory.

As for what happens to the children of someone who is detained, Doyle said it depends on the age and status of the child.

“Typically law enforcement does not like to separate a baby from their mother,” Doyle said.

Children may be taken into the custody of the state Department of Children and Families or a family member if someone has been designated.

Monday’s forum was held in what Doyle considered to be a place that historically is a “sensitive,” or safe location, and off-limits for ICE enforcement activities. Attendees were met outside the school by a group holding balloons and heart-shaped signs with the words "welcome," written on heart-shaped signs in a variety of languages. He said other so-called sensitive areas include churches and hospitals.

“What happens if I was deported 25 years ago but never left the country?” asked one woman.

“You should probably come see me,” Doyle responded.

In New London, Doyle said, he thinks the people at risk for deportation are those who have been charged with a crime. New directives for agents with the federal Department of Homeland Security are to target not only convicted felons for removal from the U.S. but to also prioritize those with pending charges.

School Superintendent Manuel Rivera, calling the school’s diversity its strength, said the district has already made efforts to educate staff about immigrant policy and identified advocates at each of the schools.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week issued guidance to the state’s schools and law enforcement officials on how to handle federal Homeland Security directives under President Donald Trump.

“All children in the United States have a right to public education regardless of race, color, national origin, citizenship, immigration status, or the status of the parents/guardians,” Malloy wrote in a memo to school leaders. “It is unconstitutional for states to deny students access to free public education based on their immigration status.”

Rivera reiterated that students who immigrated illegally have the same rights to an education as everyone else under the 14th amendment.

City Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein said “nothing has changed” and the city remains prepared to defend the civil rights of its residents.

“New London will always be a place of acceptance and inclusion,” Milstein said. “Fear and intolerance are not welcomed in New London.”

Malloy last week also urged schools to have a plan in place in the event a federal immigration officer visits the school seeking information.

Board of Education president Scott Garbini said the school board has scheduled a special meeting this week to consider an emergency policy concerning the school’s response to an ICE agent at the school.

“This board is prepared and ready to fight for you,” Garbini said.

JosLaire Lucien, a member of the local Parent Teacher Advisory Group, said the forum was a good way to reach parents in the district, many of whom have a real concerns and unanswered questions.

“We have a lot of parents in the community that need help. They’re scared and their kids are scared,” he said. “They have to know what to do.”

g.smith@theday.com

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