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Immigrants dream of policy changes from a Biden administration

Paloma Camarena, a 2020 graduate of Connecticut College, says there's a Spanish saying that means "I'm not from here, but I'm not from there either."

No soy de aquí, pero tampoco soy de allá.

Born in a small town in Mexico, her parents brought her to Chicago when she was 11 months old. They had family there, and wanted a better future. They overstayed their tourist visa, and Camarena, who is 22, grew up in the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

"We're kind of in this in-between area," she said by phone from Chicago. "If we go back to our home, we don't really fit in, but we don't really fit in here either."

Camarena is one of the "Dreamers," an estimated 800,000 young people accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 to protect from deportation people who were brought to the United States as minors. Her status was threatened during the Trump years, when the administration rescinded the DACA program. The program was restored due to a 5-4 ruling by U.S. Supreme Court, but the Dreamers were forced to renew their status annually, at a cost of $500.

As Democrat Joe Biden transitions into the presidency after defeating Republican President Donald Trump, members of the immigrant community and those who advocate for them are expecting drastic changes in policy. 

Camarena is among those who are hopeful the Biden administration's promise of an immigration reform package within the first 100 days of inauguration will provide her with a path to U.S. citizenship.  

"I think that would be really, really nice if we have that," she said. "But I think also maybe more of a comprehensive immigration reform to help all immigrants who want to make the U.S. their home or immigrate here would be ideal. Right now, even if you're trying to come here as a refugee or asylee, it's just very difficult."

Camarena felt supported at Connecticut College, which vowed to do all it could to protect its DACA students. While studying there, she interned at the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London. She's now working at World Relief Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants and refugees.

***

Local attorneys who work with migrants and refugees have been poring over Biden's platform and feeling hopeful for the first time in four years.

"Both from a lawful immigration perspective and those seeking humanitarian relief, there have been great obstacles and hurdles put in place," New London attorney Marcy Levine-Acevedo said. "Our asylum law has been so restricted by the decisions of the attorney general that people who used to have the possibility of winning their asylum cases have been denied, particularly women seeking asylum because of domestic violence."

Levine-Acevedo is also hoping the administration restores temporary protected status that allows people from war- or natural disaster-ravaged countries, including El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, to live and work in the United States legally. Biden also has promised to repeal, on his first day in office, the Trump ban on travel to and from countries with Muslim majorities.

Attorney Joseph Marino, executive director of the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London, said he suspects a myriad of new possibilities under the Biden administration will make the country less hostile to new immigrants.

"I'm hoping the administration will take a look at the new public charge law and the drastic fee changes for new immigrants," he said by phone. "The Biden team has made clear that one priority will be finding a path to citizenship for those who have DACA, and ending the Trump administration orders that ended temporary protected status that gives hundreds of thousands protection from deportation."

The public charge rule of 2020, which redefined what would make somebody dependent, or likely to become dependent in the future of government benefits, drastically decreased the odds of immigrants being able to enter the country and get green cards, Marino said. New proposed fees for green card and naturalization applicants have made it difficult for those seeking to reunite here with their family members or become citizens.

Locally, job losses due to the coronavirus pandemic have been a major setback, Marino said.

"In the greater New London area, many immigrants when they arrive find very gainful and decent employment at the casinos, and it's those jobs that enable them to petition for other family members to join them," he said. Because of the pandemic, "there's been a serious number of people who have been furloughed. Their income streams are drastically reduced, their living situations worse."

Despite the Trump administration's hostility toward immigration, Marino said IASC has had successes. Recently, the agency helped an 81-year-old woman from Portugal who had a green card and had been in the country for 50 years, gain citizenship. That will allow her to travel back and forth from Portugal to visit with her grandchildren.

"She didn't have the language skills or education, but she had been a viable member of this community for so very long," Marino said. "Last week when I presented her for citizenship, the officer took a look at the situation and made the right decision to press on and do the application, and it was granted."

The IASC also helped an 85-year-old French woman, who had been in the country since she was 25 and worked as a cancer researcher at Pfizer. Previously, she could only leave the country for six months on her green card, and now she has the opportunity to spend as long as she wants with family.

***

Vivian Samos, board president of Start Fresh, also known as the New London Area Refugee Settlement Team, said she's hopeful the Biden administration will increase the number of refugees who are allowed to enter the country legally. The group has helped resettle six families to the area, and all of them are thriving. 

"We have two young people attending college, two families just about ready to finish up Habitat for Humanity houses in New London," she said. "A family we started with five years ago from Syria is ready to pursue citizenship. All of our families are employed, which is really a positive thing. Most of them are self-sufficient economically. We're very proud of all of them."

Khawla Kabny, 24, whose family resettled in New London with the help of Fresh Start in 2016, said it was the best thing that ever happened to her. They are Syrian, but had been living in Jordan because of the war. Kabny knew how to read and write English when she arrived and now has mastered the spoken language, as well.

"America is a really good place," she said. "I can study. I can work. I can help my family. We don't need anything."

Kabny is attending the University of Connecticut and plans to become a pharmacist and, eventually, a genetic engineer. Her parents are working and her younger brother also aspires to be an engineer. Kabny has worked at Walmart and for a New London parking garage company, but is focusing primarily on her studies. She said her family faced intense examination of its background before being allowed to enter the country, and she's hoping other families will have the same opportunity.

"They'll find a good life in America," Kabny said.

k.florin@theday.com

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