Immigrant advocacy group forms in New London

New London — Women from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Peru passed a baby around, cradling and rocking her in their arms as they talked business in a State Street storefront on a recent Tuesday evening.

Marleny Bencosme, Emma Castillo and Lizbeth Polo-Smith are part of a newly formed immigrant advocacy group called Unidos sin Fronteras, or United Without Borders. The weekly meetings are conducted in Spanish and English and include representatives of various organizations that work with the local immigrant population.

The baby, Ariella, belongs to attorney Marcy S. Levine, whose solo law practice in the city includes immigration cases. Levine answers legal questions for the group, serves as its media spokeswoman and is providing a home to Castillo, an applicant for asylum whose husband was detained by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Other organizations in the city provide services such as legal representation and educational programs to the immigrant community. Unidos sin Fronteras is dedicated to outreach and activism.

"We're people from different walks of life who have formed a volunteer organization to get out and do activist work on behalf of immigrants," Levine said. "We're really about reaching out and doing volunteer services, events, protests and vigils and trying to get more citizens understanding the situation and being involved." 

One of the group's first agenda items is to help Castillo and her husband, Roberto Rauda-Santos, a native of El Salvador. Rauda-Santos was detained recently by ICE agents when he went to the state courthouse on Broad Street in New London to answer to an infraction violation. His wife said police had issued him a ticket when he stopped at a package store on his way home from his construction job and walked out with a bottle of beer in a brown bag.  

Rauda-Santos, 37, has been in the United States since 2000, when he was granted Temporary Protected Status, a type of humanitarian relief due to conditions in El Salvador. He was supposed to renew his status and apply for further relief, but failed to follow up in immigration court and was issued an order of removal "in absentia." 

Members of Unidos sin Fronteras plan to carpool Saturday to the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Mass., where Rauda-Santos is being held, to stage a protest and demand his release. Rauda-Santos has been granted a bond hearing and his supporters are waiting for a court date and location. Prior to receiving the infraction, his only other interactions with police were for minor traffic violations, Levine said, and he has no aggravated felonies, domestic violence or other "crimes of moral turpitude" on his record. 

Castillo, who had been relying on financial help from Rauda-Santos, is unable to afford rent and temporarily will be moving in with Levine. The 32-year-old Honduran native has been in the U.S. since 2010, is authorized to work and has a driver's permit. With Levine or Polo-Smith serving as translators, she explained in Spanish that she works in housekeeping at the Holiday Inn in Mystic and sends money from every paycheck to support her four children while she waits to see if they all will be granted asylum. She also has been sending money to the New York attorney who is handling her asylum application. She will have a hearing on the "final merits" of her application next year and hopes to bring her children, who are being moved from home to home in Honduras, to the United States.

Castillo told a harrowing story of fleeing from San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, which was known as "the murder capital of the world." She said the father of her children, with whom her stepmother had "obligated" her to have a relationship, was abusive and the entire family was in danger because he was involved with a criminal organization.

"The fear is what had me stay for so many years," she said. "I would go to the police and they wouldn't do anything."

She left in the middle of the night, took a train to Mexico and crossed the border into the United States with about 20 others, sometimes walking in water up to her neck. She was detained for 26 days during which she begged an immigration official to deport her back to Honduras when she learned that her abusive partner was threatening to make their children, who were with her stepmother, "disappear."

"He (the agent) hugged me and said, 'I'm sorry. I can't do that. I'm not going to deport you,'" she recalled.

The partner was murdered in 2016, she said, and members of the enemy criminal enterprise continued to look for her children, whom she kept moving among relatives.

Her story is not all that unusual, Levine said.

Nobody has a title or specific role in Unidos sin Fronteras. Nate Moore, one of the group's founders and organizers, ran the Tuesday meeting and asked the 15 or so attendees to introduce themselves. He said he is a teacher and member of the International Socialist Organization. When some members of the group questioned whether they should have a public action or protest about Rauda-Santos' case, Moore said he was in favor.

"I think the system preys on silence," he said. "They count on it. They want us to disappear."

The Tuesday gathering went on to discuss how to accept from Maegan Parrott of Step Up New London, a parent-led organization, a $379 check funded through a grant, to be used to tell immigrants' stories. Parrott also turned over to the group 200 copies of Voces sin Fronteras, a book it produced with Connecticut College student Emma Race as part of an immigration storytelling workshop series. The group has no bank account, so it decided to entrust administration of the funds to Elizabeth Garcia-Gonzales from Centro de la Comunidad and Polo-Smith, who received her green card last year and says she is committed to helping other undocumented immigrants improve their lives.

Unidos sin Fronteras also has support from the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, which Polo-Smith said has offered the use of space and possible funding, and People Power, a grass-roots group that pushed for an ordinance affirming the city's practice of not detaining anyone based on his or her immigration status without a judicial warrant. Employees of Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut and Safe Futures, both of which work with the immigrant population, also attended.

On Tuesday, Carolyn Patierno, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation posted on Unidos sin Fronteras' Facebook page that the congregation on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to become a Sanctuary Congregation.

"It was a very moving meeting and vote that followed months of learning and preparation," she wrote.

k.florin@theday.com

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