New London native returns with law degree, desire to help immigrants

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New London — Attorney Jayna Velez-Molina returned to her hometown Tuesday to share some of her legal expertise on immigration at Centro de la Comunidad.

Velez-Molina, 30, spoke for over an hour in Spanish to more than a dozen people who hailed from at least six countries. She explained how difficult it is to apply for asylum in the current political climate, but offered hope to a man from Colombia who said his application was denied even though he fears he will be killed by a guerrilla group.

"There may be options," she said.

She told a woman from Ecuador who had lived here since 1991 that because her children are U.S. citizens, she could be eligible for a status known as parole, which would allow her to remain.

Everyone had a story, or a question, and Velez-Molina had answers.

Born in the United States to Colombian parents, Velez-Molina attended New London High School, where she excelled at academics. She received a $20,000 Dr. Martin Luther King Scholarship during her senior year, and told a Day reporter she wanted to help immigrants have equal opportunities in the U.S. She graduated from high school in 2007 and attended the University of Connecticut, where she received a degree in business management. She graduated from the Roger Williams School of Law in 2015.

Velez-Molina worked for the Hartford Public Library's immigrant careers pathway program and for private law firms before opening her own law practice in February in West Hartford. The state has few immigration attorneys, she said, and her business is steadily growing. Her mother still resides in New London, she said, and she is committed to helping the Latino community and others. She said she would like to run a future workshop on immigration in English or other languages.

Tuesday's immigration workshop was organized by Centro de la Comunidad board member Lizbeth Polo-Smith, who also belongs to a group called Unidos sin Fronteras, or United Without Borders. Polo-Smith emigrated from Peru and waited 15 years to obtain a green card.

Around the table sat mothers with young children, a man who came directly from work and nodded off several times, several people who have pending immigration matters and a couple of American citizens who wanted to learn more. They came from Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and Romania to the small community center on Blinman Street that welcomes people of all backgrounds.

Velez-Molina updated the group on pending legislation that could help or hurt them and said she wanted to urge people to participate in the legislative process. One of the 20 immigration-themed bills before the General Assembly would provide free legal representation to immigrant children and indigent adults who are detained. Another addresses medical care for children. One bill seeks to limit law enforcement cooperation with Immigrations & Customs Enforcement, while another would require that local and state officials cooperate fully with ICE.

Local attorney Marcy S. Levine-Acevedo, who practices immigration law along with criminal and child custody cases, said by phone Tuesday afternoon that there are "endless numbers" of people in Connecticut who need representation in legal matters. It's a busy but challenging discipline, she said, with new Board of Immigration Appeals cases coming out weekly that are changing the landscape. The definition of "persecution" has been revised and excludes many who were victims of crime in their native countries from eligibility for asylum, she said.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association is encouraging attorneys to continue pursuing asylum claims for refugees who experienced gang violence and domestic violence.

"On a national level, they're like, 'Don't give up. Keep pushing it.' Maybe there will be a case that will give us a glimpse of hope," she said.

According to the Department of Justice, immigration courts granted asylum to 13,161 people in 2018, which was just over 20 percent of all applicants. The number has increased each year since 2008, when 8,781, or 23 percent of applicants, were granted asylum.

k.florin@theday.com

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