Seventeen years ago, Priscilla Gamboa arrived in the United States as a babe in arms. She attended kindergarten, graduated from high school, and is now studying at Bristol Community College. She is a “Dreamer” – one of the approximately 8,000 people classified as Deferred Act for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Massachusetts.
On November 8, Gamboa shared her personal story at a presentation hosted by a partnership of the Tri-Town League of Women Voters and the Elizabeth Taber Public Library held in the Marion Music Hall.
Gamboa was part of a panel discussing immigration issues that included Executive Director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford Helena DaSilva Hughes, Executive Director of the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC) of New Bedford Corinn Williams, and Rolando David Oliva of the Temporary Protected Status Committee.
“DACA allowed us to work and go to school, but now we are in limbo,” Gamboa said as her dark expressive eyes held back tears. She said that since the Trump Administration recently cancelled the Obama-era act, the stress of uncertainty is high. Gamboa’s time in the U.S. ends in 18 months.
“I don’t know what’s going happen,” said Gamboa.
That was the theme that each presenter expressed: the theme of uncertainty.
In the absence of an immigration policy that could help the undocumented, the stress from uncertainty is weighing heavily on thousands of families.
Hughes, whose family emigrated here from Portugal through a sponsorship program when she was a child, has been working with immigrants in the area for decades, but she said the current political climate makes it increasingly difficult. “Since the election, we’ve had an increase of two thousand people seeking services.”
Hughes said the Immigrants’ Assistance Center helps people in transition with such services as translations, the health care system, legal matters, and ways to achieve legal immigration status.
Hughes explained that the situation of undocumented workers in New Bedford was fully exposed ten years ago when a factory in the city was raided after it was discovered that nearly all the workers were illegal aliens. Most of those workers were women, many pregnant, many with children at home.
That single event, she said, helped to shape the services her organization provides today.
“We tell [undocumented working] parents they have to have a plan in case they are taken away,” Hughes said. “They have to have a citizen or someone legal that they trust who can take care of the children in case they get picked up.”
On the bright side, Hughes said that many people holding green cards and are in the U.S. lawfully with permanent residency status are now seeking citizenship.
“We’ve had five hundred new cases of people wanting to become citizens because they are scared of what might happen to their green cards,” Hughes said.
Recognizing the need to provide more services to the children of undocumented workers – children who may themselves be undocumented – Hughes has launched a program that brings students from Tabor Academy who are studying Spanish into the New Bedford school system to help non-English speaking students with conversational English. Several of those Tabor students were in attendance on this night.
Williams said the CEDC also works with undocumented people and talked about the positive economic influence immigrants have had, especially in areas of New Bedford that have been blighted for years.
“We work at the grassroots level providing English classes and helping them start businesses,” she said. According to Williams, the majority of people seeking services from the CEDC are migrating from the Cape Verdean islands, Mexico, and South America. “New arrivals are injecting new life into New Bedford,” she believes.
Williams said the CEDC “creates opportunities for new immigrants, helping them build lives, buy homes, navigate systems.”
“There is hope,” said Williams. “I see people starting new lives.”
Oliva, who not only works on the TPS Committee, has himself held temporary protected status for years. Speaking Spanish and translated through Gamboa, he said, “The program has been around for twenty years, but now it’s under fire.”
“It’s not being renewed,” he said. “That caused us to organize.”
The TPS program has allowed people from Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to enter the country legally for 18-month periods due to internal conflicts and catastrophic natural disasters. Every 18 months the immigrant must request an extension. Those extension applications come with a $495 fee. This program was also recently slated for discontinuation.
Oliva said families who have been here for years have established homes, started families, and worked within the economic structure and laws of the communities they live in, yet they now face deportation.
“The kids can stay if they are legal, but the parents will have to go back. It will split up families,” he said. Oliva said that many of the countries that immigrants would be forced to return to have high crime rates, gangs, and no job opportunities.
It is a myth that immigrants receive public benefits, said Williams. They are not eligible for food stamps or other government funded programs, she stated, and oftentimes undocumented workers suffer from “wage theft” where employers don’t pay overtime.
“The workers have fear – they don’t say anything.” She said that because of the types of jobs immigrants are willing to take, those jobs tend to be the most dangerous; thus, the number of injuries is high in this population. “They live in the shadows facing these issues,” she said.
Hughes said undocumented people “have no path to getting a green card.”
“We need immigration reform to give them a legal pathway,” said Hughes.
The current estimates put the number of undocumented people in the U.S. around 12 million.
Hughes also said most undocumented people originally entered the country legally but then overstayed their visitor status versus people who arrived illegally.
“We are a country of laws,” Hughes stressed, saying that immigration reform is what she hopes to achieve, urging the audience to contact their representatives in the legislature.
For more information, contact the Immigrants’ Assistance Center at 58 Crapo Street, New Bedford, www.ImmigrantsAssistanceCenter.org ; the Community Economic Development Center, www.cedcnewbedford.org, 1285 Acushnet Avenue, New Bedford; or UMass Immigration Law Clinic, www.umassd.edu/law/clinics/immigration-law.
By Marilou Newell