By Grace Bennett Edited by Debra Hand
For the past 15 years, Neighbors Link of Northern Westchester has seen a growing acceptance of immigrants in the county, how they contribute and support other societal classes and bring a diversity of culture, food, music and thinking. Neighbors Link (“NL”) focuses on its stated mission: “to strengthen the whole community through the healthy integration of immigrants” by providing programs that assist with English learning, education, empowerment, workforce development and partnership with local organizations.”
Many residents of Chappaqua and Armonk have also come to rely on NL, based in Mount Kisco, as a source for honest and capable help with everything from landscaping and masonry to painting and snow removal. That focus shifted on Election Day, 2016.
“I didn’t really imagine we would be back to this,” said NL Executive Director Carola Otero Bracco, noting a return to the hostility faced by immigrants until the early 2000s. After making major strides, “we’ve taken some major steps backwards, but are also seeing more people willing to be much more vocal and more supportive of immigrants in the community.”
“An Avalanche of Fear”
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bracco to talk about how NL’s role in integrating immigrants into the community has been altered in 2017. Constant fear of arrest and deportation has become pervasive, and NL is working hard to address related needs. Not aware of increased activity by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Mount Kisco, she sees that news reports of “emboldened” ICE officers in the wider geographic area have had a ripple effect on the local immigrant community.
“People are afraid to sign up their children for free and reduced lunch, people are afraid to go to doctors’ appointments or pick up prescriptions. They are afraid to go to parents/teacher conferences. They are afraid to go to work,” Bracco said. “If there is a rumor that an ICE officer is in the area, they are disrupting their lives to keep their children home from school.”
“Our programming had to shift to help people understand better. People need greater legal support.” Bracco added that hundreds of people show up at presentations by the (state) Office for New Americans, ESL classes and “Know Your Rights” forums, and that her staff is working to help police departments, school districts, public officials and support organizations better understand what the immigrant community is facing.
She pointed out the new fear experienced by “folks who had been told in the past that they were not a priority for deportation because they were contributing members of our community, and had no criminal background, by far the majority of people in the area.” Bracco pointed to parents who work hard and who prior to these developments were able to focus on their children’s academic success without worrying about the potential for deportation. They are now terrified, she said, explaining that the immigrant families that live in our area actually have a variety of legal status, and that while “we think of people as ‘undocumented’ as a static thing, it’s really not,” with many on a path to a green card.
And the biggest challenge is what happens to American-born children of undocumented parents–four million nationwide– if those parents get deported.
‘Imagine you are sitting in a ‘Know Your Rights’ session, baby on lap and teen next you, and being told this is how you need to prepare because you can be yanked from your family and deported. These families live in close quarters, so children are hearing everything. It’s an avalanche of fear,” she said.
Despite NL’s hard work, “I don’t think any of us can imagine the pain that this will inflict on families and the ripple effect on children, how they are going to figure out how to get an education and live with one or both of their parents gone,” Bracco added of the expected increasing numbers of families ripped apart because of deportation.
Secondary Trauma: Can Staff Help?
The pressure on the NL staff has started to take a toll, too. According to Bracco, NL “works with families one on one, two immigration attorneys, family services, case managers,” and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find ways to help families find solutions to the potential for deportation.
“Our staff is very professional and has to keep everyone calm, as it’s very difficult to make decisions if you start to panic,” she said, but the stress was starting to “impact the staff, a fear that we might be letting people down and that we may not have the tools to help people.”
“It’s chilling and heartbreaking and extremely difficult. Are we going to make a difference in all this?” Bracco said. But she strikes a note of optimism, too. “There’s an inner strength that we are certain is going to come through.”
Increased Need, Increased Budget, Increased Activism
In light of the expanded legal needs of the immigrant community it serves, NL has shifted its strategic plan to raise more money to support its initiatives. A luncheon last November featuring political strategist and CNN commentator Ana Navarro raised $65,000, and the Fiesta Latina Gala to Benefit Neighbors Link will be held on April 29 at the Brae Burn Country Club.
“Coming to our event and bringing friends is a great opportunity for people who want to understand the issues that immigrants face now, increase exposure to the issue, learn about Neighbors Link and meet some of our clients,” Bracco said. This year’s gala will honor Edward and Maya Manley, who have been with the organization since its beginning and have had major roles in building the programming. Of course, charitable donations via neighborslink.org are always welcome.
Nancy Strong of Armonk, originally an ESL teacher at NL, is now a member of the Friends of Neighbors Link, the fundraising arm of the organization. The Friends hold events to support the programs and build awareness. “I have learned so much about our immigrant community,” Strong said. “They are here to work hard, they pay taxes and they just want to make better lives for their families.”
The Friends know that more money is crucial to support immigrants and address fears set off by the current administration’s rhetoric and actions. “Children are scared that their parents will disappear. Even children whose parents are citizens hear the discussions and worry for their families and their friends’ families. Those who employ immigrants hear the stories of their employees or their friends who are worried that they will be arrested. And those who are trying to bring their families here often feel helpless. Neighbors Link provides legal assistance and help whenever and however they can,” Strong said.
“A True Lifeline”
Local residents are also trying to educate their neighbors about the plight of the immigrant community. Jane and Rob Shepardson of Chappaqua hosted a March fundraiser in their home for 40 friends, during which a young woman (now an NL staff member) told her story as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary. While DACA allows certain immigrants who entered the United States as minors receive a renewable period of deferred action from deportation and work permit eligibility, it does not afford any legal status, according to Bracco, other than not being a priority for deportation.
The young woman, brought to the U.S. as a young child, did not know that she was undocumented until she was in high school and it suddenly became a barrier to her realizing her full potential: she would not qualify for college financial aid even though her family was at the poverty level. Applying for DACA, she was able to work as a waitress and earn enough to attend a state university.
“We organized this fundraiser as a way to take action in light of Trump’s Executive Orders/Travel Bans and the impact that the current political climate is having on hard working immigrants in our community,” said Jane Shepardson. She and her husband had donated to NL for years, and their daughter had both helped out in the NL child care center and volunteered as part of their synagogue “soup group” that would get together monthly to prepare meals for the NL day laborers.
“Our purpose was to raise money for and raise awareness of what we believe is a vital organization in our community, and to inform and educate our friends and neighbors about all the services Neighbors Link provides to these immigrant families,” Shepardson said.
“It is not only a “ home away from home” for many of the day laborers that gather there awaiting work, but also an organization that provides job/skills training, ESL classes, child care, and legal services that help these families deal with immigration and citizenship issues.
“Neighbors Link is not just a helping hand, it is a true lifeline to these families who are hard-working and valuable members of our community who are now living under a cloud of fear,” she added.
When I asked Bracco whether people were galvanizing in light of these new challenges, she responded that the community was “absolutely” coming together. Days after we spoke, she was planning on attending a large county-wide meeting of various groups interested in making a difference by being involved in county and state legislation: “We’re seeing people come forward from everywhere to start to take a role in this. More formal organizations are taking a leadership role in bringing these groups together to find a common language and agree on basic principles.”
Bracco added that there has also been a significantly increased need for programming in Ossining and Yonkers, including community forums and cultural awareness work with police officers. Programs aim to build trust: “humanize police officers to the immigrant community and humanize the immigrant community to the police officers,” she explained. After five officers came in for five consecutive weeks to meet with participants, there was “no question that the immigrant community left feeling more comfortable stepping forward if they were ever witnesses or victims of a crime,” Bracco said.
NL is always looking for adult and teenage volunteers. High school students and adults assist clients with their English and volunteer in the family center, and doctors and attorneys provide services. Now, more than ever, Neighbors Link is making a huge difference in people’s lives and they can use as much support as possible to help those in need. Visit neighborslink.org.
Grace Bennett is Publisher and Editor of the Inside Press. Debra Hand is a longtime contributing editor.