Common Council. Palma, a Republican, is the first Hispanic elected to the local governing body and, previously, brought diversity to the zoning board.
Other signs of Latino influence are the annual Brazilian flag raising on Sept. 7 to mark the anniversary of that nation’s independence, the Ecuadorian Festival every August and the American Dream Awards gala, sponsored by the Tribuna newspaper which will be held May 16.Less prominent, however, is Hispanic voter registration, which appears disproportionately low in Danbury, as it is in most Connecticut cities. Three years ago, Hispanics represented about a quarter of the population, but only 10 percent had registered to vote according to state estimates and Census figures. A separate issue is the area’s large population of immigrants from Brazil who are categorized differently from their Latin American neighbors because they speak Portuguese. Still, for a variety of reasons, as many as 30 percent of the Danbury’s Latino immigrants have not become citizens, although many have acquired permanent legal residency and had been in Connecticut for decades.One of the major hurdles for many immigrants is the cost of the citizenship process, which may involve significant legal fees even though they are becoming more interested in gaining this status. This is a concern that the Hispanic Center is addressing through its enhanced Immigration Integration Project, which is helping Latinos with the legal fees as well as making sure they have the needed civics knowledge and English skills to pass citizenship tests.This is not a new role for the Hispanic Center. For more than 30 years, this nonprofit agency has striven to improve the well-being of the western Connecticut city’s burgeoning immigrant population through various social services and case management programs.However, in 2014 and 2015, the center’s citizenship program, which is accredited by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has been able to help more immigrants thanks to grants from the Hispanic Federation, a multi-state network of social service nonprofit agencies working together to empower Latino communities economically and politically. This year, bolstered by $30,000 from the Federation and some help from the city, the Hispanic Center has about 1,000 people in its various outreach efforts, according to its executive director Andrea Contreras. These include seminars on civic participation and sessions devoted to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.A former nursing student, Contreras came to Danbury from Peru as a teenager and is a “Dreamer,” one of undocumented aliens who receive protection and some benefits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She did volunteer work at the center while in college and decided to stay. Two years ago, she became director upon the recommendation of her predecessor, Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo, who is now Connecticut director for the Hispanic Federation.
Under Alvarez-DiMarzo and Contreras, the Hispanic Center has moved forward in its mission to help not only Latino immigrants, but also some Cambodians and Indians, apply for citizenship, and thereby gain a voice in making the choices that affect their lives.
Last fall, the center also teamed up with the Hispanic Federation to help many Latinos to register and get to the polls.
Initially, many newcomers came from Puerto Rico and Mexico, but more recently the surge has been led by Brazilians who now number more than 12,000 in the Danbury area. There also has been an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from counties such as Ecuador ,as well as a sizable population of newcomers from Cambodia and India. More than 40 nationalities are represented in the local public school.
Danbury saw its population jump from 80,893 in 2010 to nearly 84,000 in 2013. About 35 percent of the residents were born outside the United States ,with Latinos comprising about 30 percent of the city’s population. From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population increased by 8,393 and topped 20,000, according to Census figures, and from all accounts this trend appears to picked up again after slowing during the recent recession.
Voter registration numbers paint a different picture. The latest available figures from the Secretary of the State showed that for the 2012 election an estimated 3,302 Hispanics had registered to vote in Danbury and represented less than 9 percent the total potential electorate of more than 37,324.
Some Hispanic leaders suggest this registration is actually higher because the state survey focused primarily on Hispanic surnames in the voter rolls.
The need to become citizens and to vote has gained greater prominence and relevance as immigration has become a political football nationally and the city has moved away from a period when undocumented immigrants faced problems.
“The key to our success is to engage our communities as citizens, said Emanuela Palmares Leaf, the editor and the co-owner with her mother, Celia Bacelar, of the Tribuna, a bi-weekly newspaper based in Danbury and published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Some of the interest in citizenship is coming from Latinos who have been in this country for years had worked hard to support and educate their families and did not have time to focus on themselves, said Leaf, who was born in Brazil, is a naturalized citizen and is secretary of the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
Another factor, the Tribuna editor cited, is that there is now a steady influx of people who are now qualified for citizenship as the result of a process that began 15 years ago with the addition of Section 245i to the Immigration and Nationality Act. “Every day more people qualify,” Leaf said.
The 245i provision established under the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act created a process for immigrants who are working in the United States as of December 21, 2000 without legal authorization to petition through a sponsor, such as an employer or family member, for a green card and become permanent residents, essentially by paying a $1,000 penalty and filing by April 1, 2001.
What happened, Leaf explained, is that so many people applied under 245i that it created a 10-12 year backlog for applying for a green card. Once the green card was obtained it established a tightly delineated five-year wait period to apply for citizenship.
Applying for a green card under 245i did not grant amnesty to these immigrants. They could face expulsion or expect a long waiting period to re-enter the country legally if they traveled abroad.
Many immigrants are coming to understand that the only way to be “100 percent protected is if you are a citizen,” said Leaf.
At the Hispanic Center, Contreras and two other staff members, who were trained by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, are able to provide various immigration services on site and work under the supervision of three immigration lawyers who help on a voluntary basis,
The center helps with the legal fees but does not cover the $680 USCIS application fee. The center, however does help applicants seek a waiver for this fee, which depends on income.
Part of the center’s initiative includes making sure the citizenship applications are completed properly, and that people are prepared for their meeting with the USCIS and its testing. This includes an English as Second Language program and an eight-week citizens government academy which includes visits to city hall.
The Hispanic Center’s ability to offer help to more people has not only benefited from the support of the Hispanic Federation but also from the city which provides funds through its contribution to the area’s United Way.
Historically, Danbury has been a welcoming city for immigrants, Leaf said. Many of these families have been in the area for decades, she noted. “Danbury has been totally revitalized by businesses owned by immigrants from Latino nations and Asia,” she said.
However, the city has not been exempt from the national debate over the status of undocumented immigrants.
In 2007, the use of the local police force to help enforce immigration law gave the city a “black eye,” said Alvarez-DiMarzo, who took the helm of the Hispanic Center in 2009 and has seen an improving relationship with city administration under longtime Mayor Mark Boughton.
As a sign of progress, Alvarez-DiMarzo cited the election of Palma to the council. Palma, who owns Elmer’s Diner and the year-old Waterfall restaurant, served two terms on the Zoning Board before being appointed and then elected to represent the Second Ward.
Palma describes his constituency as mostly non-Hispanic. He also breaks from the Hispanic stereotype in that he is a Republican like the mayor in a city where Democrats hold a voter registration edge. “We all have different thoughts,” he said, encouraging more Latinos to become citizens and involved in politics.
Moreover, Palma is one of the local business leaders who have provided support to the Hispanic Center, Contreras said. Palma said what the center is doing is a very important job and is helping a lot of people throughout the diverse immigrant community.
Palma said the citizenship program is very important. “The more we make all these people citizens, the more they will be involved to better our community.”