A day in the life of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center

A day in the life of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center

“I want to be able to be there to help if they need me.”

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Editor’s Note: Standard-Times staff reporter Aimee Chiavaroli recently spent a day at New Bedford’s Immigrants’ Assistance Center, observing the services it provides and talking with some of the staff and people who are served there.

NEW BEDFORD — Filomena Gomes rang a bell to alert around 20 other elderly immigrant women that a round of Bingo was about to start.

The women poured different colored buttons — a reminder of their past work in the textile industry — out of plastic prescription medicine bottles, ready to be placed on the Bingo cards. A few women at the end of a table crocheted while playing and one of them was one of the first to win.

For the women, it was another Tuesday afternoon upstairs in the Sister Aurora Avelar community center that houses the Immigrants’ Assistance Center at 58 Crapo St. in the South End.

For over 45 years, the nonprofit immigrants’ center has helped Greater New Bedford residents.

This story by Aimee Chiavaroli first appeared in the Standard Times on Jan. 21, 2018 – HERE

With five languages spoken fluently, eight staff members and around 15 volunteers, the center serves as a haven for immigrants. It’s a place for elderly friends to share laughs at the elder group, but for others, it’s a place to obtain free assistance navigating life in the U.S. The center does everything from translating mail to conducting classes in English and civics to assisting families of inmates facing deportation under a Trump administration that has been cracking down on some types of immigration.

This year, with fears of President Trump’s immigration plans running high, increased numbers of immigrants have sought services, according to Helena DaSilva Hughes, the executive director of the center. Approximately 3,500 Portuguese, 3,000 Latinos and 2,700 Cape Verdeans used the services.

DaSilva Hughes on a recent afternoon translated from Portuguese for the 66-year-old Gomes. She said she’s been in the group since the first day it started around three years ago. She seemed to be the leader of the group, but said “No, it’s a family. Nobody’s in charge.”

Gomes came to the United States on Oct. 23, 1972 from Faial island in the Azores. In December of last year, it was seven years since her husband died. DaSilva Hughes said the majority of the group members, out of about 45 total members, are widows.

THE ELDERS

While the group dwindled down as the afternoon went on, the remaining women played a card game and recalled stories of traveling to the U.S. as young women.

Maria Fonseca, 68, remembered seeing snow for the first time in New Bedford. Her shoes fell apart as she walked home from working at Cornell Dubilier, but she was happy to have her paycheck.

She arrived in the U.S. on Nov. 21, 1967, the day after her 18th birthday.

She also spoke through DaSilva Hughes’ translation. She said her father chose her husband for her and they got married in Portugal. Her husband, however, died in 1992 of a heart attack at the age of 44.

“I made it for myself,” Fonseca later said in English, as she was heading to the first floor to leave the center, explaining she had managed as a single mother to three children. “It’s not easy at all.”

Maria Pereira, 82, said she didn’t want to come to the U.S.

Joana Furtado, who had begun volunteering that morning at the center, translated. For Pereira, the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, leaving Portugal also meant leaving her family.

After retiring from her job as a seamstress, she would spend six months in the U.S. and six months in Portugal. But she had what she called her last visit in 2015 and sold everything that she had abroad.

Asked if she had any advice for young people trying to make a new life in America, she said “Be patient and ask God for help.”

Maria Pereira, a local therapist, helped DaSilva Hughes create the group for the center’s elderly, about 250 of whom visit the center each month, often looking for help with health care and insurance. They’ve gone on field trips and have worked on projects like a poetry book and a documentary on Portuguese vegetable gardens.

IN THE OFFICE

Mondays and the days after holidays are the busiest, according to Ana DeMelo, the Assistance Center’s office manager. “You can see the fear in their eyes,” she said. People bring in pieces of mail, for example, and don’t know if they need to answer to it.

DeMelo, who has worked at the center for three years, tends to health insurance, employee benefits, helps write grant proposals, does monthly financial reports and assigns schedules for the case managers.

An elderly woman came in with a medical bill and spoke with Lucia Oliveira, a SHINE (Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone) counselor and senior case manager who has worked at the center for nearly 16 years.

“She’s a little upset; she said the government’s doing whatever they want with their seniors,” DeMelo explained.

“Until this issue’s resolved, they’ll worry like that,” DeMelo said. The office often warns of scams, she said.

The woman was also worried that her Lifeline technology goes off on its own, DeMelo said.

DeMelo speaks Portuguese and English and understands a little bit of Spanish.

People wait outside the office’s doors almost daily before the 8:30 a.m. opening and also come in close to closing time at 4:30 p.m. “So we never leave at 4:30,” she said. A black notebook is frequently taken from DeMelo’s desk by other staff members to schedule appointments and check clients in and out.

In the midst of working with the walk-ins, a flower arrangement is delivered to DeMelo from her boyfriend. It was her birthday.

She took the pink roses mixed with white flowers around to show other staff members. “Helena, you’re not the only one who gets flowers,” she teased the executive director.

In her office, DaSilva Hughes said that recently she received some seven calls in a week from people in Bristol County and the Boston area who have been picked up by the federal government to be deported.

The center has seen an increase in the calls from immigrants’ family members. Those immigrants in particular who came to the U.S. under what DaSilva Hughes described as the 90-day waiver, or the Visa Waiver Program. The program allows individuals to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. These individuals are now facing deportation because they did not leave when the 90 days were up, but rather stayed in America for 14, 17 years and more, building a life in the U.S. illegally.

There’s also been an increase of legal permanent residents or green card holders picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) due to past criminal activity.

DaSilva Hughes said people with green cards (which allows permanent residence) are mainly deported due to a drug-related crime. But assault and battery and domestic violence convictions are also reasons for deportation. She also noted that some veterans have been deported if they have been convicted of a crime.

When someone is taken in, undocumented family members can’t visit them because they’ll also be detained for possible deportation.

A staff member for over 15 years, Philomene Tavares visits the House of Corrections for a couple hours at at time. Her visits recently increased to two days a week. She meets with those detained for deportation to obtain their education, job history, and family status to send to the Consulate of Portugal and Cape Verde for any assistance they can give.

With more funds available, the center is looking to hire a deportation manager to take over Tavares’ role visiting the Dartmouth jail and working with families, DaSilva Hughes said.

When Donald Trump was elected president, “I knew that it was just a matter of time that we would see more deportations,” DaSilva Hughes said.

“We know it’s not going to get any better and we’re seeing it already,” she said.

LEARNING ENGLISH

Tuesdays and Thursdays are longer days for staff member Janice Correia who teaches English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Civics classes back to back.

Around 4 p.m., it was time to go upstairs to the room where the elder group had gathered hours ago. The classes, much like any other services at the center, are free.

Correia has been at the center for five years and was a volunteer at Roosevelt Middle School for two years prior to that. “I think it’s just like my calling,” said Correia who herself was born in Cape Verde and came to the U.S. in 2005.

“I want to be able to be there to help if they need me,” she said.

A handmade poster hung on the wall with the alphabet, listing America, Abraham Lincoln and the Atlantic Ocean for the letter ‘A,’ and Boston, the Bill of Rights and Benjamin Franklin for ‘B,’ and so on. Another poster explained the branches of government.

A handful of students made it to class and there were just about as many volunteers. Correia said there are normally a few more students, but it was a rainy day and some of the attendees walk or take the bus. A couple more trickled in later.

The students said they’d been in the class for varying amounts of time. One woman had been in the class for a few months and a couple that spoke Portuguese and Creole but no English seemed to be new students.

Correia generally taught the class in English and went over a list of verbs. At one point, the students went around the table and read the words out loud while the volunteers helped explain what they meant, including multiple meanings for the same word.

Volunteer Sam Forter, a 71-year-old retired English as a Second Language teacher, taught in Mexico for 12 years before joining the center a year ago. He speaks Spanish, French and some Italian.

“I enjoy watching people acquire another language,” he said. “I thought I would volunteer my services because I think there’s a need for it.”

CIVICS

By 5:30, it was time for the civics class, where students were broken up into two groups: those who were taking the citizenship test in their native language and those taking it in English.

Corriea, leading the group who planned to take the test in English, called out certain numbers and the students answered with corresponding phrases, such as that there are 435 voting members in the House of Representatives and 27 amendments to the Constitution.

She then asked what an amendment is, who is in charge of the executive branch and what the supreme law of the land is while students answered out loud.

Three students were a couple days away from the test and Correia later said they ended up passing.

The test, broken up into four parts, is taken in Boston with an immigration officer. First, an officer asks questions from the 20-page citizenship application in English. Then civics questions are asked.

Applicants study 100 questions and the officer picks 10 to ask. Six of them need to be answered correctly. The last two parts test reading and writing in English. To read and write a sentence fluently, applicants get up to three chances. Those who take the test in their native language only have to do the application and civics questions, Correia explained.

If someone fails a section, they’ll be given another date to try again.

The center is there for people from beginning to end. They have an initial appointment to prepare people for all of the extensive information they’ll need for the application, for which there is a $725 fee. They also refer people to an attorney on their board of directors or to English and civics classes if needed, and finally hold a ceremony upstairs at the community center that houses the Immigrants’ Assistance Center.

Elisabeth Pires, 42, of New Bedford said she wants to be a U.S. citizen “because I can participate in vote, and for a better life.” Asked how she was feeling about the upcoming test, “Feeling prepared,” she answered.

“A little bit nervous, but she’s ready,” Correia said. Pires was born in Cape Verde and came to the U.S. because she has family here, including her mother. She does stitching at Joseph Abboud.

Rilfon Barros, 21, of New Bedford was also a couple days away from the test. Asked why he wants to be a citizen, he said “so I can get more opportunity” and “so I can serve (on) a jury.”

He came to the U.S. in 2009 from Cape Verde.

Asked why he wanted to come to the U.S., Barros said “My father always told me about a better life.”

This story by Aimee Chiavaroli first appeared in the Standard Times on Jan. 21, 2018 – HERE

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