Danbury immigrants say Biden proposal would bring undocumented residents out of the ‘shadows’

DANBURY — Wilson Hernandez came to the United States seeking the so-called American dream.

The then 27-year-old teacher’s friends and relatives were leaving his home country of Ecuador for the United States, Europe and Canada. The idea of immigrating to the United States was “contagious,” he said.

“Even in high school, you start learning about the United States and you learn the United States is a country of opportunity,” said Hernandez, who owns La Mitad Del Mundo restaurant in Danbury.

Hernandez earned temporary legal residency in the United States in 1985, around the time former President Ronald Reagan passed an immigration reform bill that cracked down on hiring undocumented immigrants and gave amnesty to 2.7 million people who had come to the country illegally.

But he didn’t become a citizen until 2000 and it took Hernandez’s wife and sons 9 to 11 years to immigrate legally.

Hernandez says the country needs comprehensive immigration reform. It’s why he and other local immigrants are praising a bill from President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats that would create a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented people.

“It’s not only a matter of having a new law, but a matter of human rights,” Hernandez said.

Activists from CT Students for a Dream — a network co-founded by local twins that supports undocumented youth and their families — praised the bill because it does not fund detentions, deportations or construction of the border wall former President Donald Trump had called for.

“This bill is the boldest immigration bill to date delivered by our movement, and it's never come at a more urgent moment,” said Angelica Idrovo, senior leadership with CT Students for a Dream. “Everyday we see the effects of the mass deportations of Black and brown immigrants, of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of the deliberate exclusion of immigrants from vital pandemic relief.”

Under the Trump administration, the immigrant community “lost all hope” in reform, said Elvis Novas, who moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1992.

“We definitely need something that gives those people a chance to continue with their life and to achieve some dreams, to really live as a human being,” said Novas, a Danbury resident and president of the Dominican Club of Connecticut. “Because, in some cases, living in the shadows is not human.”

Enabling undocumented immigrants to become citizens would benefit the country and economy, supporters said.

“We cannot keep these people in the shadows any longer,” Hernandez said. “It would be good for the economy. It would be good even for security reasons. Now we know who is here, where they are living, what they are doing.”

Carolina Bortoletto, a so-called “Dreamer,” called the bill one of the most progressive pieces of immigration legislation.

“Having this bill introduced is great and it’s definitely a victory of the immigrants’ rights movement,” said Bortolleto, who lives in Brookfield and co-founded CT Students for a Dream.

But she said undocumented immigrants need immediate change. There are bills already before Congress that could be passed to protect farm workers, immigrants with temporary protected status and “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, she said.

“While this bill moves through Congress, it’s going to be slow,” Bortoletto said. “Meanwhile, there are things that Biden, [Democrat House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Democrat Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer can work on right now that would give relief to folks.”

The bill would immediately provide green cards to the groups Bortoletto mentioned. For others living in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, the plan establishes a five-year path to temporary legal status. If they pass background checks, pay taxes and fulfill other basic requirements, then, after three years, they can pursue citizenship.

A key part of reform needs to be supporting countries with economic or political problems that lead their citizens to come to the United States, Novas said.

“We have to go to the root of the problem,” he said.

The bill includes $4 billion over four years to support economic development and to tackle corruption in Latin American countries.

Bortoletto said she was reminded of the immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed in 2013, but that died in the U.S. House.

“We want folks to know it’s going to be a long road and it’s going to require us to keep pressuring our elected officials to make sure they keep moving this forward,” Bortoletto said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.