NEW HAVEN — On Thursday evening, Mary Ellen Burns held the rapt attention of a half-dozen parents who, until Tuesday, believed their children were protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program.
Burns, a sister of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a lawyer for 28 years, was trying her best to explain, in both English and Spanish, the confusing tangle of policy and rumor that followed Tuesday's announcement that the Trump administration would begin winding down DACA, which has shielded an estimated 800,000 people from deportation.
Burns is the director of Apostle Immigrant Services — at whose New Haven office Thursday's gathering took place — which since 2008 has offered legal advice in family-based immigration and citizenship cases. Tuesday's announcement let loose chaos and confusion among DACA recipients and their family members, she said, and many turned to her office for help.
"Since the DACA decision, our office has been getting quite a few calls from people who either don't understand the meaning of the announcement or don't know where they stand, don't know what they can do," she said.
On Thursday, she reassured the parents in attendance that their children's DACA and work permits are valid until they expire. But first-time DACA applicants will not be considered, she warned, and the Advance Parole program, which allowed DACA recipients to travel outside the country, is no longer valid.
Burns said that immigration officials would accept applications to renew existing DACA permits that expire before March 5, 2018 — but only until Oct. 5.
Parents beseeched her with questions: Can my child travel out of the country? What if my son's permit expires after the March 5 cutoff? One father said he would have trouble coming up with the $495 renewal fee by next month, and Burns told him her office was planning to start a fund to help cover the cost of renewing a permit.
Misael Malpica was the sole DACA recipient at the meeting. Malpica, 20, came to Connecticut from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He said he remembers nothing of the country, and has never visited.
Mexico, he said, is "a country that I've never seen, that I don't know anything about. I don't speak too much Spanish. English is my first language. It'd be a tough situation going back to that country."
When he applied for DACA it was a risk, he said, because he knew he would be putting all his personal information in the hands of a government that might one day deport him. Still, he felt relieved knowing he'd be shielded from deportation by the policy.
DACA allowed him to get work at a factory in Wallingford, which has helped him pay for school. He's a sophomore at Gateway Community College in New Haven, studying computer engineering.
On Tuesday, though, everything changed, and it appeared his fear — that handing over his personal information for DACA might one day hasten his removal — could come true.
"I was angry," he said. "We'd seen it coming, but there was nothing we could do. Right now, we got to fight for it."
Burns, a graduate of Yale Law School who represented clients in housing and public benefits disputes for 19 years, said that when she first delved into immigration law in 2008, navigating the tortuous statues, policies and directives was like "walking across a minefield."
Many immigrants are waylaid by legal "experts" with dubious credentials, she said, who advertise quick routes to citizenship on sidewalk posters but who, in reality, have little understanding of the law.
Burns entered a convent in Hamden when she was 18, hoping to find God in hushed halls and hours of prayer. "My adolescent self, I thought, 'Oh I'm going to have all this time in chapel, I'm going to get close to God,'" she said.
But she has found another, different kind of spirituality in moments with immigration clients, helping them understand the forms that could extend — or truncate — their time in this country.
"What I've learned is, it's important to have a life of prayer," she said, "but that is not necessarily going to be the primary place — and it is certainly not the only place — where your life is going to lead you to God."