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New Haven Organization Helps Immigrants Settle In

In the heart of the Fair Haven section of this city, where recent immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of the Congo settle, a century-old mission has revived its purpose — serving the city's new arrivals.

Apostle Immigrant Services opened its doors in 2008, 102 years after a small congregation of nuns from the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus left Tuscany to do missionary work in New Haven.

At the turn of the century, New Haven was filling with Italian immigrants and the sisters set out to teach classes, take in orphans and assist the new arrivals with settling in.

At Apostle Immigrant Services, paperwork for legal-resident status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival applications and immigration court appointments has replaced sewing and cooking instruction as top priorities, but the mission is the same, said Sister Mary Ellen Burns, director of the agency.

"The need here in New Haven is so high. We are the only office in the city who can do this full time," Burns said. "Sometimes we're overextended, but we do it full time."

Burns graduated from Yale Law School in 1989 and worked as a legal services lawyer in New York City for 19 years. When she returned to New Haven to start Apostle Immigrant Services in 2008, Burns was honoring the history of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, but also providing a service the state desperately needed.

"We thought it would be getting back to our roots," she said.

Every month, Apostle Immigrant Services generally serves roughly 400 immigrants. Burns and her accredited representatives help clients with everything from completing DACA applications to applying for legal resident status, renewing green cards andtranslating and explaining documents.

Burns employs one accredited immigration representative and a translator who doubles as a receptionist, but otherwise relies on volunteers to get the work done.

"We are small, but mighty," she said with a laugh.

The group does not accept clients seeking asylum as both Yale University and the University of Connecticut have asylum clinics.

"A certain segment of clients who come here are undocumented and come here to find a way to legal status. I don't think people realize that it is very difficult to get legal status," Burns said.

Burns said this country's immigration system provides few avenues for undocumented people to obtain legal status. Unless undocumented people marry a U.S. citizen or have family to sponsor them, there are few avenues to citizenship.

Some can apply for temporary protected status if their country is in the midst of violent turmoil or natural disaster. Currently immigrants from only 11 countries qualify for such status.

On Sept. 5, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program, the office phone rang all day, Burns said. Undocumented young people and their parents called wondering what the news meant and what steps they could take to protect themselves.

"Giving people good, trustworthy information is a benefit. As is keeping them from people who prey on their vulnerability," Burns said. "People have been expressing a lot of nervousness from a year ago. A steady drumbeat of horrible things being said about immigrants makes them nervous."

Erika Vergara works as Apostle Immigrant Services' accredited representative, meaning she's certified by the U.S. Department of Justice to represent clients in citizenship and immigration matters.

Vergara is a DACA recipient and said she came to Apostle Immigrant Services three and a half years ago seeking assistance with her own application.

"I met Sister Mary Ellen by chance. I had called another group to get services and I got referred here. No one could really help me with the forms and I could have filed on my own, but I didn't want to take a chance," she said.

For Vergara, working full time at Apostle Immigrant Services is a way to help others and use the degree she received in ethnic studies from the University of California, San Diego.

"This is my way of giving back to my community. I went to school. I got a degree and now I am giving back to something I am very passionate about," she said. "When I started, I was happy to just make copies because that helped Sister Mary Ellen help another client."

For an outsider, helping with paperwork and making immigrants aware of their options might seem like small services, but the effects are enduring for people in need of help.

Karina Lopez crossed the border from Mexico when she was 18 years old, but now has legal resident status. She has worked at Apostles as a translator and receptionist for the last few months.

"I was undocumented for 14 years and it was life-changing when I got my documents. My self-esteem was on the floor and when I got it, it went up," Lopez said, breaking down in tears. "I came here to give my son a better life and he's doing so well."

Burns said she often will see clients a few years after working with them to get DACA status or work papers and the change, she said, is visible.

"A lot of people go from working as a housekeeper or a nanny, to actually being able to use their education. A lot of people we work with went to college," she said. "It is exciting, gratifying and heartwarming to see them progress."

While Burns has heard heartbreaking stories of families separated by violence in their home countries, she said that every story a client shares with her is an honor.

"Hearing people's stories is a sacred blessing. That people entrust us at that level could be overwhelming, but it has only been a blessing," she said.

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