The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration, and the resulting separation of over 2,000 children from their parents, have dominated the national news cycle over the past four months.
For at least one person who spoke at a town hall forum on refugees and immigration policy Monday, Aug. 6, that debate touched his own family.
State Rep. William Tong (D-147), one of four panelists asked by organizers to speak at the event, recalled how in February his own mother intervened on behalf of Tony and Kris Huang, a Farmington couple who were set to be deported back to China.
From watching the couple on video, Tong suspected the couple didn’t fully understand what was happening.
“It just looked on television like they didn’t know what was happening to them,” said Tong, whose own parents, Chinese immigrants, were saved from deportation after his father wrote a personal
letter to then-President Nixon. “So I grabbed my mom and we went to a rally, and I had my mom try to interpret what their lawyers were trying to tell them. It became very clear to me that they had really no appreciation for what their lawyers were trying to convey to them.”
It was a Friday, he recalled. The couple was set to be deported the following day. Tong gave it one last shot — he called Gov. Malloy and begged him to intervene with ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
At 3:30 the governor called him back. The Huangs were staying.
“He said ‘I called three people at ICE,’ and I said ‘you must have been very persuasive,’” Tong recalled. “And he said ‘no, I was really pissed off.’”
The event, hosted by the Democratic Town Committee, drew about 80 residents to the lower level of the library.
While the forum was nominally partisan, two of the speakers — Tong and Ridgefielder Aimee Berger-Girvalo — have been endorsed by the Democrats for public office. Tong is running for
state attorney general, while Berger-Girvalo is challenging state Rep. John Frey for his seat representing the 111th district.
If anything, Tong’s remark about the governor being “pissed off” set the tone for the night.
“Kids don’t get to decide where they’re born,” said Berger-Girvalo. A paraeducator, she said teachers are there to protect kids from everything from “a boo-boo” to “a lockdown.”
She said educators rejected the notion that they might be called upon by ICE to help identify students living in the state illegally.
When panelist Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services — a nonprofit that helps to resettle refugees in the state — quoted statistics saying President Trump would lower the number of vetted refugees entering the country from an Obama-era high of 110,000 to 20,000, there were audible gasps from the crowd.
George said he and his colleagues were confused about the rhetoric surrounding the process of vetting immigrants.
“[Refugees] have gone through the most retraumatizing … vetting process the world has ever seen,” he said “The FBI and CIA are involved. International databases, terrorist watch lists … documents are examined by the FBI forensics unit.”
“So we scratch our heads when people in public office say ‘there is no vetting process,’” he added.”
Those refugees who do arrive in the United States often face trauma from the experiences they have been through.
Sylvia Steinert, a psychoanalyst, and the fourth speaker on the panel, said she’s currently working with a married couple who fled a situation in which several of their family members had been hunted down and killed. Both, she said, were tortured.
“The violence that they have survived challenges each of them individually, and strains at the marriage,” she said.
From her work, Steinert said most refugees’ “most fervent wish is to get out of a passive dependent position, and become fully employed, and fully support their families.”
Coco Barron, a resident of the town senior housing apartments, was one of the handful of residents who stood up to ask questions, after the meeting ran over its allotted time. She said people should be more aware of the situation in Latin America.
“People need to go to Latin America … to see how people live there,” she said. “They need factories, they need gas … you need to go there and see the situation there.”