Neighbor Fund host speak out against deportation

(From left to right): Ben Wiles, History Professor Mark Overmyer Velazquez, Joseline Tlacomulco, Eric Cruz Lopez and Kathleen Tonry discuss and answer questions on how to resist the crackdown by ICE on immigrants in Laurel Hall on Monday afternoon. The panel was moderated by Associate English Professor Chris Vials.  (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

(From left to right): Ben Wiles, History Professor Mark Overmyer Velazquez, Joseline Tlacomulco, Eric Cruz Lopez and Kathleen Tonry discuss and answer questions on how to resist the crackdown by ICE on immigrants in Laurel Hall on Monday afternoon. The panel was moderated by Associate English Professor Chris Vials.  (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut students and professors and citizens of the surrounding community came together in Laurel Hall on Monday night to speak out against the deportation of undocumented immigrants and raise awareness for the Neighbor Fund.

The panelists included UConn students Joseline Tlacomulco and Eric Cruz Lopez; members of Connecticut Students for a Dream; Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, the director of El Instituto at UConn; Ben Wiles, a local attorney and Kathleen Tonry, a UConn professor who helped create the Neighbor Fund.

The conversation was centered around the growing threat of deportation that undocumented immigrants face under the Trump administration and the fact that those deportations are occurring locally.

“It’s a very real issue because it’s happening here in Connecticut. We’re not even 100 days into Trump’s presidency and people have already been rounded up in Hartford and New Haven,” Overmyer-Velazquez said.

Tlacomulco and Lopez described their personal experiences as undocumented immigrants and the threats they have faced and continue to deal with.

“The fact that myself or members of my family could get deported any day is a fear that I always have in the back of my head,” Tlacomulco said.

Lopez said the first time he tried coming to America his family got caught, so at age seven, he was behind bars with his mother and 10 year old brother.

“It was a defining moment for me growing up,” Lopez said.

Overmyer-Velazquez said that, though deportations have become more prevalent under the Trump administration, they occurred long before he was elected.

“This the latest version of a long history of discriminatory policies that have been prevalent in the United States,” he said.

Wiles spoke on the economic impact undocumented immigrants have on the state of Connecticut.

“An important aspect of America’s economy is the entrepreneurial spirit of taking risks, proving naysayers wrong and persevering,” Wiles said. “And this emphasis on entrepreneurship is even more pronounced by undocumented immigrants, who are twice as likely to start a new business than native-born Americans.”

Wiles cited many statistics, including the fact that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and over 13,000 entrepreneurs in Connecticut alone are undocumented immigrants.

“I believe that immigrants are critical to the economic future of this state,” Wiles said. “I want to send a message to out of state entrepreneurs that they’re welcome here and we need them here.”

Tonry spoke on what led her to co-found the Neighbor Fund, a local organization created to raise funds for undocumented individuals living in Mansfield and Willimantic who need help.

“The idea for the Neighbor Fund came about after I had a series of conversations with my colleague, Chris Vials. What we realized was that Mansfield and Willimantic do not have a place for local action, despite there being a community here that needs our support and collaboration,” Tonry said.

I believe that immigrants are critical to the economic future of this state. I want to send a message to out of state entrepreneurs that they’re welcome here and we need them here.
— Ben Wiles

Tonry said so far, the Neighbor Fund has raised $3,000 out of their current $4,000 goal.

“We’re hoping to launch the fund in a more formal way with a fundraiser in the fall, but we began raising money now because undocumented people need help now,” she said.

Overmyer-Velazquez said he fully endorses and is very excited about the Neighbor Fund.

“The work of the Neighbor Fund is part of a larger effort that is critical to creating sanctuary cities and campuses and other initiatives that are happening,” he said.

The panelists focused part of the conversation on the deportation of three men that occurred on March 28th at the Frog Bridge in Willimantic and the help that the communities of Mansfield and Willimantic can give them.

“There is an urgent need for help for these two men who were detained in Willimantic and are now being held in Boston,” Chris Vials, a professor at UConn and co-founder of the Neighbor Fund said.

According to local witnesses, the individuals were arrested by ICE officers in plain clothes while on their way to their jobs.

“The recent arrests demonstrate a significant escalation of ICE attacks on our community and show little regard for recently passed city ordinances protecting undocumented immigrants in Willimantic,” a press release said.

Overmyer-Velazquez spoke on the threat faced by undocumented immigrants who are taken by ICE.

“These people are being increasingly criminalized by President Trump,” he said. “They are put into jail and not allowed to see the light of day.”

The event concluded with a question and answer session, where one student asked what students who are not part of the undocumented community can do to help those that are. Lopez replied that one immediate action they could take is to sign a petition proposing that UConn equalize the institutional aid given to undocumented students.

Eighth-semester Crime, justice and law major Brittany Davis said she came because she didn’t know enough about deportation laws or what people who are United States citizens can do to help the undocumented community.

“I wanted to gain more knowledge and hear what’s going on because I don’t watch or listen to the news, so by being here I was hoping to learn something that would help me be able to advocate,” Davis said.

The event was sponsored by Connecticut Students for a Dream and the Neighbor Fund. To contribute to the fund, contact Chris Vials at vialschris@gmail.com.


Gabriella Debenedictis is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at gabriella.debenedictis@uconn.edu.