By Ann Baldelli Day Staff Writer
New London — Church of the City's new immigration center officially opened Wednesday night with the mission of assisting low-income immigrants and their families to improve their legal status and serving as community support for all immigrants in eastern Connecticut.
The Immigration Advocacy & Support Center, headed by attorney Michael T. Doyle, is one of a number of human service initiatives the congregation plans to offer at its City Center in the former Bank of America building at 250 State St.
About 60 people, including church members, city officials, clergy and representatives from nonprofits and social service agencies, attended the event at IASC's offices at 8 Washington St.
The center is an outgrowth of the Encounters of Hope project launched in 2010 by the former First Hispanic Baptist Church to help local Hispanic/Latino families whose basic needs were being underserved. Fifteen months ago, First Hispanic Baptist merged with the city's First Baptist Church and renamed themselves Church of the City.
Shortly after the consolidation, Church of the City bought the former 22,000-square-foot Bank of America building next door to the First Baptist Church at State and Washington streets for $240,000, with plans to use it as a community center.
The old bank lobby is already being used for public meetings and worship services, with plans for the expansive conference and office space in the basement and on the first and second floors of the building to be used for church ministries and by nonprofit groups working to better the community.
"We saw the building as an opportunity to continue to serve the community," said Senior Pastor Daniel Martino. "It's a holistic approach to what we are supposed to do as Christians. We have facilities and space to do programs that we cannot do ourselves."
While Church of the City may care about a person's faith and soul, that's not enough "if they're hungry or have immigration issues, or not a place to sleep tonight," said Executive Pastor Thomas Hogsten.
Doyle, the immigration attorney who will run the IASC, said all immigrants are welcome, regardless of where they come from. He said he got involved this past summer, while visiting New London, when he saw a small sign that Martino had taped on the door of the old bank building advertising an immigration center.
An immigration lawyer with a solo practice in Providence, Doyle was in the process of moving to New London and asked Martino about the center.
"He had a vision to have this area be an immigration center before we even met," said Doyle, who is fluent in Spanish, grew up outside Boston, earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University, and later served with the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Martino and Doyle talked and agreed Doyle was a good fit for the center.
"I had the time and expertise and he had the space and resources," said Doyle.
"It was the right timing, we saw heaven open," said Martino, of his chance meeting of Doyle.
At Wednesday night's dedication and celebration, Doyle addressed the audience in both English and Spanish. And when Church of the City's pastors spoke, Hogsten did the English version followed by Martino's Spanish.
"We will have an immediate impact," said Doyle, of the work that is planned. Then he added, "This would not be possible without the leadership and generosity of Church of the City."
Martino said true success at the center will require a collaborative effort "because we're dealing with the local aspect of a national issue that affects all of us."
The IASC will operate under the umbrella of the Church of the City, as a nonprofit, with the church matching a client's $20 co-pay for an initial consultation, and if and when it's decided that the center can be of help, setting a fee schedule based on a sliding scale that takes into account a client's income and the number of dependents at home, said Doyle.
"All immigrants wrestle with a complex and expensive legal process, language barriers, and a tough economic climate," said Doyle, in a document explaining the type of work he expects to do. "However, the challenges faced by the more vulnerable are compounded by unemployment, wage inequality, discrimination, and continued abuse and exploitation."
To help make his point, Doyle said the region's poverty rate is significantly higher than the state average (19.9 percent versus 10.0 percent) and its median household income ($44,135) almost 37 percent less than the state average ($69,519). Also according to Doyle, New London County Census figures show that between 2000 and 2010, the Asian population here increased by 123.3 percent and the Hispanic/Latino population by 75.4 percent.
At the center, Doyle said he expects to help clients obtain legal residence, citizenship, employment authorization and deferred removal, and work on the growing problem of unaccompanied children arriving in the country.
He said he will also reach out to victims of sex trafficking, domestic violence and other crimes, while working to empower them with education and information as well as legal help. The IASC will work in concert with social service agencies, shelters, and community and religious organizations to support immigrants and help make them self-sufficient, contributing members of the community, Doyle said.
Martino, who recognized Catholic Charities and local attorney Rita Provatas for the work they've been doing on the immigration issue, said "the need is so great, so huge, that one more lawyer and one more organization to deal with immigration is never enough."
With President Barack Obama's recent executive order on immigration, Martino said, "a huge door is being opened."
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio applauded the opening of the immigration center and said Doyle will serve a vital need in the city.
The immigration center is located at 8 Washington St. and may be reached by phone at (860) 629-7758.
Partial list of IASC services:
- Petitions for asylum
- Legal permanent resident applications
- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) cases
- Deferred Action of Parental Accountability (DAPA)
- Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitions
- Citizenship/naturalization applications
- Removal/deportation case assistance
- Unlawful presence and other waivers