With so much in the news about immigrants and refugees, I wanted to learn more about what people local to me were doing to help these vulnerable populations. One of my neighbors is on the board of a local social service organization that focuses on serving and empowering new Americans, and she kindly put me in touch with their Executive Director, Claudia Connor. I met Claudia at her office, and liked her right away…she’s smart, she’s caring, she tells some good stories, she’s funny, and she’s the public face of an organization doing some really terrific work. Here’s what we talked about.
Claudia Connor with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Claudia Connor (above)
Date: March 17, 2017
Occupation: President & CEO, International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN)
Hometown: New York City
Current town: Norwalk, CT
Good to talk to you today! Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. Can you tell me a little bit, maybe your “elevator pitch” about the International Institute of Connecticut?
Sure, here at IICONN, we have been around for 99 years and in that entire time we have been dedicated to services for refugees and immigrants in Connecticut. Our mission today is to assist refugees, immigrants, and survivors resolving linguistic, economic, and cultural barriers to self-sufficiency. We’re unique in the state in that we handle refugee resettlements, immigration legal services, Project Rescue (which assists victims of human trafficking), and we serve survivors of torture.
So it’s a very broad range of services you provide, then. Your organization has existed since 1918: what have been the highlights of its history, and how have things changed over these many years?
There’s an inherent characteristic of constant change. Over 99 years (and I haven’t been here the entire time!) we’ve resettled various flows of refugees. After World War II, many people from Eastern Europe. After the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese settled here. In the 1990s, we worked with people from Bosnia and Serbia, fleeing conflict in the former Yugoslavia. There have been moments of transition over time. In 1980 the Refugee Act provided federal funding for refugee case management services. The refugee resettlement program has historically had strong bi-partisan support. Also in the early 1980s, IICONN began to deliver immigration legal services. That’s part of the trend toward professionalization of resettlement and legal services for refugees, and it launched our agency to where we are today.
There has been a rich legacy of leadership here at IICONN. Myra Oliver led the organization for 30 years and really built this organization up to a strong and vibrant agency. And Angela Anderson, who came on as an intern and became the Executive Director, brought passion and energy until she passed away at the age of 35, from cancer, in 2014. Both of those women brought this agency up to what is has become, and were pillars of the community. Their contributions remain part of the fabric of the organization and they are both missed.
That’s extraordinarily sad that Angela Anderson was gone so young. That must have been heartbreaking for the people here who knew her.
How have attitudes towards immigrants changed over the years? And what challenges are your institution currently facing? When I think of early 20th century history and time when IICONN began, my understanding is that it was a time of virulent racism.
Yes, and there’s a significant backlash against immigrants and refugees now, of course. There’s been a history…boatloads of Jewish refugees were turned away after WWII, and the US set up detention camps for Vietnamese people after the war. Fear and ignorance is at the heart of anti-immigrant attitudes.
Are you seeing much anti-immigration sentiment locally?
In Connecticut there are small pockets of anti-immigrant sentiment. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups, and there are hate groups here in Connecticut. But what we’ve seen in the past year has been, I think, not so much new anti-immigrant sentiment, but more a sense that people with discriminatory feelings and attitudes are emboldened to express them, a feeling that there won’t be repercussions.
So you think it’s that it’s coming out of the shadows?
I think so. There seems to be a tacit authorization to say what you want.
Also, there’s a tremendous amount of valid concern about national security. But immigrants are scapegoated for terrorist acts. There’s a lot of conflating of fear of terrorism with fear of refugees and immigrants, and it’s misplaced.
I grew up, like you, in New York, I’m from New York City originally, and growing up here in the northeast, I never heard this type of public discourse that we’re hearing now. As a child, I was told that we live in a nation of immigrants…it was even on the Saturday morning cartoons: in Schoolhouse Rock they sang about the “Great American Melting Pot.” So this trend is very disconcerting and quite surprising to me.
Our nation is truly built on the contributions of immigrants since the inception of this country. Every immigrant culture has influenced our politics, has given us innovation in science, in the arts. We couldn’t be who we are without that. It does our own history a disservice to discredit our values of welcome, inclusiveness, and diversity.
What is your response to the rhetoric that we should be taking care of our own before we take care of refugees, taking care of veterans before immigrants, and so forth?
We can do both. Our responsibility as a human race is to take care of those who are vulnerable. There is enough money, enough resources, enough space to receive and house and educate. It’s about better allocation of resources.
How many people is your organization currently serving?
With Project Rescue, we work with close to 100 survivors of human trafficking annually in Connecticut. We work with law enforcement, and we work with survivors of human trafficking. In addition to working with survivors, a key goal of Project Rescue is to help educate the general public about human trafficking. We’re trying to educate communities about this crime, which remains largely invisible.
For refugee resettlement, the goal for this fiscal year is to get 160 people resettled in Bridgeport. As of today, we have helped 65 (since October 1st). The Executive Order as it was announced was to reduce the number of refugees accepted in the US from 100,000 to 50,000, so a 50% cut. If that stands, it will bring us down to 80 as a goal, but it is in the hands of the court system now.
For immigration legal services, we operate in Bridgeport, Hartford, and Stamford. We have four attorneys and eight legal caseworkers. We help close to 4,000 people with these services annually.
Do you help with legal services matters such as family law and housing court for immigrants, or is it all immigration-specific?
It’s all work specific to immigration law, serving low-income immigrant communities. And we refer people to other legal services organizations for other matters.
Are you making a big difference?
On the state level, the staff here are recognized regionally and nationally for their accomplishments. The real impact is at the local level, in terms of the broad numbers of local people we are reaching. And the work is really life changing. Getting to know specific people’s stories: when the recent travel ban was going into effect we met someone we thought might be the last refugee for quite a few months, we met him at JFK. He fled from the Congo, lived in a refugee camp. He went through the existing extremely robust security and background checks. He was interviewed for the Wall Street Journal and told about the executive order, which he wasn’t aware of. When he was told he was one of the last people to get into the United States, he began weeping with deep gratitude that he got in before the doors slammed shut.
There are so many human stories. Syrian families, Haitians, Latinos, people from all over the world and being able to help them to come here is transforming lives.
I can tell you about one of our clients, “Gloria” (not her real name), who was trafficked from Honduras. She was basically enslaved and held in debt, and she escaped. Her mother had to sell off her house in Honduras in order to pay the “debt” and free her daughter from her traffickers. Project Rescue and our Immigration Legal Services team worked closely together to provide the social services support she needed, and to help her obtain immigration documentation and to reunite with her children.
Immigration law is very complex, and there are rules concerning specific types of visas, U and T visas and green cards. We help people get these documents, when they are eligible, and we help them petition to have their family members join them.
Are you engaged on the big picture, policy level, with similar groups in other cities and states? What are you working on?
This organization is an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.
We are an affiliate of USCRI (the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), which is a one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies. In addition to technical assistance and funding, USCRI provides excellent communications materials and action alerts. And we engage increasingly with our elected officials: Senator Blumenthal, Senator Murphy, Congressman Himes. Our mandate is to work with individuals in Connecticut. But we and our clients are impacted by the legal and policy realm.
How can people help? Are you in need of local volunteers? Of donations? Professional skills?
How people can help first and foremost is to be as educated as possible and share knowledge. There are events and talks that we participate in…we want people to learn as much as possible about our work, our clients, and how the policies and executive orders impact their lives. There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding. For one, refugees aren’t illegal immigrants…they are here with documentation. There’s a great deal of confusion regarding terms and it is important that there is education and clarity.
We do have hundreds volunteers who give their time. We have a mentor program where community volunteers mentor for refugees and other clients. It’s a very targeted program through which the mentor works with the refugees to help them reach their self-sufficiency goals.
There must be so many needs.
Yes, language acquisition, navigating the education system, health system, finances. We have people commit to volunteer for three months, for an hour per week at a minimum. It usually ends up being much more.
That must be a very meaningful volunteer project.
Very meaningful. And transformative for both the mentors and the mentees. There’s a real intimate connection when you’re assisting someone with tutoring, food stamps, shopping. Employment help. Resume prep.
That sounds a bit like what I’ve read can happen in Canada, where people sort of adopt a local family and give them assistance.
This is not exactly the same as it isn’t family-to-family, it’s really individual. So a family group may have several different people assisting them.
There are other opportunities to volunteer, too; we have interns, some of them college students, they help in many ways – supporting the refugee services team, providing administrative and operational support, helping with communications and social media.
We partner with four local churches from Westport and Weston which do pre-arrival set up for newly arriving refugees. They get things ready. They furnish an apartment. There’s an amazing number of one-off needs, alarm clocks, bags, school supplies, backpacks. We recently had two Syrian families arrive and the kids did not have supplies to start school. A church in Fairfield stepped up and provided backpacks filled with school supplies for the seven kids in these two families.
That’s an amazingly hospitable service those church groups are doing.
Absolutely. They are living the moral imperative in their respective faiths to “welcome the stranger.”
What should people know about immigration that they don’t, or what do people think they know about immigration that they get wrong?
There is a common misperception about undocumented people…that they’re trying to skirt the system. But in reality, they would much rather have the security of the legal status. They lack access to information and to services. And the immigration laws do not help the situation. There are internal contradictions within the outdated immigration system that don’t allow people to travel into or out of the US to correct their status. People ask, why can’t they get in line and do things the right way? And there is no such line. There are not opportunities and not a lot of options for the 11 million undocumented people here.
If you could wave your magic wand and improve things, what would you do?
Besides getting rid of winter?
Well, winter, and gray hairs!
Oh, yes, those too! But after that, my next choice would be to put into place policy that was grounded in our humanitarian history as a nation. People who wanted to come here had an opportunity. We should have a broader welcome mat.
How did you get into this line of work?
I’m a lawyer. I practiced law with Legal Aid in New York City, doing criminal defense work. And then I went overseas for one year—and stayed for ten. In Mozambique, Malawi, and Myanmar.
All M countries?
Yes, Morocco didn’t work out! But I was a legal consultant in those years, working with international non-profits, Save the Children, and UNICEF, working on rights-related issues – the rights of dispossessed women, child trafficking, child soldiers. Then I came to Connecticut in 2008 when my family was saying please bring the grandchildren home! I worked for the IRC (International Rescue Committee) working in their US programs department supervising refugee resettlement offices, and then I made a change to Save the Children where I did fundraising from private foundations. Then I got a call to come and work here when they needed an executive director.
So here you are. It seems like you landed in an appropriate place for you.
Is there a book you think everyone should read?
I can recommend one I am in the middle of, A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison. It’s a novel about labor trafficking in the garment industry, and it involves really important messages. It also happens to be extremely well written and a real page-turner.
I’m not familiar with that one. What’s a movie everyone should watch?
I hardly ever go to the movies! But I did see Hidden Figures. I took my twelve-year-old son, and I wasn’t sure he would like it, but he was transfixed. Rockets and NASA and great music and beautiful actresses. And a serious message about what it was like to be a professional person and yet, because you were a black woman, have to use the “colored bathroom.” It was excellent and beautifully made.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
My supervisor at Save the Children told me to figure out what breaks your heart and put your energy there.
That’s really powerful advice. You often hear things like, follow your heart, or do what makes you come alive, but I’ve never heard it put like that, to follow what gives you pain.
I feel strongly about social justice, and it made me think about where to put my energy. It helped me focus. That supervisor was an amazing mentor.
What is the biggest risk you have taken in life?
Moving from my life in New York, leaving my job and an apartment, and following my new husband to Mozambique. We were headed to the Sudan in 1998, but the US bombed Khartoum…and I’d already given up my apartment, taken a leave of absence from my job, had a goodbye party…
So, we didn’t go to Sudan, but my husband found a job in Nampula, in the far north of Mozambique. For the first month I felt like I was on the edge of the abyss.
New husband…this was a honeymoon period?
New husband. And we were really remote. It was a town intentionally created by the Portuguese as their northern outpost during the civil war. It was an experience in isolation and alienation. I didn’t speak the language, so people thought I had nothing to contribute and nothing to say. There were no expats there except for people with jobs.
This may be why you have such an affinity for immigrants here. You’ve been a stranger in a strange land yourself.
For months I felt like that! I think it helps me understand some of what my clients feel and experience. Anyway, I focused on learning Portuguese so I could participate and be engaged, and find work.
What’s something people don’t know about you?
In my early days, 1997, just after the OJ Simpson trial, which was the first real televised criminal trial, I worked at Court TV doing color commentary.
I’ve only heard of color commentary in a sports context! I didn’t know it was a thing in law…it sounds pretty interesting!
Last but not least, is there anything you would like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes, IICONN! We have many ways volunteers can get engaged. And we have some terrific events throughout the next couple of months. Please contact us!
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Naeblys / Shutterstock.com; Image of Claudia Connor and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal Courtesy of Claudia Connor.
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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