Jacqueline Smith: The making of a human rights activist
Alex Villamel stood under the gazebo on the front lawn of Bethel’s municipal center and as he spoke to the 200 or so people assembled Friday evening, he choked up. The words on the paper in his hand were clear, but his emotions held them back from his lips.
He was overcome by detailing the atrocities (his word and mine, too) at our Southern border.
“Under current conditions, results of the present administration’s policies and the actions of its agents, we have seen reports of atrocities occurring at the border. Atrocities that no American, regardless of ethnicity, race, political affiliation or stance on immigration would find tolerable. This is a human issue that transcends any of these things,” Alex had begun.
Then, checking his outrage, he was able to say: “Six children have died since late last September after being detained by the Border Patrol, including three in the last month.
“An Inspector General last month found severe overcrowding inside an El Paso processing center, with 76 migrants packed into a tiny cell designed for a maximum of 12 people.”
A hush swept over the “Lights for Liberty” gathering as Alex’s words drew horrific images.
A candlelight vigil in a single small town gained voice with 19 other vigils in Connecticut, and the volume amplified with about 800 similar vigils across the country.
“What kind of country are we living in? Do we stand on the sidelines and let this continue to happen?,” Alex exhorted. “Are we not complicit by remaining spectators in this horrible tragedy?”
‘The wake-up call’
How did a Stamford-born, Sandy Hook father of four with a contracting business in Darien become an activist for undocumented residents and migrants?
I am intrigued by the transformative moments that push people to step outside of their comfort zones and take action.
So Alex and I chatted Wednesday morning on the outdoor patio of Starbucks in Newtown.
He had no hesitation in pinpointing his moment: “The wake-up call was the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. I decided I had to get more involved.” Like so many others, Alex thought Trump, with his wildly divisive rhetoric, would never get elected president.
Though Alex had made phone calls for Hillary, and hosted a gathering at his home with Vanessa, his wife, he wasn’t much involved in politics outside of the local Democratic Town Committee.
In the shock waves after the election, a group of “local people freaked out by Trump winning” got together at a local restaurant and eventually became Newtown Forward. The grassroots group now has about 450 members; Alex and Vanessa are two of them.
That was one step toward getting involved. The next step would propel him further to hands-on action.
It was a Friday morning, April 28, 2017; Alex was driving to work. The night before he had read a notice on Facebook of a rally for a married father of four who had lived in this country for 25 years, but was going to be deported to his native Guatemala by ICE agents.
“I thought, ‘I have four kids, a wife, I’m Latin American,’” Alex recounted. “It could have been me.” Something clicked inside.
“I canceled all appointments, did a u-ey, and went to Hartford for the rally.”
The rally organized by the New Haven-based group Unidad Latina en Acción was for Luis Barrios of Derby. His children were U.S. citizens, he had no criminal record, and had a legal work permit. Groups such as Shoreline Indivisible took up the cause; U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called ICE on Barrios’ behalf.
First the father was granted a 30-day reprieve, then two years.
“It was an eye-opener,” Alex said. “From then on I started working with undocumented families.”
‘The America I grew up in’
Alex is a U.S. citizen, the first generation of immigrant parents from Colombia. When he was a child, the family returned to Colombia, but the political upheaval in the late ’70s compelled them to return to this country with little money and a dream of a better life.
“I grew up with other families like ours. Some had papers, some did not. We were all just people making the most out of every opportunity. Parents always working, children educating themselves, all slowly but steadily climbing toward achieving the American dream.”
“That’s the America I grew up in. My community was a microcosm of the country’s mentality at the time. A melting pot of immigrants who celebrated their differences by honoring their roots while proudly calling themselves Americans.
“Fast forward 30 years or so later — I can hardly recognize the country that I grew up in,” Alex said.
Out of empathy, he has been involved in about seven deportation cases working with advocates such as New Haven Attorney Glenn Formica, who offers pro bono services.
Six of those cases were successful with deportation set aside. The one that didn’t work out was a surprise.
Joel Colindres’ wife and two children were U.S. citizens; he worked, paid taxes and owned a home in New Fairfield. Because of paperwork errors — not a hardened criminal history — ICE threatened to deport him to Guatemala. Intersessions by grassroots groups and politicians failed; in early February of 2018 he was forced out. His wife sold their home and with the children joined him.
I remember this heartbreaking story. Some will say he was flouting the law by not being here legally; I say he was trying to work through the system and what kind of justice is served by sending him to a troubled country?
And this happened in Connecticut, a state that adopted and recently strengthened the Trust Act, which restricts police cooperation with ICE.
Alex is now the human rights coordinator for Action Together CT (email@example.com), which has about 6,000 members throughout the state. He feels fortunate that his business allows him the flexibility of time to go to ICE hearings to support undocumented people. He now is working with a family in Kent.
For many people, this would be enough of a commitment.
But when Alex heard about the border crisis last year he could not be silent. Thousands of miles away, but if nothing is done — “are we not complicit?”
He helped organize a Hands Across America event in Newtown last year against the Zero Tolerance policy and has been pressing the state’s congressional delegation to demand accountability and transparency in the detention centers. He spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On Wednesday, Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., along with about three dozen other Democratic and Independent senators, introduced the “Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act” to “put an end to the Trump Administration’s cruel and neglectful treatment of children at the U.S.-Mexico border and reform how children fleeing persecution are treated.”
The standards include three meals a day and access to hygiene products such as toothbrushes, soap and diapers. How embarrassing that it would take an act of Congress to stipulate these basics.
What can you do? Press for accountability and humane treatment of those seeking asylum. Contact senators to support the “Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act.”
Ask yourself, as Alex did: “Are we not complicit by remaining spectators in this horrible tragedy?”
Don’t look away from the travesty at our border.
Jacqueline Smith’s column appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. She is the editorial page editor of The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org