The Changing Face of Long Island

The long and winding road to citizenship

Central American Refugee Center offers hope to immigrants struggling to make it


Staff members at the Central American Refugee Center, housed in a sparsely furnished second-floor office on Franklin Street in Hempstead, were finishing their lunches recently when a line formed in the small, narrow lobby.

Attorneys and volunteers close CARECEN for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. daily. Immigrants in need of their free services, though, keep streaming into the lobby.

“It’s always busy, no matter what time of day it is,” said Elise Damas, 31, director of the Pathway to Citizenship program and one of six CARECEN attorneys. “When we open up the doors at 9 each morning, there’s already a line forming out the door.”

Curtains in bright pinks, blues, yellows and reds are hung from the windows, and handcrafted mosaic art pieces reflecting Central American heritage adorn the office.

“Look at the walls,” Damas said. “The decorations capture your heritage, your country, their country.”

The art is a way of welcoming refugees who are fleeing civil and drug wars, natural disasters and lack of opportunity in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, though the center accepts refugees from around the globe. It has advocated for Long Island immigrants for more than 30 years.

A scary process

Damas sat at her desk, her laptop open and ready to process the next citizenship application on her list. She studied political science, law and international studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and went on to graduate from Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deanne School of Law in 2012. She became a CARECEN staff attorney immediately after finishing Hofstra.

Before CARECEN, she said, “I worked a lot with marginalized communities abroad in Cuba, Mexico, India and the Dominican Republic … Everybody envisioned coming to the United States as the only way to really improve their lives.” 

After lunch, people poured in from the lobby and lingered outside Damas’s office. Their voices, with their distinctive rolled R’s, greeted CARECEN’s receptionist.

“It’s good to see you back,” Marino Morales exclaimed in his native Dominican Republic Spanish. Morales joined the CARECEN staff as a paralegal in September 2014. He warmly welcomes clients.

“Going through the citizenship program can be really scary for a lot of them,” he said. “But becoming a citizen is the ultimate goal for a lot of applicants who walk through those doors.” 

Morales became a U.S. citizen on June 24, 1984. “I remember the day,” he said. “Of course I remember it.”

Morales paused and thought for a long moment. “This is my country,” he finally remarked.

After Univision, a Hispanic broadcast channel, aired a segment about CARECEN and its Pathway to Citizenship program during the evening news last spring, calls started to flood in, Morales said. “It was crazy … Our voice messages were full,” he noted. By June, he said, CARECEN’s appointments had tripled. Staff filed between 10 and 12 citizenship applications a day.

“Right now it’s manic,” Damas said, placing her hand on a stack of papers on her desk. “With elections in November, most applicants are trying to submit the applications and get approved before election time so they can vote.” 

On April 18, CARECEN’s Pathway to Citizenship program took on its 1,000th case since the program’s inception in 2014, Damas said. Staff recently celebrated their 1,500th case, processing 500 applications in five months.

More chatter emerged from the lobby. “I came to the United States 20 years ago in 1996,” Cinda Valverde said in her native Spanish. Valverde has two children: a 29-year-old son who is now a police officer and a 25-year-old daughter who is a student. Both were born outside the U.S., but are now citizens. Now she, too, hopes to become a citizen.

“I need to vote,” Valverde said. “Thanks to God, this country has opened up so many opportunities for my children and for myself –– but mostly for my children.”

Immigrants are fighters

Ivan Larios, the citizenship services coordinator, smiled at Valverde as he prepared her paperwork. 

“I miss my sister and my family,” Valverde said. She placed her glasses atop her head and wiped her tears away with a tissue. “I feel sad sometimes when I think about what I left in Bolivia, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Immigrants have rights too. We’re fighters. Immigrants need to continue the fight for equality and opportunity. We work, and we work even when we’re tired. We pay taxes just like everybody else. We pay for medical services just like everybody else. We’re homeowners just like everybody else. Without any fears, immigrants need to keep fighting.” 

Larios smiled once more at Valverde. In Spanish, he conversed with her about her paperwork.

“I see their pain when they talk about leaving their home country,” Larios said. “I was fortunate enough to come to the U.S. with my parents. They leave what they know, what they’re accustomed to and come to a new country where they don’t know anything at all.” 

Larios, who shares an office with staff attorney Robert Findaro, graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s in public administration and political science. He worked for Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation and Margert Community Corporation before joining CARECEN.

Findaro was all but buried under piles of immigration court documents. He represents unaccompanied children under age 16 in Immigration Court and before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some children speak to him, while others stay silent about the horrors that they faced crossing from Mexico into the U.S.

“Most, if not all, of these children are fleeing from dangerous situations in their home countries,” Findaro said. “It’s my job to not only represent them in court but to guide them and be there for them. To be able to stay in the country, they’re required to go to school. I keep up with their grades, I ask them how they’re doing, I encourage them to continue. It’s a tough job.”

Finding hope

Findaro paused and looked at his hands. “I don’t know what these kids endured in their lives,” he said. “But I know they can have a brighter future, and that’s why I do what I do.”

Damas walked in to speak to Larios about pending paperwork, and then continued on past the lobby, which was filled with brand-new faces. Her office, which she shares with Pathway to Citizenship Program Assistant Jenny Chévez Urbina, was occupied by the next applicant. Miguel Ayala placed a folder on Urbina’s desk. 

“I came to the United States in 1986 by myself,” Ayala said in Spanish. He fled El Salvador amid the country’s deadliest civil war. “I didn’t want to be a part of it. I came to the United States for a better life for myself and for my future children and family,” he said.

Ayala said the transition was difficult at first. English was hard to pick up and jobs were scarce. He eventually found a job at a factory and retained his visa. He booked an appointment with CARECEN in early May in the hope of becoming a citizen by the November election. “God has done so much for me already, but God willing, I’ll be able to vote,” he said with a smile. “If I can’t vote this year, then the next election season will be my time to vote.”

Damas softly typed as she and Urbina processed more applications. “A lot of clients come to me and ask, ‘How much are you really going to charge me?’’’ Damas said. “I tell them, ‘We don’t charge you anything for the consultation.’ And they don’t believe us because so many attorneys take advantage of immigrants and charge them a lot of money for a consultation.” 

Damas, who was named to the Hispanic Coalition N.Y.’s 40 Rising Latino Stars Under 40 in 2013, at age 28, continued to file paperwork ferociously into the afternoon as new faces filled the dark-gray, carpeted lobby, looking to solidify their legal status and call the United States home.