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Federal immigration policies cast shadow in Newton

Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, spoke in Needham last month.
Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, spoke in Needham last month. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A barrage of new federal immigration policies set to go into effect this year has immigrants and advocacy groups scared about potential consequences for immigrants in Greater Boston and Newton.

“The concern is real, the concern is high,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Newton has a significant immigrant community, according to Anu Gupta, managing attorney at Newton-based law firm Immigration Desk. She said many immigrants arrive in the area while affiliated with universities, fellowships, or businesses.

“The face of immigration is different in Newton,” she said. “But it is there.”

A Boston Indicators report credits immigration for the majority of the Boston area’s population growth since 1990. From 1990 to 2017, the number of foreign-born residents in Newton increased by more than 8 percent, according to the report.

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Of 88,479 people living in Newton, 19,213 or 21.7 percent were born in another country, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey.

Immigrants tend to move to the suburbs for a number of reasons, Millona said. One is a lack of housing in the more densely populated city, while another is simply the access that a suburban lifestyle provides.

According to George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research, English-proficient immigrants in the Newton/Cambridge/Boston metro area are more likely to earn $75,000 a year than their counterparts in the state and country at large.

“[Immigrants] go to the suburbs because it really allows them to thrive,” Millona said.

However, policy on the federal level has shifted dramatically since the 2016 election. On Oct. 1, the fiscal year began and brought with it the Trump Administration’s new cap of 18,000 refugees admitted to the country — a 40-year low.

The fates of two major immigration programs, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status, still hang in the balance. Federal courts temporarily halted a new policy denying green card and visa applications to anyone who falls under an expanded definition of a public charge, but the policy’s future remains uncertain.

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“There’s a lot of fear,” said state Representative Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who introduced the Safe Communities Act to the Massachusetts House with Representative Liz Miranda of Boston.

The Safe Communities Act would limit the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration agencies in the state. Most of those policies are already in place in Newton, but national politics and policies still frighten Newton immigrants, according to Balser.

Balser referenced stories of long-time green card holders who have decided in recent years to apply for citizenship, domestic abuse survivors who have been too afraid to call for emergency help due to their immigration status, and employees at elder care facilities not coming in for work due to concern that their immigration status will be revealed.

“Newton is a welcoming community,” Balser said. “The police do not ask people where they are from, but the greater attitude creates fear.”

A 2019 Boston Indicators report notes that because US Citizenship and Immigration Services is no longer taking new DACA applications, roughly 11,000 people in Massachusetts could be waiting to apply. Massachusetts refugee admissions fell by 60 percent in President Donald Trump’s first year in office, and more than 12,000 state residents face uncertainty about the preservation of the Temporary Protected Status that keeps them in the country.

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Many people on TPS in the state have been in the country for over a decade and are concerned about potential deportation if protections fall through in the new year, according to Millona.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on families,” she said, adding that many on TPS in Massachusetts work in the elder care and service industries, which would also suffer upon their departure.

Denials of H1-B visa petitions, which allow skilled workers to come to the country to work for businesses, have reached an all-time high. According to Gupta, who has many clients apply for H1-B visas, the standard of proof and level of knowledge and detail needed for a successful application is much more strict than it was a few years ago.

“In the past two years, my H1-B clients have been victimized and targeted,” said Gupta. “[There is] a lot more scrutiny, a lot more harassment.”

Newton made national headlines last year when District Court Judge Shelley Joseph was indicted on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant evade a federal agent who had appeared at the Newton courthouse to detain him.

“I think it’s time that we focus on the numbers and speak about the facts and speak about the policy,” said Millona, “and keep aside the politics that really are contaminating conversations about immigrants and refugees.”


Naba Khan can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.