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Undocumented for Years, Republican Immigrant Runs for State House

Not many brides choose GOP figureheads as their wedding inspiration, but for Brazilian-American newspaper editor, local Republican candidate, and formerly undocumented immigrant Emanuela Palmares, it was a no-brainer. This fall, when Palmares married Connecticut Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, the couple put portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson on their wedding webpage. “We chose to pay homage to the political bond by choosing the time period of Abraham Lincoln as a theme for our union, since for us, that was the most inspiring time for political courage in American History,” the site reads. “Courage to do the right thing, make sacrifices, bring people together, and believe.”

A Brazilian immigrant who came to Danbury, Connecticut, at age 10, Palmares has spent the last 24 years exercising her passion for community. She’s especially passionate about immigration. Blanket statements about immigrants distress her, especially those that reject a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants outright. That’s because Palmares’ family ended up in the United States undocumented, even though they didn’t plan for it to happen. “You have to let the diversity or humanity of individual stories shine through,” she says.

There is a need for immigrants to be politically involved in the United States.

In 1993, Palmares’ mother came to New York for a special kidney treatment, but a severe allergic reaction sent her into a coma. The family flew to the United States with emergency visas, and Palmares’ mother emerged from her coma. But from then on, Palmares says, her mother depended on specialized medicine that was unavailable in Brazil. Their emergency visas expired, but the family stayed in the United States.

It wasn’t easy. While the family left behind a well-to-do life in Brazil’s third-largest city, in Danbury they barely scraped by. Palmares’ father, who had owned several Brazilian businesses, including a semi-precious stone extraction company, started working for a Portuguese-owned company that laid building foundations. Her mother, who previously ran her own travel agency, started cleaning houses. Neither initially spoke English, yet Palmares’ father eventually became manager, then partner, and finally owner of the company he worked for. It was a fitting trajectory, according to Palmares, because the first three houses in Danbury were built by immigrants. “My dad’s story is the classic, iconic American Dream, immigrant story,” she says. “This city has always thrived because of the labor and hands of generations upon generations of immigrants. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Palmares’ mother and older sister also adapted to their new home and eventually started a local community newspaper, the Tribuna, publishing in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Although Palmares herself had imagined becoming a pastor, she took over the paper when her sister went to graduate school. What was supposed to be a temporary position stretched over 12 years; and today, the Tribuna is the largest trilingual paper in Connecticut.

As entrepreneurs, the Palmares women have a lot in common with their fellow immigrants. As of 2014, according to statistics from New American Economy, the United States had approximately 2.9 million immigrant entrepreneurs, generating $65.5 billion in business income. In 2007, the last year for which there is data, foreign-born entrepreneurs employed 5.9 million Americans

In addition to running a bi-weekly paper, Palmares ran for public office on a local Republican ticket last year, challenging a 12-term incumbent — all while parenting a special-needs son by herself. “Eighteen years ago, I had Danbury’s mayor as my high school U.S. civics teacher,” Palmares recalls. “I remember doing a project for him, and he told me, ‘Listen, you’ve got a thing for this. You should be in politics someday.’ But he had no idea that in my head, I was thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have papers’.”

Palmares did eventually obtain residency through her father’s employer. “We were undocumented while waiting for our adjustment of status,” she recalls. The 12-year process was sluggish; after obtaining a green card, Palmares waited five more years to be naturalized. Once she could vote, she began volunteering to work the polls on election day and strategizing about a run for office.

“A lot of people judge my party affiliation because I am an immigrant, but I’m very open about my history of being undocumented and going through the very unfair maze of our immigration system,” Palmares says. “People question how I can be all of these things: Involved with immigration advocacy and be a Republican. I may not agree a hundred percent with my party’s platform, but I live in Connecticut, and in our state our brand of Republicans is more purple.”

Palmares hopes that her story can help sway other Republicans about the importance of immigration reform. “The future of our country depends on it,” she says, pointing to how much immigrants contribute to their communities, both economically and civically.

“I know I will never be president because I’m not a natural-born citizen,” Palmares says. “But I definitely see there is a need for immigrants to be politically involved in the United States — to tell their own narratives and not to just rely on allies.” Palmares lost her first race, but she intends to run again. “That is my goal: One day to represent not just the immigrant community, but everyone from my community — and to represent them well.”

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