Brazilian-American makes history on Beacon Hill

Sena, a former DACA recipient, is now a state lawmaker

DANILLO “DAN” SENA is living what he considers to be the American Dream as the first Brazilian-American elected to the state Legislature.

Sena swept to a landslide victory on June 2 in a special election to replace former state rep Jennifer Benson, who left Beacon Hill to become president of the Alliance for Business Leadership. Sena defeated Republican Cathy Clark of Lunenberg by a margin of 4,226-1,471. He carried Acton, Boxborough, Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley, losing only Lunenburg, Clark’s hometown.

Despite being Brazilian in a predominantly white district, Sena said he felt overwhelming support. “The fact that I’m the first Brazilian and first Latino immigrant elected from this district shows people want a change and a different kind of leadership,” he said.

Originally from the northeastern agricultural town of Timbaúba, Brazil, he immigrated to Acton as a 14-year-old in 2001. His mother, Eronides, a retired high school teacher, brought them north in hopes of a better life. He spent several years undocumented.

Sena applied for and received protection from deportation through a federal program for young immigrants brought to the US as children, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). He later received a green card and became a citizen in 2018 at the age of 31.

The rescinding of DACA by President Trump in 2017 hit him particularly hard because he sees the program as a way to help hard-working people like himself who desperately want to become Americans.

“We have a president who is anti-immigrant and wants to see families separated,” Sena said. DACA’s fate is now being decided by the US Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the program this week.

One of the reasons Sena became involved in state politics, first as a district director for Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton and then as a candidate himself, was to push for state level immigration legislation, specifically a bill that would provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and the Safe Communities Act, which would prevent law enforcement from asking immigrants about their legal status and informing federal immigration authorities.

Dan Sena working while daughter Juliana, age 5, tries to distract him.

“I don’t just want to see DACA recipients moving forward,” he said. “I want to see everyone here moving forward. It’s an injustice to have second class citizens like this.”

Sena went to Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, earned an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from UMass Amherst in 2013.

He met his wife, Melinda Yim, in 2009 during their days at community college. Yim is a Cambodian refugee, and together they have two children – Juliana, a kindergartener, and Leonardo, who is one.

Following his graduation from UMass Amherst, Sena worked for six years managing Eldridge’s office in Marlborough and served as the legislator’s liaison on human services, public transportation, and immigration issues.

Sena said he was always interested in public office. His uncle was a selectman in Brazil, and he remembers admiring his work growing up. Sena’s high school principal saw the same interest, reaching out to Eldridge to introduce the two. “[The principal] saw him as someone who could be a leader some day and wanted him to make that contact,” Eldridge said.

Rep Dan Sena, family, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge

Sena said he considers the senator a “mentor, a friend, a boss, all of the above.” The two live houses away from each other in Acton and now represent many of the same constituents. “He doesn’t like me to say this, but his effort, his support, was instrumental for my campaign,” Sena said.

Canvassing during COVID was “very hard,” Sena said, especially without being able to knock on doors. “We just had to change our way of reaching out to people,” he said. “Running in a pandemic can be overwhelming!”

With Joe Sherlock of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Monica Burke as his campaign managers, Sena was able to pull in Sen. Ed Markey to phone bank. “Every night we had phone banks with 15 volunteers – about 40 total,” he said. “We really lobbied the community. It wasn’t just me running for office. It was a movement.”

Sena’s family in Brazil is “very proud,” he said, and a local radio station there invited him on for an interview the day after the election. The Brazilian Times and Brazilian Magazine have run stories about his campaign and win, and “brasileros” from across the state and country have posted on his Facebook page.

In addition to immigration and renewable energy, Sena would like to push legislation creating universal childcare and fully funding universal pre-K. He would like to serve on either the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee or the Education Committee.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“I’d like to reform the voucher system we have because I don’t think it’s working very well,” he said, noting the cost of daycare can run as high as $2,000 a month. “I’ve met a lot of families in the district who have decided not to go to work in order to take care of kids because the cost of them going to care is the same as their paychecks.”

Since he’s filling the empty seat vacated by Benson, Sena won’t have much time before he needs to hit the campaign trail again. He will run for re-election in November for his first full two-year term.