Wall Street Journal (New York)
By Josh Dawsey
October 31, 2016
Within 15 minutes one afternoon, Gladys Coloma found 17 immigrants in the Corona neighborhood of Queens who wanted free legal help. She didn’t ask whether they were in the country illegally. New York City, she told them, would pay for whatever legal services they needed.
Ms. Coloma spoke in Spanish and sometimes even ran after residents who seemed skittish about talking with her. She was spreading the word about a new city program, part of a broader push by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to help immigrants.
The city is spending about $30 million a year on immigrant services, up from $14 million in 2014, according to a city budget analysis. In the past several months, officials have scheduled town halls to find illegal immigrants to help them get government services. They have given almost a million identification cards to New Yorkers, no matter their immigration status, so they can receive city benefits and perks, such as museum admissions.
Mr. de Blasio has all but encouraged New York business owners to hire illegal immigrants. On a radio program, he thanked a Brooklyn grocery store owner who called in to say that he had done so.
“The question for us is, how do we speak against this national rhetoric as a city?” said Nisha Agarwal, who heads the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “In New York, we don’t hear a huge amount of disagreement on the things the city should be doing.”
New York, with about 500,000 illegal immigrants, has become a flashpoint on the campaign trail this year along with other big cities that encourage immigration. Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has threatened to strip funding from cities that don’t comply with federal immigration laws.
Mr. de Blasio’s comments were fiercely criticized by national conservatives but barely made waves in Manhattan. The city’s position has united liberals and business officials who see the benefits of immigration and say the city services find jobs and secure citizenship for immigrants, including some who fled impoverished or war-torn countries. “In New York, you mainly get people coming up to say thank you,” said Council Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito, who has been criticized by conservatives and others outside New York for her immigration stance while on the road for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Since 2014, the city has increased the number of workers focused on immigrant issues to about 50, according to City Hall, and has spent more than $1 million in ad campaigns to reach immigrants.
The City Council has committed $1.5 million to reach immigrants who are uninsured and has increased its citizenship and English programs.
City officials are funding an array of new legal services programs, at a cost of about $10 million. No matter a person’s immigration status, he or she now has lawyers. The city’s correction department declined to honor more than 700 detention requests, 2014 records show. New York Police Department officers don’t ask a person’s immigration status when they make a stop; federal immigration officials were moved from their trailer at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail, in 2015.
The New York programs have been criticized. Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said it doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to fund lawyers for illegal immigrants. The various benefits offered “serve collectively to incentivize people settling illegally in the area,” she said. “All of these benefits are clearly part of the calculation of these people here staying or going home.”
City officials note crime and unemployment have fallen, even with liberal immigration policies, and the city doesn’t block detention requests for illegal immigrants with serious felony charges. Yet the city has opposed detention requests for hundreds of illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes. “The City cooperates with federal immigration authorities where there’s probable cause and a risk to public safety,” said Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
There are certainly still hurdles in New York for immigrants and the city programs that try to serve them. The ID cards aren’t accepted by several banks and other businesses, and many federal benefits aren’t available because the cards aren’t recognized by the U.S. government. Many illegal immigrants live in shabby or crowded conditions, Ms. Agarwal said. Advocates say it is difficult for illegal immigrants to find affordable housing.
Ms. Coloma, the organizer with a group called Make the Road New York, which is partially funded by City Hall, said so many immigrants want the legal services that it sometimes takes a month or longer to get an appointment. Sometimes as she visits churches and barber shops, it is difficult to convince people to participate because they are scared to interact with government.
Yet programs have begun to show dividends, according to advocates, lawyers and business officials.
The Legal Aid Society has beefed up its immigration law unit to 28 attorneys, with additional funding from the city, said Maria Navarro, who leads the unit. Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said immigrants are increasingly comfortable seeking services because of the city’s policies.
Kathryn Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City, the city’s largest big-business group, said some banks are now accepting the ID card. “City Hall has taken aggressive but positive steps,” she said.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com