New York Times (New York)
By Winnie Hu
November 28, 2014
President Obama’s sweeping executive actions on immigration present daunting logistical challenges across the nation, but especially in New York, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called “the gateway for immigrants worldwide.”
The changes come amid growing recognition that the state’s large and diverse population of illegal immigrants cannot be reached with a one-size-fits-all approach. Some government officials and advocates see the executive actions as the biggest test yet for an extensive network of immigrant-focused resources and services that has emerged in recent years and that could serve as a model for other states.
A key part of the new actions will allow many undocumented parents whose children are citizens or legal residents to apply for reprieves from deportation and work permits — though not formal legal immigration status — through a newly created program called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, which is expected to begin in six months. The actions also expand a 2012 program that offers relief to undocumented young people who came to the country as children, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a policy and advocacy organization, said that the new and expanded programs could draw more than 250,000 applications from New Yorkers in the first few months, posing what he described as “a massive human services challenge.”
“We’re talking about a tidal wave that could potentially swamp organizations if we don’t have the right preparations in place,” Mr. Choi said.
While the federal government sets immigration policy, it is the informal networks of advocacy groups, community organizations, social service agencies and others that play a crucial role in whether new initiatives succeed or falter. They are the ones who go into neighborhoods to reach undocumented families and shepherd them through an often frustrating bureaucratic process.
In New York, where such networks have long thrived, many immigration advocates say that they have been strengthened in recent years through partnerships with state and city agencies. Last year, the Cuomo administration created an Office for New Americans within the New York Department of State that runs 27 “opportunity centers” for immigrants — including 13 in New York City — that help immigrants learn English, become citizens and start businesses.
“People don’t normally trust government, particularly immigrants, and I think we’ve been successful in getting their trust,” said Cesar A. Perales, the New York secretary of state.
In response to the immigration actions, the Office for New Americans, which has an annual budget of $7 million, plans to expand services at the opportunity centers and increase operating hours for an information hotline, Mr. Perales said. It is also working with local bar associations to recruit and train a volunteer corps of lawyers to assist with applications, and with a nonprofit group to adapt a screening questionnaire used at the opportunity centers for citizenship applications to determine eligibility for the new deferred action program for parents.
“I think of it as us having an infrastructure already that we are now quickly adapting to meet this new challenge,” Mr. Perales said. “We’re going to be more than ready when we get to the starting line and people begin getting applications and filling them out.”
The New York Immigration Coalition is also working with the Office for New Americans to establish a statewide consortium of government agencies, community groups, legal providers, academic institutions and others, Mr. Choi said. Called the New York Immigrant Assistance Consortium, it would provide “a collaborative framework” to better serve immigrants, Mr. Choi said.
In New York City, the immigration actions have spurred the formation of a new interagency task force that met recently at City Hall with representatives from two dozen city agencies.
In December, Mayor Bill de Blasio and city officials will also seek to coordinate their efforts with other cities at a summit on immigration at Gracie Mansion that is expected to draw more than two dozen mayors, said Nisha Agarwal, the city’s commissioner of immigrant affairs.
Immigrant advocates said the city was better prepared this time after learning from mistakes made during the implementation of the Obama administration’s 2012 deferred action program for young people. An August 2013 study by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, estimated that only 34 percent of those eligible in New York had applied for the program, compared with 74 percent in North Carolina and 63 percent in Georgia.
Peter L. Markowitz, an associate clinical professor of law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said that broad-stroke outreach efforts have often failed to penetrate some of the city’s tight-knit ethnic and racial enclaves. “It’s more complicated than places with less diversity because each community requires a different approach,” he said. “And you need to have knowledge of various communities to tailor an approach.”
The City Council allocated $18 million for a two-year program that began last year to increase enrollment in the deferred action program. The money has paid for thousands of additional seats in adult education programs, expanded legal services and outreach efforts, and helped cover application fees, advocates said.
Though the federal government has yet to detail specific application requirements for the new program, President Obama has said that immigrants will have to pass background checks and must have lived in the country for at least five years, among other criteria. Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives for the New York Immigration Coalition, said that the application paperwork could pose another hurdle for some undocumented immigrants. “They’ve been trying to keep their names off things,” she said. “They’ve been living off the radar.”
Ms. Mackler said that the federal government typically asked immigrants to produce documents, such as utility bills, rent receipts or bank statements, to establish residency, and to submit fingerprints and photographs for background checks. Applicants have also been asked to show their tax returns to establish their income and to show that they can be responsible citizens, she said.
Rayna Begum, 49, said she had already started gathering documents so that she can be one of the first to apply to the new program. Ms. Begum said she followed her husband to New York from Bangladesh in 1996 and started a family. Their sons, now 11 and 17, are United States citizens.
But five years ago, Ms. Begum said, her husband was deported to Bangladesh and she has struggled to raise their sons on her own. She earns about $200 a week cleaning homes because that is the only job she can get with no work papers, she said. The family lives with a friend in the Bronx because they cannot afford their own place.
“I’m hiding all the time and I can’t pay for my kids,” Ms. Begum said. “I’m very happy I can get my work papers now. It will make my life easier and my kids’ life too.”
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