New York is giving free legal advice to thousands of undocumented migrants

The city uses trusted community navigators to reach vulnerable migrants

New York has long been known as a hub for immigrants. A sixth of new green-card holders in the US still settle in the city each year, and it is now home to more than three million migrants.

But lack of formal immigration status means many of these, from domestic violence victims to the chronically ill, are among the city’s most vulnerable and struggle to access critical government services or secure work.

Now, the city is dedicating millions of dollars to an innovative program which both gives legal help and, unusually, simultaneously opens the door to other vital government services. It’s part of an expansion of legal services that’s remarkable even by the city’s welcoming standards: annual funding has increased by 15 times in the last five years, to more than $30 million.

Navigating the immigration web

Action NYC is a citywide scheme to provide free help to immigrants, regardless of their status, launched in 2016 by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a partnership between the city government and community organisations.

“Issues about immigration status prevent you from being able to do lots of other things”

Two innovations are key to the project, according to Maribel Hernández Rivera, executive director of legal initiatives in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The first is that Action NYC has adopted a model centred on “navigators”, who need not be immigration lawyers. Instead they are typically hired from the local community, and given training to receive federal accreditation so that they can give immigration advice.

“Just relying on immigration attorneys wasn’t enough,” Hernández Rivera said. There weren’t enough of them to provide services at scale — the city is home to an estimated 560,000 undocumented residents — and they were less likely to have the needed linguistic and cultural competence.

The second is that the city is directly confronting the interconnection of immigration problems and other difficulties residents face.

“Issues about immigration status prevent you from being able to do lots of other things,” said Jacqueline Broadhead, a researcher at the University of Oxford. A city may struggle to meet child poverty targets if some of the most marginalised families choose to remain in the shadows because of their insecure immigration situation, for example.

But the dependence goes both ways. “It might be that my immigration legal needs get resolved, but if everything else doesn’t get resolved that service might be for nought,” Hernández Rivera said. So as they develop an understanding of clients’ broader issues during an initial screening, navigators refer them to other services that might help them. That can include government-run health insurance programs or the city’s municipal ID card.

Building trust is key

To deliver those benefits, officials needed to find a solution to the dilemma that faces all kinds of schemes aimed at undocumented immigrants: engaging people cautious about interacting with the government.

Action NYC is a hybrid program: the city provides coordination and citywide branding and outreach, but the services themselves are delivered by community organisations. Appointments can be made through a central hotline, but they are held in community centres, schools and hospitals which immigrants use regularly and are familiar with.

The program is also able to draw on a well of trust — one which may not be available in cities without New York’s history. Since 2003, city employees have been barred from asking about residents’ immigration status in almost all circumstances. More recently, under de Blasio, the mandate of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs has been formally expanded. It now oversees a sprawling range of initiatives including Action NYC.

“Sixty percent of our population are either immigrants or children of immigrants”

Other parts of the country, by contrast, have stepped up their cooperation with federal efforts to deport more undocumented immigrants. A program spending millions of dollars on people without legal status is unlikely to be politically viable in much of the US.

Nonetheless, the model has attracted interest from a range of cities. It’s one of the main projects being advocated by Cities For Action, a coalition of more than 150 pro-immigration mayors across the country.

And, Broadhead said, even cities unable to dedicate the same resources to the issue could learn from the program. In particular, New York’s development of a coordinated, centralised approach has been a significant advance on the “patchy and ad hoc” web of community services that exists in many localities.

That much could be possible for any city willing to make it a priority. New York has been eager to take that step. “Sixty percent of our population are either immigrants or children of immigrants, Hernández Rivera said. “Immigration truly affects everything that we do.” — Fergus Peace

This piece has been updated to correct an error concerning the date of establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

(Picture credit: Public Domain Pictures/George Hodan)


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