Ready for Work
by Ziyi Xu
On a cold Thursday morning last month, several people walked through a glass door near Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. Above the door was a giant yellow sign that read: NICE, New Immigrant Community Empowerment. Inside, there were about 20 white plastic chairs lined up by the window wall. Two-thirds of the seats had been taken, and the rest were soon filled. Two tables had been set up where three people from the workforce development team provided job information to people looking for help. With the tables and the chairs, there was barely any room left.
On one side of the wall was a whiteboard with posters of job fairs, jacket donations, and a list of where to look for work online, written in Spanish. On the other side of the room was a blackboard with seven construction helmets hanging at the top and a November calendar below. Every Monday to Friday, from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., is “Busqueda de empleo” or job search. There are also other events such as “Clinica robo de Salario” and “Orientación a la nueva membresía”, which are Salary Theft Clinic and orientation for new members.
“This is a slow day for us. Sometimes we would be so packed that people have to wait outside,” said Jose Payares, coordinator of workforce development at NICE. “It’s been like this for months.”
Since early 2022, thousands of migrants have arrived in New York City through the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Many of them are Venezuelans escaping the country’s economy collapse and political turmoil. The city estimated that 30,300 asylum seekers arrived in the city in recent months.
New York City will spend at least $600 million to provide shelter and schooling for the new migrants. Mayor Eric Adams also called for additional state and federal aid. The hope is that, in the long run, the new influx of asylum seekers can strengthen the city.
“If you look at immigration trends in this country, I think the number is we’re about 2 million immigrants behind what we would have been without the COVID disruption,” said Chad Sparber, an economics professor at Colgate University. “So that is a lot of workers, potential workers that this economy could have. But we’re missing. At the same time, you hear all kinds of stories about labor shortages.”
Professor Sparber lives in Central New York, and his child’s school was cancelled in mid-December because there weren’t enough school bus drivers. He had also observed restaurants closed due to the lack of employees.
Many migrants came to this country to look for job and to send money back to their families. They could be the key to solve the lack of labor in this country.
To relieve the pressure on the shelter system, the city has opened up many emergency shelters and many hotels have been used for shelters as well. Nonprofit organizations and churches also provide free meals and offer clothes donations to migrants. After the basic needs have been satisfied, many migrants still face one big challenge—looking for jobs.
“In Venezuela, I made four dollars a month…but a bag of flour that you use to make Arepa. It’s for breakfast and dinner…it costs a dollar and fifty cents,” said Junior Manuel Vazquez in Spanish as he painted the wall in St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side.
Vazquez arrived in New York City four months ago on his own. He traveled on foot for a month across South and Central America before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border and later being bused to Manhattan. He now lives in the church with four other Venezuela migrants who went through the same journey as he did.
The church provides food and bed, but Vazquez is in need of finding a job because he wants to send money to his three young children back in Venezuela.
Vazquez is an experienced construction worker who has been in this industry since he was 14 years-old. To return the favor of the church, he decided to put his skills to work. With two trowels and a bucket of plaster, he has been coating the church walls for days.
“I want to make it look pretty…I’ll keep doing it as long as there’s materials.” Vazquez shrugged and applied another layer of plaster on the wall.
Vazquez has consulted a lawyer through the church and is in the process to obtain a work permit. In the meanwhile, he’s also looking for organizations that could provide free Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) training.
In 2017, New York City passed Local Law 196, requiring construction and demolition workers at most worksites to have 40 hours of Site Safety Training (SST) and an SST Worker card. This law was made to decrease the injury and fatality rate at construction sites, but it has also increased the price of OSHA training to be eligible to work on a construction site and the time investment.
A 40-hour OSHA training course could cost $600. It’s an amount of money that many migrants cannot afford. Since there is a demand for OSHA training among migrant groups, organizations throughout the five boroughs have started providing free Spanish OSHA training programs for migrants.
La Colmena is a nonprofit organization based in Staten Island that supports immigrant workers and their families. They offer free Spanish OSHA training sessions twice a month. Usually, it would take two Saturdays and two Sundays to finish a session, and for each session, there’s about 30 people. The training is open to everyone, and there are people commuting from Manhattan or Brooklyn to join the class.
This year, La Colmena opened seven OSHA classes just for asylum seekers and they are 5-day, full time class. It collaborates with Action OSH, a training organization, and they set the class close to the Staten Island port so it’s only a 10-minute walk from the ferry to the classroom.
On Dec. 2, a group of students were on their third day of the intense OSHA training. There were 6 female students, 10 male students, and a kid sitting on the side, watching YouTube videos. Each of them was given a printed OSHA training textbook. Students constantly raised their hands to ask questions and shared their discovery of the differences between working in the U.S. and working back home. Some had a notebook with them to write down what they found important. Everyone paid attention to the class and participated either verbally or with a nod.
However, the supply of free training could not keep up with the demand. At La Colmena, there is a waitlist of 300 people, and the classes are full till next June.
“Sometimes people called and asked how long it could take, but I can’t give them a specific date because there are too many people,” said Jason Jimenez, site safety training associate at La Colmena.
New Immigrant Community Empowerment is also facing a similar problem.
“We have a long waitlist. Some might not want to wait for that long so they would go look elsewhere,” said Geoffrey Shamah, support services associate at NICE.
Besides construction work, many migrants also look for jobs at restaurants and delis.
Alejandro is a 22-year-old Venezuelan who arrived in the city two months ago. He has been waking up at 6 in the morning to go out and look for jobs. He usually traveled to the Bronx, where there is a large Latino community, and asked for a job at the restaurants or convenience stores, but many rejected him because Alejandro didn’t have the work permit or they’re not hiring.
If a migrant decides to file an asylum application, they need to wait at least 180 days to receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). However, with the backlog at the immigration courts in New York State, the waiting period could be much longer. This leads to at least a six-month period where asylum seekers could not work legally. To some migrants, working off the books might be a risk they’re willing to take; for others, they would prefer to keep their record clean.
Anthony Guzman arrived in the city four months ago, and he’s waiting for his work permit. In the meantime he’s busy learning English and familiarizing himself with the city. Guzman used to study business in Venezuela before he had to drop off because he could no longer afford going to school. He later joined the military just to make a living, but he hoped that one day he could return to college.
However, continuing his education is a distant dream for Guzman. His main goal is to make money and to find a job.
“We don’t pick on the type of job. We do whatever comes our way. If I have to learn something, I’ll learn it,” said Guzman.
The Battle for Asylum
By Francesca Dean
Asylum seekers must navigate and overcome many barriers put in front of them, even after they arrive in the State of New York. One of the biggest barriers is grasping an understanding of how to legally live in America before they can work, have a Social Security number, or feel safe in New York.
As more and more asylum seekers flow into New York from places such as Central and South America, the need for legal assistance continues to be pressing. The city and the state are struggling to supply enough legal assistance not just to the new asylum seekers but to immigrants who came years ago.
“There is a lot of different challenges that people are going to have to navigate in addition to the existing challenges within the immigration system which is incredibly unjust,” said Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “They’re going to have a very hard journey navigating the system.”
After many asylum seekers have spent weeks traveling from their home countries to get away from the fear of poverty and gang violence, they are met with a new set of challenges ahead of them in the battle for asylum.
Change in Administration
Both the current President Joe Biden and the former President Donald Trump have greatly impacted immigration laws and how migrants interact with the system.
The xenophobic Trump was vocally critical of immigrants and sought to severely limit the influx of migrants to the United States.
In 2017, he signed the RAISE Act which aimed to “put American workers first” by slashing the number of legal immigrants let into the U.S. in half and capping refugee admissions into the U.S at 50,000 people per year.
“I remember hearing from them, that they are afraid of ICE during Trump, they were hiding,” said Daniela Cardona, a founder of the nonprofit Immigration Assistant Services, speaking about undocumented immigrants.
In his first 100 days, Biden, who took office in 2020, stopped the construction of Trump’s border wall and ended many policies driven by Trump, such as the broad restrictions on green cards.
However, Biden has not fulfilled other promises. He has yet to end for-profit immigration detention and a Trump administration policy restricting victims of gang and domestic violence from asylum.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that have been paying taxes. In 2021, Biden sent an immigration bill that would place 11 million undocumented immigrants on a pathway to permanent legal status as part of his bid to modernize the immigration system. However, he has faced pushback from Congress.
Legal Challenges Ahead
New York is one of 11 sanctuary states. A sanctuary state limits their cooperation with the national government’s immigration law enforcement. These 11 states do not usually honor requests to detain undocumented immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.
“It’s not unheard of, there have been incidents of ICE arresting people, but it’s not as common as it would be in another state,” said Sabrina Lara.
Lara works as an Immigration Paralegal for Riis Neighbourhood Settlement, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive services, such as legal assistance, for people, including immigrants in Queens. As part of her job as Immigration Paralegal, Lara conducts legal screenings and assistance in casework.
She screens immigrants and migrants to see if they qualify for any type of immigration benefit. This may be an asylum, or a humanitarian visa, and the screening process enables her to offer information on what pathway would be best for them.
An asylum visa is what most migrants that come to the U.S need to obtain.
If someone is granted asylum this means they are legally allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation under U.S immigration law.
The benefit of gaining asylum includes the opportunity to apply for public benefits such as Medicaid, a Social Security number, and the opportunity to have a work permit.
If immigrants and migrants want to lawfully apply for asylum in the U.S, they must do it within the first year of arriving.
They also must check in with ICE which is proving to be increasingly difficult. A lack of structure and services creates daily lines, sometimes forcing people to wait more than 10 hours outside the Manhattan center.
When they check in with ICE, they must voluntarily release information that they are crossing the border which will help them when they apply for asylum.
When migrants declare themselves to ICE, they are given a list of many organizations that they can call for information and pro bono lawyers.
Furthermore, many asylum seekers are fearful for their safety when making or attending their appointments with ICE because they fear deportation. However, this is not the case in New York.
In addition to checking in with ICE, it is suggested to immigrants that they begin to pay taxes as soon as they have time so that it will help with their immigration case and show that they are actively good citizens.
“They are paying taxes, but they are not getting any benefits,” said Cardona.
Even though they pay taxes, they still do not have a Social Security number and no residency which prevents them from having access to all the benefits that an American citizen has.
“Why are you illegal to work in many places […] but you can pay taxes?” said Melissa Valencia, an immigration paralegal with IAS.
When they do not have asylum seeker status, the migrants’ quality of life is affected. They end up finding it hard to have the day-to-day things that citizens of the states take for granted. It can cause a vast number of issues living in the U.S. It constricts migrants’ access to healthcare, housing, bank accounts, phone contracts and work permits.
If you apply for either asylum or a green card, you can apply for a work permit. This, however, has its own issues with work permits taking over 150 days to gain.
“For folks that don’t have status or pathways to gaining a green card […] it is a bit challenging to find a job,” said Lara. “They have to accommodate whatever job is available to them, limited to that bubble of work that is off the books, cash in hand.”
When it comes to legal assistance specifically for immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, these are predominantly found at nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations for immigrants can be funded in many ways.
“There is a mix of funding, there is the government finding, there are donations, then there are private fundings,” Lara says.
However, with the lack of funding from the government, this has made finding available and free legal assistance hard to come by. This has subsequently left a backlog of people waiting for their court dates and for legal assistance.
The backlog in cases and the difficulty finding lawyers to help these migrants is only getting worse. The city provides approximately $60 million for immigration legal services and the state provides $21 million. This funding does not meet the demand for legal assistance needed in New York, according to advocates.
“There might be a lot of services, but not enough,” said Cardona.
In New York State there are currently 180,000 pending cases in the immigration courts. All these cases are handled by 88 judges. With more and more incoming migrants, the line to gain legal status through asylum continues to grow.
Valencia has found from working as an immigration paralegal that a lot of misinformation is spread to migrants on how easy it is to gain asylum here in New York, meaning people come here without a clear idea of the struggles.
A lot of migrants are in urgent need of legal services due to fast-approaching court dates. However, it is almost impossible to get a lawyer, let alone one who does not charge fees. There is currently a huge backlog of asylum cases.
“To get an appointment at the main navigation center, the next appointment for a legal consult is March and some of them have court dates before that,” Mark Levine said, the Borough President of Manhattan. “They have many, many unmet needs, they have inadequate legal resources prepared to help them in immigration cases, the backlog right now.”
Asylum seekers are able to represent themselves; however, this is the last resort option and is not advised as they do not have an understanding of the legal process and system here or what their rights are.
“It has been hard to carry representation or even getting appointments,” said Lara
Out of all the approximately 200 people Valencia has come across in the IAS, she has only seen a couple of successful stories of gaining asylum status.
To help immigrants further with legal assistance, NYIC is planning to launch a campaign called Access to Representation. It would demand at the state level the right to counsel for all immigrants facing deportation in New York. This would be the first program in the nation that offers the right for counsel in the immigration system. This is to ensure the state has enough lawyers and legal providers to meet the demand and need that is currently being seen in New York.
“We have a lot more work ahead,” Awawdeh said.