NEW YORK — With more than four million first generation immigrants living within New York state borders, government officials, immigrant advocates and community members often attend conferences that address their many complex legal, political and humanitarian concerns.
Until now, there has been little coordination or constructive conversation among those stakeholders, but the recent “This Land is Your Land Too” conference in a packed Manhattan meeting hall aimed to change that.
“I think the importance of today is that we’re seeing representatives of community-based agencies, [and] not-for-profit groups who work with immigrants coming down, sitting with government officials at the New York City, state and even the federal government levels,” said New York Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales.
It is easy to understand why immigrants wish to be welcomed, and Perales said New York State has an economic interest in doing so.
“From a very selfish perspective, these newcomers are very important to our economy. They provide labor. They start businesses. We want to make sure that immigrants stay in New York, and understand that they are wanted in New York State,” he said.
Nisha Agarwal, New York City’s commissioner for immigrant affairs, would like to make it easier for immigrants to stay. She supports immigration reform that helps undocumented immigrants gain legitimacy and eases the path to citizenship.
“People’s lives are transformed. They can be pulled out of poverty and stay out of poverty if they have appropriate legal status,” she said, adding that the rules currently in place are a bureaucratic and humanitarian disaster.
“Breadwinners being deported and permanently removed from their families; kids are entering foster care because of that, and just people living in fear because they don’t have appropriate immigration status. That’s not in anybody’s interest,” Agarwal said.
She said city-sponsored focus groups recently established that one out of four young immigrants were technically eligible for legal relief but did not know it.
“So they’ve been living undocumented and they don’t have to be. I think that’s astounding.”
Attorney Camille Mackler of the New York Immigration Coalition says that getting accurate legal information to both rural and urban immigrants can be challenging but for different reasons.
“In New York City, we face communities that are a lot more insular, a lot more closed in on themselves, where we are having a hard time getting the trust of the communities to have them come out and meet with representatives outside their communities to get help," Mackler said.
"Upstate, the problem is that they are spread out and they are also not participating in any sort of civic life. They are not part of the towns. They purposely stay outside of the towns because they fear profiling, they fear discrimination, and they fear law enforcement,” she said.
Getting adequate legal representation can be especially difficult for rural immigrants. Many work on farms and cannot make a daytime appointment with a lawyer. Without documentation, they cannot get drivers' licenses. This can put city-based lawyers out of reach as well.
To help, the New York Immigration Coalition, which organized this conference, runs a government-funded program to train local grassroots advocates who are not attorneys.
Other groups help make it easier for immigrants to get to English classes, to connect with skills and job training opportunities, and to obtain practical support for starting a business - all efforts to let immigrants know that this land is their land too.