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Testimony Before the City of New York Black, Latino, & Asian Caucus Regarding the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative

Testimony Before the City of New York Black, Latino, & Asian Caucus Regarding the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative

Thursday, May 6, 2004
Testimony of Margie McHugh, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition

Council of the City of New York Black, Latino, & Asian Caucus Budget Hearing
May 6, 2004

Good afternoon, Co-Chairs Monserrate and Foster and other members of the Black, Latino, & Asian Caucus. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this very important budget hearing. My name is Margie McHugh, and I am the Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella policy and advocacy organization of over 150 member groups that work with newcomers to our country.

I am here to urge you to fund the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative, formerly known as the Immigrant Services Initiative. The City Council started this critically needed program in 2001 to help meet the growing needs for English language classes and legal services for New York City’s immigrant communities. This year, we are asking City Council to appropriate $5 million for an expansion of the program to meet the increased demand for ESL and legal services and to add a new component that provides employment-related legal services to the millions of immigrant workers laboring in the City’s economy. Below are major program components of the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative:

English Language and Civics Classes
According to the 2000 Census, at least one-third of the City’s residents are immigrants and immigrants and their children now account for roughly two-thirds of the City’s overall population. Nearly one-half of New York City’s residents speak a language other than English at home, compared to 28 percent statewide and 18 percent nationally. Mastering the English language not only allows immigrants to become citizens, but enables them to access and receive quality health care, to increase their safety at the workplace, to move from low-skill jobs to higher skill and higher paying jobs, and to play an active role in their children’s education.

Many immigrants’ desire to learn English is stifled by lack of opportunities. Lack of sufficient funding and long waiting lists prevent immigrants from learning English, and therefore, from fully participating in our society. A 2001 NYIC study, Eager for English: How and Why New York’s Shortage of English Classes for Immigrants Should be Addressed, documented that over one million New Yorkers do not speak, read or write English well and wanted to learn English. However, the study also found that there were only 50,000 classroom seats for the one million New Yorkers who wanted to learn English – or only enough to meet 5% of the demand for ESL. More funding is essential in order to meet the enormous need for more ESOL classes to serve New York’s newcomers.

Immigration Legal Services

Immigrants need legal services to navigate through the complex immigration system. Too often, immigrants are faced with incorrect and misleading information and "notarios" and other self-styled "experts" who charge exorbitant fees for services they cannot legally or competently provide. Basic legal information and orientation is needed across the City, not only for individuals actively seeking help, but for the broader community as well. Lack of appropriate legal services may have dangerous consequences because to apply for a status one does not actually qualify for can easily end in deportation proceedings. Further, newcomers need to know about complex and constantly changing regulations and their possible consequences, such as the special registration, treatment of immigrants with deportation orders, three- and ten-year bars to admission, mandatory detention for past minor criminal offenses, public charge, green card renewal and other rules and regulations. The urgency of immigrant worker legal services has become particularly acute in recent years, as the need for services have increased due to federal restrictions on providing legal services to immigrants. From 1996 welfare reform onward, federal authorities have explicitly barred undocumented immigrants from accessing federally subsidized legal services.

Services in this area must be improved and increased. Not-for-profit legal services providers funded by the Immigrant Services Initiative have been able to assist thousands of immigrants throughout the City by providing low-cost and reliable legal assistance for newcomer communities.

Immigrant Workers Legal Services Initiative

Under this new component, immigrant workers will have access to legal assistance on work place issues. Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. Many employers of immigrant workers routinely violate overtime, minimum wage, workers’ compensation and anti-discrimination laws, with the knowledge that immigrant workers generally fail to seek justice out of fear of repercussions that would affect their ability to remain in the country.
In this context, immigrant workers need legal services more than ever. Free and low-cost legal services are crucial to enable workers to file wage and hour complaints, report health and safety violations or to access workers' compensation benefits. Moreover, limited-English-proficient immigrants require culturally and linguistically appropriate legal support to aid them in navigating forms and legal processes that are primarily in English. At present, only a handful of agencies in New York City provide worker legal services to the millions of immigrant workers laboring in the city’s economy. Failure to provide legal services to enforce workplace rights for immigrant workers brings down wages and erodes workplace protections for all employees and puts law-abiding employers at a disadvantage relative to competitors who flout the law. Services in this area must be improved and increased.

In closing, I strongly urge the members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus to ensure that the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative is fully funded at $5 million in the City’s final budget. Thank you.


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