Building a life
At the Brownsville shelter, Alexander and Maria have sought to develop a routine. They rise early to canvas area restaurants, delis and stores for “informal” work opportunities. The 9 p.m. curfew at the shelter limits their work options.
Maria, who is about six months pregnant, attends monthly prenatal checkups at a nearby hospital. Both meet biweekly with a city social worker, but often the hurried appointments leave Alexander and Maria with more questions than answers, they said, about accessing social and legal services.
One comfort is their Sunday ritual of attending services at a Protestant church, where an employee occasionally pays Alexander to clean and do odd jobs.
“Our solution is to go out and try to find our own sustenance,” Alexander said. “We got to this country, and we don’t know anything about the laws here, so it’s hard.”
“It’s difficult,” Maria agreed. “It makes me miss Venezuela and our family. We sometimes regret coming.”
The tangle of procedural steps can present a challenge for new arrivals, said Deborah Lee, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society’s immigration law unit.
“There are some exceptions, but that one-year filing deadline generally applies to everyone, even if you didn’t know about it,” Lee said. “So the clock is ticking on that one year, and oftentimes people don’t know. They may be focused on seeking services or it may take them a while to even get a legal consultation.”
That’s the case for Alexander and Maria, who have prioritized day-to-day living concerns. The couple are in the process of seeking an attorney to assist with their case.
Their situation has been complicated by their lack of documents.
“[Immigration officials] gave us a little bag and they told us, ‘Put all your IDs in there,’ and we thought they were going to give that back, but they didn’t,” Alexander said. “They simply said, ‘A judge will return them to you.’ But can you imagine? Our court date with the judge is scheduled for 2024.”
A lack of documentation can slow down the asylum process and thus the path to work authorization; it also can make it harder to access certain social services, experts said.
Confiscated documents can pose a particular challenge for Venezuelan migrants who are seeking asylum, said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which represents 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups in New York.
“For those who don’t actually get these documents back, once they get to the city, it’s even harder to get new ones because there isn’t a standing embassy or consulate here,” Awawdeh said. It can also be “tricky,” he said, when asylum seekers require the cooperation of the very country they are fleeing.
“It just sets them up for having even more barriers,” he said.
The need for legal services to help migrants navigate these systems is overwhelming, one in which the city is investing more than $65 million to support 15 programs at accessible venues such as city-run centers, libraries and schools, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
New arrivals disembarking from buses receive informational flyers that include immigration FAQs and instructions for scheduling appointments at the federally funded Immigration Court Helpdesk program in Lower Manhattan.
At a new resource center for asylum seekers in Midtown, the city offers sessions describing available legal services, but the high demand means it can take months to actually land an appointment. The city recently launched eight additional resource centers across the boroughs to address the staggering demand for support.
“Every organization that is doing this work is incredibly stretched,” Awawdeh said, “and would need to do a massive hire-up to really move forward some of this work.”