Photo: Nick Lacy
Photo: Nick Lacy
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Aid to asylum seekers in the Hudson Valley

At the store, "Peanut Butter," "Apples," “Hot dogs" are sold. In the bulletin, it advertises: "We are hiring." And, how are you going to eat? How are you going to work if you don't speak English? If you don't have documents?

Por Miriam Schwartz
May 2024
The English class
I arrived at the Episcopal Church of Christ in Poughkeepsie before the English class began. A woman stood behind a folding table where there was coffee, fruit, and bagels. The director was orienting a novice Guatemalan-Salvadoran couple, who were sitting at another folding table, while giving instructions to a young American who was going to be a tutor for the first time. I got a little lost in the sea of folding tables when luckily the director noticed me, approached me, and introduced himself as Stephen Haff.

Haff founded Still Waters in a Storm, a community learning program whose goal is to support immigrants. Classes focus on the power of sharing our stories, everyone writes about a topic with the help of a tutor, and at the end of class, they sit in a circle and share what they wrote aloud. That Saturday the group consisted of Spanish speakers, French speakers, Arabic speakers, Russian speakers, Chinese speakers, English speakers, and several who spoke more than two languages, but still lacked English.

After class, two Ecuadorian women told me about the debts they had accumulated in their country, about the difficulty of finding work in a country where they do not speak the main language, how they had moved to Massachusetts looking for opportunities and returned to New York. "Here in this country, there are better opportunities… but I didn't see the consequences of not knowing the language, and if you don't know English, well, there are no opportunities to work either," said Judith.

Maria agreed, "I mean, like everyone, I saw that most people from Ecuador came, so it seemed like everything would be easy to come and work here. When I arrived here, it was a nightmare." She smiled and stuttered a bit. "I mean, I don't have anyone here, no one. I was unemployed for almost two months. I looked for work, we went out, knocked on doors, but what they wanted was for us to know English." They now live together, one works in cleaning, the other is unemployed. One learned about the English class and brought her friend, who arrived five months ago. Maria explained that, because she turned herself in to immigration, she can apply for asylum and also hopes to obtain her work permit. I asked her if she had found help with the asylum application process. She told me that a Venezuelan who came to the English class from one of the hotels where asylum seekers are staying introduced her to a free lawyer.

The background
According to Mayor Eric Adams' press office for the City of New York, on May 11, 2023, the first asylum seekers arrived by bus at the Crossroads hotel in Newburgh. In total, New York City sent 2,100 people through this method, distributed in 14 shelters in seven counties of the Hudson Valley. Many other migrants have also arrived, but not on the buses sent by Adams. During this year, educational, nutritional, and legal support has been organized.

"They bring healthy food to supplement daily meals, take them to work and appointments, teach them English classes, and hold special events," McKenna wrote in The Journal News about the work of volunteers in the Newburg hotels. Organizations like Reunite Migrant Families and Grannies Respond have taken care of the basic needs of immigrants, while organizations like Neighbor's Link, Catholic Charities, and Se Hace el Camino Nueva York provide legal support.

In March, the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN) held a virtual workshop on asylum and other options for migrants in the Mid-Hudson Valley, where lawyers from organizations that support and defend often overlooked people were presented.
Susan Manuel, workshop moderator, emphasized an important aspect of the situation for many asylum seekers: "We have come to call undocumented immigrants asylum seekers, but I fear that many of them will remain seekers forever because the process is so delayed and cumbersome."

Nevertheless, the presence of the attendees shows the dedication of those working on this. Among the audience was the organizer of a project based at Bard College that pairs multilingual students with applicants to help them complete their applications.

University Volunteering
The human rights project at Bard College has joined the nonprofit legal organization Neighbor's Link for a volunteer program that helps asylum seekers complete the asylum application Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal.

Migrants who come fleeing the persecution they have experienced or fear experiencing in their native countries and seek refuge in the United States must submit the application within a year of arriving in this country; otherwise, they are no longer eligible for asylum.

The application consists of eleven pages of questions, inquiring about the personal data of the applicants and their families, the experiences of discrimination that the applicants experienced in their home country that led them to seek asylum—all in English.

"We know the transformative power of immigration law to protect the vulnerable, keep families together, and transform lives, but this can only happen if individuals facing the system have access to representation," says Neighbor's Link newsletter.
"There is a lot of pressure to help eligible residents apply for asylum. But as you know, nonprofit organizations lack staff and are inundated," says Victor Cueva, senior lawyer at Neighbor's Link. "Therefore, in collaboration with academic institutions, we are trying to develop this project to optimize and continue providing quality limited representation. Our purpose is to give these people a day in court so they can exercise their right to seek asylum in this country." Volunteers, mostly students, are paired with applicants to help them fill out their applications.

Program Coordinator Majd Alrafie, a Fellow at the Bard Human Rights Project, commented, "You have an image in your head of what the asylum process will look like and then you meet people and see how complicated it is because everything is centered around the United States." And she added, "In the end, I know these are people who need to improve their lives, who have suffered a lot, and the simple act of speaking their same language will be helpful. So it makes me feel very good, hopeful for a better world."

While most of the people they help come from Latin America and are Spanish speakers, there are also many who speak French, Arabic, and Russian. The cooperation between Bard College's Human Rights Project and Neighbor's Link utilizes the students' knowledge of the native languages of the applicants to help them complete the application. "We not only offer legal assistance but also provide comfort by speaking the applicant's language because it is difficult to respond to so many unusual and legal questions, repeated in a language you do not speak."

At the end of the UIDN workshop, a member of the audience stood up. She introduced herself as Laura Garcia, from the New York Immigrant Coalition, and told her story: "As a DACA recipient, one of the most important things to remember—and I've been undocumented for thirty years, so of course it's very frustrating—is that we have a responsibility for who we vote to put in power those who truly represent the issues that matter to us. It's very frustrating, but there's a lot of work we have to do and we can only do it together. I remind my community that we arrived here (yesterday or ten years ago or twenty years ago) with the same needs, with the same dream, and the only way we can move forward or change something is if we work collectively. This work is about everyone."

  • Court Help Desk: They can help with filling out Form 589 and with a change of address; they give you a sheet with pro bono services.
  • Asylum Seeker’s Advocacy Project (ASAP): They provide legal support, create a community of asylum seekers, and work to change the system.
  • Neighbors' Link Immigration Helpline 914-502-3377, Thursdays from 8 am to 8 pm,
  • Ulster County Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN) 888-726-7276
  • New York State New Americans Hotline 1800-566-7636, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 8 pm
  • Legal migration aid directory of nonprofit organizations by state
* Translated from Spanish by Nohan Meza Martínez.

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