Online Chat With The New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs
When Sayu Bhojwani came to New York City ten years ago to attend
graduate school, she didnt even realize she was being discriminated
against. Many immigrants experience discrimination/harassment
based on their appearance, accent, food they eat, that sort of thing,
said Bhojwani, who was born in India and grew up in Belize. Like
many immigrants, Bhojwani says, she dismissed it as "part of
the deal of being an immigrant.
She does not do that anymore. As the first-ever New York City Commissioner
of Immigrant Affairs, Sayu Bhojwani sees discrimination as one of
the five major issues facing New York immigrants. The other issues
are 1) immigration status, 2) the lack of awareness of government
services, 3)exploitation in the workplace and 4) the inability to
speak English. She spoke with us in a live chat about her agencys
role in bridging the language and cultural gaps between immigrants
and government.Gotham Gazette : Welcome everyone, and thanks for
coming. Today we are talking to Sayu Bhojwani, Commissioner of Immigrant
Affairs and Language Services.
Good afternoon, Commissioner Bhojwani
Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
Commissioner Bhojwani, could you tell us when the New York City
Department of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services was created
and what it does?
The Office of Immigrant Affairs has been around in different forms
since the mid-1980s. In November of 2001, it became a charter agency,
adopted by referendum into the City's charter by NYC voters. In
April 2002, Mayor Bloomberg appointed me as the first Commissioner
of the Office. The office serves to advise the Mayor on policies
affecting immigrants, improving immigrant access to city services,
and improving immigrant communities access to city government.
Can you give us some specific examples of what the department has
done so far?
A conference for immigrant-serving community groups to learn about
how to access city contracts... A program for city agency staff
to learn about the best ways to reach different immigrant communities...
A training for community groups to learn about new food stamp eligibility
requirements for immigrants... We are also working on a number of
policy issues -- translation and interpretation, for example.
What are the, say, five major issues facing New York immigrants?
1) immigration status 2) lack of awareness of government services
3) exploitation in the workplace 4) discrimination 5) inability
to speak English. In one household, family members may have varying
immigration status, affecting their ability to work, access healthcare,
Ok, let us take those one by one, starting with immigration status.
Most immigration laws are set at the federal level. What power does
your agency have?
Our agency does not set immigration laws. We do assist individuals
who have pending applications with the Immigration and Naturalization
Service to resolve problems they are having.
Can you give us some examples?
I can't get into specific details about cases, but a general example
might be of someone who has submitted an application and changed
their address but didn't hear back from the Immigration and Naturalization
Service for four or five years. Or someone who is told that their
paperwork has been lost. We have a direct relationship with the
Congressional Unit of the INS, that responds to queries from the
offices of elected officials like the Mayor's.
One of the pressing issues is the recent "collaboration"
between New York Police Department and the Immigration and Naturalization
Service. In the past, an executive order forbade the police department
from checking the immigration status of crime victims, people seeking
assistance, or those coming forward as witnesses. You once said
that the Bloomberg administration is exploring ways to keep that
order in place without interfering with the federal law. Is that
still the case?
That is still the case.
What do you mean? How would that be possible?
Let me clarify--the order has been preempted by Federal Law. What
we want, however, is to ensure that all New Yorkers can access services
for which they are eligible without fear of being reported to the
INS. So, we're working on defining a policy that will make that
OF AWARENESS OF GOVERNMENT SERVICES
We understand that you have re-vamped your website. What ways is
it useful for individuals?
We have tried to revamp the website to offer information about services
and benefits for which immigrants are eligible in the areas of employment,
education, and public benefits. We also put on news bulletins periodically
about news of interest to immigrant communities.
So, what kind of public benefits are available to immigrants regardless
of their immigration status? Can you give us a sampling?
Actually, all children are available for healthcare regardless of
their status. The Health and Hospitals Corporation has a new program
for undocumented adults to access healthcare. And, pregnant women
also have access to free healthcare. In addition, child welfare
services, emergency housing and food pantry, HIV testing and counseling,
domestic violence, those are some of the services.
Carol L asks, "I heard that your office has a Directory of
Services to Immigrants. Can you tell us more about it and how we
can obtain one?"
You can call the office at 212-788-7654 and request one. The Directory
is being updated and will be available in a searchable, online version
on our website in about six weeks.
When you were with the South Asian Youth Action, you said social
service and government agencies were ill prepared to meet the needs
of the South Asian community. Do you think that is still the case.
If so, how are you trying to address it?
The South Asian community is particularly complex in its regional,
linguistic and religious diversity. Currently, some city agencies,
in their public education campaign, are targeting that community.
The Earned Income Tax Credit campaign materials for example are
in Urdu and eight other languages (not all South Asian). Also, in
What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?
It's a tax rebate for low income working people. For details, go
to the Department of Consumer Affairs website. And, the Mayor's
Office to Combat Domestic Violence is producing educational materials
My office has worked with the Human Rights Commission to produce
a survey documenting bias incidents against South Asians. The survey
is available in Urdu, Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi.
Is the bias survey complete? What were the conclusions?
The survey is still in progress. We don't expect to have conclusions
until late April.
IN THE WORKPLACE AND DISCRIMINATION
Are you yourself an immigrant? What do you wish you had known that
you now know?
Yes, I am an immigrant. I wish I had known many things, but one
is how to register complaints about discrimination in the workplace.
And, I also wish I knew earlier the importance of being more actively
involved in the political process.
Were you discriminated against in the workplace?
Yes, although I'm not sure I recognized it as discrimination at
What do you mean?
Generally, many immigrants experience discrimination/harassment
based on their appearance, accent, food they eat, that sort of thing.
We often dismiss it as ignorance or "part of the deal".
How should you deal with it?
People are reluctant to object to that behaviour, for fear of losing
their jobs. We should recognize that this country, and our city,
have laws that protect you against discrimination in the workplace,
in schools, and public accommodations. And we should file complaints
with places like the Human Rights Commission rather than to let
the incident go in the hopes that it will not happen again.
According to Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a housing
rights advocacy group, South Asians in Queens are suffering from
overcrowded housing. An editorial in Hoy argued that high housing
costs will drive many Hispanics out of the city and will lead to
the downfall of New York City's economy. How would you advise Mayor
Bloomberg on affordable housing?
The Mayor has already outlined his plan for affordable housing,
which is available on www.nyc.gov.
Is, or should there be, any specific programs for immigrants in
The programs are designed to create affordable housing for all New
Yorkers, and immigrants are obviously included. Beyond that, we
need to be sure that immigrant communities have access to the information
in multiple languages and through multiple methods of outreach.
TO SPEAK ENGLISH
The City offers free English as a Second language class to legal
immigrants. But New York City has more than 400,000 undocumented
immigrants. What would you suGGest to an undocumented immigrant
who needs to learn English but cannot afford to take classes?
New York City's Adult Literacy Initiative funds community groups
around the city which have English classes free of charge and they
don't ask about status. Call the Literacy Assistance Center to get
more info -- 212-803-3333.
Many immigrants do not speak English. Some have a hard time dealing
with government agencies. Susan Peterson asks, "How does your
office assist community based groups that work with immigrants in
For example, recently, we have worked with Human Resource Administration
to produce materials in several languages about the new food stamp
requirements. These materials will be distributed through community
groups to their members.
A VOTE, A VOICE
Yvette asks, "Commissioner Bhojwani, could you please share
your views as to whether or not the department feels that immigrant
voting should be legal in New York City?"
Well, immigrants who are citizens, are legally entitled to vote,
and I do agree with that.
What about non-citizen immigrants? For example, they can now vote
for members of the school board. Do you think their enfranchisement
should be expanded?
This is beyond my scope.
Last question: Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition
has said that you are the lone voice trying to get the city
to update its thinking and to really, truly, come to understand
who actually lives here and what that means for every area in city
government." Do you think that will still be the case ten years
I would say that's not wholly the case now; there are others in
the Bloomberg administration working to ensure that government works
on behalf of the people. And, then years from now, if I have my
way, many more people from immigrant communities will make up those
Thanks for coming today, Commissioner Bhojwani.
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