MARCH 2003

PAST ISSUES:
• February 2003
• January 2003

• December 2002
• November 2002

• October 2002

• September 2002

• August 2002
• July 2002
• June 2002
• May 2002
• April 2002
• March 2002
• February 2002
• January 2002

• December 2001
• August 2001


Web Resources

• Immigration and Naturalization Service

• The New York City Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services

• Citizenship NYC

• New York Immigration Hotline

• National Immigration Forum

• Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area

International

• The Migration Information Force

National

• ACLU Immigrants Rights Project

• America Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Law Foundation

• Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force

• Glossary

Local: General

• Archdiocese of New York Immigrant and Refugee Services

• Citizens Committee For New York City

• Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

Local: Specific

• Asian Americans for Equality

• Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund

• CARECEN-N.Y.

• Chinese Progressive Association

• Emerald Isle Immigration Center of New York

• Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York

• National Association of Korean Americans

• National Coalition for Haitian Rights

 

 

An 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 didn’t 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 agency’s 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.

GG:
Good afternoon, Commissioner Bhojwani

Sayu Bhojwani
Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.

GG:
Commissioner Bhojwani, could you tell us when the New York City Department of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services was created and what it does?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
Can you give us some specific examples of what the department has done so far?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
What are the, say, five major issues facing New York immigrants?

Bhojwani :
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, etc.

GG:
Ok, let us take those one by one, starting with immigration status.

IMMIGRATION STATUS

GG:
Most immigration laws are set at the federal level. What power does your agency have?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
Can you give us some examples?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
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?

Bhojwani :
That is still the case.

GG:
What do you mean? How would that be possible?

Bhojwani:
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 possible.

LACK OF AWARENESS OF GOVERNMENT SERVICES

GG:
We understand that you have re-vamped your website. What ways is it useful for individuals?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
So, what kind of public benefits are available to immigrants regardless of their immigration status? Can you give us a sampling?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
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?"

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
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?

Bhojwani :
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 Bengali.

GG
What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Bhojwani :
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 in Urdu.
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.

GG:
Is the bias survey complete? What were the conclusions?

Bhojwani :
The survey is still in progress. We don't expect to have conclusions until late April.

EXPLOITATION IN THE WORKPLACE AND DISCRIMINATION

GG:
Are you yourself an immigrant? What do you wish you had known that you now know?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
Were you discriminated against in the workplace?

Bhojwani :
Yes, although I'm not sure I recognized it as discrimination at the time.

GG:
What do you mean?

Bhojwani :
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".

GG:
How should you deal with it?

Bhojwani :
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.

HOUSING

GG:
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?

Bhojwani :
The Mayor has already outlined his plan for affordable housing, which is available on www.nyc.gov.

GG:
Is, or should there be, any specific programs for immigrants in the plan?

Bhojwani :
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.

INABILITY TO SPEAK ENGLISH

GG:
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?

Bhojwani :
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.

GG:
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 NY?"

Bhojwani :
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.

HAVING A VOTE, A VOICE

GG:
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?"

Bhojwani :
Well, immigrants who are citizens, are legally entitled to vote, and I do agree with that.

GG:
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?

Bhojwani :
This is beyond my scope.

GG:
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 from now?

Bhojwani :
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 voices.

GG:
Thanks for coming today, Commissioner Bhojwani.

Bhojwani :
My pleasure.

 

Back to The Citizen Page

This website is brought to you by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by grants from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Independence Community Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Times Foundation and visitors like you.