As negotiations continue over New York City’s next budget, which begins on July 1, 2006, immigrant advocates are looking closely at the funding given for what is called the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative (or, IOI), which gives money to more than 100 non-profit organizations for two services specifically geared to immigrants -- English classes and legal services.
This is in contrast to the wide array of human services funded by the city that are available to New Yorkers, both immigrants and non-immigrants. In fact, New York City has one of the largest human service systems in the nation.
But the two programs, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and immigration legal services, are the only ones specifically considered immigrant services at budget time.
English classes are in high demand in New York City. According to a 2001 New York Immigration Coalition report entitled, “Eager for English: How and Why New York’s Shortage of English Classes for Immigrants Should Be Addressed,” more than one million New Yorkers would like to improve their English. However, there were only 50,000 English classroom seats available â€“ or only enough to meet five percent of the need. Immigrants with improved English skills can find a better job, obtain greater quality health care, be more involved with their children’s education, and pass the naturalization exam needed to obtain U.S. citizenship.
Immigration legal services ensures that immigrants can successfully gain legal status in the United States and become U.S. citizens. In 2004, 537,151 people became naturalized U.S. citizens. Of those naturalized, the second largest group (66,234 individuals) lived in New York City. In addition, an estimated 1.5 million persons with lawful permanent resident status live in New York City, who can eventually apply for citizenship. Due to constantly changing immigration regulations and the backlog in citizenship applications, good counsel is needed to help one navigate the complex immigration system. Increased availability of free or low-cost legal services is critical to protecting immigrants from exploitation by unregulated immigration consultants (also known as â€notarios’) who often provide inaccurate information and charge excessive fees. Many immigrants have been denied lawful permanent residency and/or have been deported as a result of the actions of these fraudulent immigration consultants.
Immigrant worker legal services also has been successful in helping immigrant workers address workplace abuse and exploitation they might face, and receive back wages from employers that incur wage-and-hour violations.
City Council Support of Immigrant Services
Recognizing the importance of immigrant services to immigrant New Yorkers, outgoing City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. created what was then called the Immigrant Services Initiative in 2001. The initiative, first funded in the 2002 fiscal year budget at $2.5 million, provided funding to 43 non-profit organizations for English classes and immigration legal services. It has remained a priority for the City Council, which has funded it every year since.
Although funding levels decreased in subsequent years, it was increased to $9.1 million for the current budget, which ends in June. As a result, the non-profit agencies that received funding saw their average allocation increase from $50,000 to $75,000, and the total number of groups receiving these funds rose to nearly 130.
Mayor’s Support of Immigrant Services
Aside from the $9.1 million in Immigrant Opportunities Initiative funding, most of the city’s immigrant services are funded with Federal Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) & Workforce Investment Act (WIA) dollars to support $11.3 million in programs. The Department of Youth & Community Development funds English classes, adult basic education classes, immigration legal services, immigrant youth and immigrant women programs with these monies. However, President George W. Bush has completely slashed all Community Services Block Grant funding in his Fiscal Year 2007 budget proposal.
Permanent Funding for Immigrant Services
As with other City Council initiatives and budget priorities, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not include funding for the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative in his preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year. Unfortunately, this initiative is subject to the annual “budget dance” where the mayor ultimately agrees with the City Council to restore funding for programs he doesn’t include in his preliminary budget. Critics of the budget dance say that it injects funding uncertainty that is unwelcome to these programs and those that depend on them.
With the funding uncertainty of the Community Services Block Grant, stagnant funding from New York State for immigrant services, and New York City’s large immigrant population, funding by City Hall of immigrant services becomes even more crucial in maintaining a city that welcomes and incorporates newcomers. While NYC is fortunate to have an infrastructure that helps immigrants access services they need, advocates argue that a greater investment is needed to meet the demand for these services.
Advocates would like permanent funding for the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative in the final budget this year, seeing this as investment in a group of people who themselves have invested their energies in creating economic, social, and cultural benefits to our society.
Anthony Ng is the Legislative Advocate at United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH), the membership organization of New York City settlement houses and community centers.
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