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Citizens Union


Regulating Immigration Consultants

Hoping that she could quickly qualify for US residency, Izabela Dechnik, a Polish cleaning woman, gave $2,000 to a woman named Adela Holzer, who claimed that she could expedite the process with the help of a senator in Washington D.C.

Dechnik was not the only person to whom Holzer made this promise.

"She always said that this was the senator who was going to grant us residency," Pascual Diez, who gave Holzer more than $5,000, told Hoy.

Though Holzer promised "fast track service," years passed and not one of the immigrants who paid Holzer received a green card. Holzer, very simply, was conning them. In 2002, she was convicted of grand larceny and fraud for stealing a total of $50,000 from her immigrant clients.

Stories such as this are common in immigrant communities, which is why the government is trying to do something about it.

In June the City Council unanimously passed a new bill that would require immigration assistant service providers to give a written contract to their clients, and would prevent them from making statements promising government action or suggesting that they have special influence. The New York State legislature passed a similar bill. Both only await the signatures of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, respectively, to be turned into law.

"Assisting immigrants is a thriving industry in certain areas, and one that for long has been left unchecked," said State Senator Frank Padavan, who had introduced the bill in the State Senate. With these new laws, immigrant service providers will be regulated for the first time.

There is agreement of course that scam artists should not be tolerated. But there is sharp disagreement over the role of immigrant assistance service providers, some questioning whether the new laws won't legitimize an occupation that shouldn't really exist at all.

Many immigration service providers call themselves "notarios," which means lawyers in Spanish, when they are, in fact, just a notary public. The new laws will require that they post a sign stating that they are not attorneys and not allowed to give legal advice.

"How would you feel if you were sick and going to see a doctor who has a sign hanging in the office saying that 'I am not a doctor,' said Eugene Glicksman, chairman of the County Lawyers Immigration and nationality committee. "What these bills say is that we are going to let anybody represent immigrants."

According to the federal law, only attorneys and accredited individuals or non-profit organizations can represent immigrants. Under the new law, immigration service providers can transcribe responses to government agencies; translate instructions and questions from forms, assist in getting documentation. They are prohibited from giving legal advice to clients.

Proponents of the bills argue that regulating, instead of outlawing, immigration service providers, allows some room for legitimate business to exist.

"While there are some bad actors who have been ripping off immigrants, at the same time there are some immigrant consultants who do play some helpful and legitimate role to immigration communities," said Mark Lewis of New York Immigration Coalition.

But lawyers said it is difficult for immigrant assistance service providers to avoid giving legal advice. Even the selection of the forms is in effect the practice of law, they argue, because one has to understand the law in order to pick the right application.

"If people need legal advice, they should seek out the services of an immigration attorney," Padavan said.

But for many immigrants, hiring a lawyer could cost an entire month's wages. "Many immigrants chose to go to immigration consultants because they provide low cost services," said Lewis, who added that "some of the notarios understand the law better than lawyers."

Some immigrants questioned why they should pay a lump sum of money to a lawyer to simply filling out forms. "I have been filing things myself without a lawyer," said Christelle Arcostanzo, an immigrant from France.

"There is no such thing as just filling out the form," Claudia Slovinsky of the Association Bar of New York told the New York Law Journal. “That form is tip of a big, huge iceberg.”

If Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki approve the measures as expected, lawyer groups said they would consider constitutional challeges on the ground that these bills go against federal law.

"These bills do not require immigration assistants to have even the most minimal knowledge, training or experience," Glicksman said. "I would not be surprised if there were litigation on this."

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.





















Welfare Rolls On The Rise

For the past year, the number of households on public assistance in New York City has been quietly climbing up. The family assistance caseload has remained nearly the same, while the number of "safety net assistance" cases rose eight percent in the year ending in April 2004. Safety net assistance provides benefits, at an even lower level than family assistance, to single adults and to families who have used up their five-year lifetime limit on federal assistance. Unlike family assistance, which is partly paid for by federal funds, safety net assistance comes only from the city and state budgets. This caseload has gone up in 11 of the past 12 months, suggesting that economic recovery has not reached the neediest New Yorkers, and that the federal government is shifting more of the burden of continuing poverty onto state and city taxpayers.

A promising idea will not become reality

The commissioner of the city agency that administers welfare, Verna Eggleston of the Human Resources Administration, briefly considered giving welfare recipients a shot at entry-level jobs with city agencies and contractors who do business with the city. For those recipients already working at city agencies in return for their benefit checks, this would have opened the door to permanent jobs with real salaries, paid vacation and sick time, and strong union representation.

Days after the possible jobs program was announced, the mayor revealed that it was only a "hypothetical" option, because city agencies are under a hiring freeze in anticipation of a large budget deficit in 2006. At present, only the city's Department of Parks and Recreation hires welfare recipients for entry-level jobs.

New York City lost 6,500 public-sector jobs in the year ending in April 2004, according to the state Department of Labor. Because private-sector jobs were added, the city had an overall increase of 12,600 jobs in that time. But in a city with over 200,000 households on public assistance, many more new jobs are needed to absorb recipients who hope to become self-supporting.

Washington may offer a bonus to job hunters who find work

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would give about 15,000 unemployed Americans "Personal Reemployment Accounts" of up to $3,000. If the bill passes the Senate as well, the president will sign it into law.

The money could be used for job training, computer classes, career counseling, skills assessment, relocation services, child care, transportation or housing assistance. Those who found a job in 13 weeks or less, and held it for six months, could keep any part of the $3,000 that they hadn't used for job hunting.

The accounts would be targeted to people expected to use up their unemployment benefits: high school dropouts, workers laid off from declining industries, and those living in areas (such as New York City) that have high rates of unemployment. Unfortunately, these are the same job seekers who could benefit most from training and education.

With a $3,000 bonus dangled in front of them, they are likely to grab at the first job to come along, rather than finish a training program leading to a more secure, better-paying job. Each person who accepted an account would also sign away his or her right to up to $10,000 worth of free employment-related services offered under the Workforce Investment Act. These services are receiving so little publicity that many unemployed workers have no idea they could use them.

Critics of Personal Reemployment Accounts see them as a distraction from Washington's failure to extend unemployment benefits beyond the basic 26 weeks. In New York State, most unemployed workers don't get even those benefits. The state discriminates against temporary, seasonal, and newly hired workers by usually excluding the last three to six months of earnings when deciding whether an applicant has worked long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance. Many laid-off employees do not realize they are eligible for benefits, or know how to apply for them. Written materials and services are only in offered in English and Spanish, even though a large portion of New York City's labor force is fluent only in a language other than these two.

Who benefits from unemployment insurance?

Inequality among wage earners persists even after they lose their jobs. A survey of unemployed New Yorkers found that those who earned high salaries before being laid off were twice as likely to receive unemployment benefits as those who earned low salaries. [See Recession and 9/11: Economic Hardship and the Failure of the Safety Net for Unemployed Workers in New York City (In PDF Format)] White workers were the most likely to get benefits, followed closely by Asians, then by African-Americans, with Latinos least likely to get benefits.

These differences disappeared among union members, who are actively informed about their right to benefits, and who are helped through the application process by union advocates. The differences also melted away during one four-month period within the two years covered by the study. From September through December in 2001, immediately after the World Trade Center disaster, there was little variation in the likelihood that an unemployed worker would get benefits based on language, race or ethnicity. In fact, members of the sample were 24 percent more likely to receive benefits if they lost their jobs during those months, thanks to the blitz of publicity about all forms of assistance at that time.

Most people would rather be earning an adequate salary than collecting a pittance in unemployment benefits or public assistance. If a job is too much to expect, most would welcome a chance to learn skills that could help them climb out of poverty. But if we cannot guarantee jobs or training to everyone, the least we can do is give everyone the same chance to get those benefits.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.
















H-1B Working Visa

After almost a year of job searching in New York, David Chim has given up and is ready to move back to his native Singapore.

With a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Chicago and some experience as an auditor at a big accounting firm in his native Singapore, Chim has not been able to find a job since his graduation last year. In the midst one of the country’s worst recessions, Chim has another dilemma – as a foreigner, he needs a work permit, which is also known as the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa program, designed to allow American companies to hire foreign professionals on a temporary basis, has long been a popular way for international students to obtain legal right to work in the United States after graduation. Employers have to prove that they cannot find American workers with the same or similar skills, and are required to provide prevailing salaries for the foreign nationals they hire. But less and less employers are willing to do it.

“I was disappointed,” said Chim, joining tens of thousands of foreign graduates from American universities who have to leave or find alternatives after their one-year Optional Practical Training expires. “I was hoping to gain some overseas work experience…I know it doesn’t matter to big firms if they have to sponsor, but for small and medium firms, maybe it is an issue.”

The Optional Practical Training is a one-year program for international students to work in the United States after their graduation during which they must find a H-1B sponsor if they intend to continue working afterwards.

The H-1B, classified as a non-immigrant visa, is approved in an increment of three years with a possible extension for a total of six years. It has to be petitioned by a perspective employer and becomes invalid when the employment is terminated. According to the 1990 Immigration Act, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USBCIS) can issue 65,000 H-1B visas every year. In 2004, the cap was reached in mid February, only four and half months into the fiscal year, which ends in September.

“Although it was harsh on me, I still think it is a fair system,” Chim said. “I can understand that from an American point of view, their citizens come first.”

Jeffrey Lu, who is getting his MBA from Baruch College this month, shares Chim’s pain. He had been to several job fairs and interviews and found that many companies do not sponsor foreigners.

“Many big companies such as Met Life, New York Life, and HSBC, made it clear that they do not sponsor work visas,” Lu said. “I am very disappointed because they rejected me before they even get to know me.”

“The United States prides itself as a nation committed to diversity and multi-culturalism,“ Lu added. “There shouldn’t be so many restrictions.”

Frustrated but undeterred, Lu, a native of Taiwan and an aspiring financial analyst, chose to settle for a job that pays way below his qualifications. He accepted an accountant position at a branch office of a Taiwan-based company in New Jersey that has agreed to sponsor him for an H-1B.

“It’s hard to say no because I don’t know if this kind of opportunity will come again,” Lu said.

Lu is not the only one who put his dream aside for an H-1B. Fernanda Marmo, a teacher at an adult school in Flushing, Queens, said she missed some good opportunities because of her status.

“I would like to teach children in a public school,” said Marmo, who comes from Sao Paolo, Brazil and holds a master’s degree in TESOL from Long Island University. “But all public schools require certification, and I can’t even take the state exams because I don’t have a green card.” According to New York Education Law, one has to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to qualify for a Permanent or Professional NYS Teaching Certificate, which is required for public school teachers.

Currently with six more months on her OPT, Marmo said her employer is going to sponsor her but she is still worried that USBCIS might reject her application.

“You never know,” Marmo said. “They can always reject you.”

Despite the increasing restrictions and reluctance from employers to sponsor foreign workers, critics of the H-1B program said it’s time to cut back or abolish it, adding that as more companies are taking jobs overseas, known as outsourcing, even the jobs that stay here are not for Americans, particularly in professions such as the IT industry.

“The biggest misconception is that employers must first attempt to fill positions with American workers,” wrote Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a Web-based advocacy group, in an online article. “This is false. Under current law, an employer can fill dozens of openings H-1B programmers without advertising the position or even considering U.S. programmers for the positions.”

But some see it as a business decision and fair competition.

John Yu, an American citizen who works at the IT department at AIG in New York, said he does feel a little threatened by foreign programmers but it’s all fair game.

“This is a business world,” Yu said. “It’s free competition and employers should be able to hire whoever they think are good workers and at the same time good deals to their business.”

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.






















Marriage Promotion Programs For Welfare Recipients


It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among Republicans, that a single mother on public assistance must be in want of a husband. To that end, the President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is built into the welfare reauthorization bill passed by the House of Representatives in the fall of 2003, and its Senate counterpart, stalled by a Democratic filibuster in April 2004.

Federal law already allows states to use public assistance funds to promote marriage, an option few have chosen. The only step New York State has taken toward marriage promotion is to allow two-parent families to receive public assistance even if one of them works full-time, as long as their income is low enough.

Wade Horn, the nation’s Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, leads the effort to channel roughly $300 million a year into marriage promotion programs, and make them a mandatory part of every state’s welfare program. The Healthy Marriage Initiative suggests measures such as cash bonuses for welfare recipients who marry, and penalties for those who do not take part in marriage promotion activities.

Horn has equated opposition to this policy to saying, “We want to make sure low-income couples don’t have the same access that higher income couples have to a service that we know can help them build strong and healthy marriages.”

The Local Marriage Promotion Market

New York City differs from the rest of the United States in two ways crucial to the goals of marriage promotion programs. There are more women in situations that make them targets of such programs, and there are fewer men for them to marry.

The “traditional family” of a married mother and father, living with their own children, makes up only 18 percent of NYC households, compared to 24 percent of households nationwide. In the country as a whole, fewer than one in four families with children are headed by a single woman: in New York City, 36 percent of families with children have this structure. While one in three single American mothers and their children live in poverty, nearly one in two (44 percent) of New York’s single mothers and their children are poor.

What these numbers mean is that nine percent of families with children in New York City are impoverished and headed by single women, and thus candidates for marriage promotion programs. This is more than twice the rate in the nation as a whole.

Who is available for these women to marry? They need husbands who have jobs, or marriage will only dig them deeper into poverty. But in March 2004, the unemployment rate in New York City was still considerably higher, at 7.9 percent, than the 5.7 percent rate nationwide. The city has a disproportionate share of former inmates of prisons and mental institutions, and of men who are HIV-positive, most of whom have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. It is also a center of gay culture, which means that gay men and women are less inclined than they might be elsewhere to marry a member of the opposite sex to hide their sexual identity (and needless to say, the Bush administration is not spending money to promote gay marriage; indeed it is promoting a ban on gay marriage) Finally, at a time when women of color make up two-thirds of the city’s female population, only half of African-American men have jobs.!

Which Comes First, A Job Or A Wedding?

Researchers agree that well-adjusted children are most likely to be found in stable homes, living with a biological father and mother who are married to each other. What is more controversial is whether government could -- or should --- steer more parents into this living arrangement.

The first argument against marriage promotion is that it may not be effective. Two-parent households are richer than single-parent households, but this does not mean that getting married will increase a couple’s income. The statistics could also be attributed to the fact that the same qualities that make a parent employable also make him or her an attractive marriage partner.

A nationwide study of childbearing by unwed mothers found that single fathers were twice as likely as married ones to have a disability that made it difficult to work, and several times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Among couples interviewed for the study in New York City, a third of the fathers had not worked in the past year. The interviews took place in 2000, when the economy was strong and unemployment was relatively low. ( See The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Baseline City Report: New York City [in pdf format])

Most marriage education programs have been tested on middle-class couples, and even with them, the results are not clear. And there has been no research comparing marriage promotion to programs that improved parents’ ability to earn a living. Much of the poverty of families headed by a single mother is due to lack of education and good jobs. Among children whose single mothers have full-time jobs and college degrees, only one percent are poor.

"Happy Families Are All Alike; Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way."

Even if research showed that the majority of children benefit from marriage promotion programs, they might still be inadvisable, if a small minority of parents and/or children were severely harmed by them. Domestic violence is at least twice as common among women on welfare as among the general public, with most estimates as high as 60 percent. Yet only one out of at least ten women on public assistance tells her welfare caseworker that she is being abused. This indicates that states might not be able to identify women in abusive situations, and might instead steer them into marriage with their abusers.

Some states are considering making it harder for people to divorce, as a way of encouraging marriages to last. This could be dangerous, in light of a study that compared changes in the rates of suicide, homicide, and domestic violence between states that liberalized their divorce laws and states that did not. Over a thirty-year period, researchers found women were less likely to kill themselves, and to be killed by their partners, in states that liberalized their divorce laws. No similar pattern was seen for men. Reports of domestic violence by both men and women were also lower in states allowing unilateral divorce. [Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress (in PDF format)]

In New York City, divorces are almost 50 percent more likely to happen in the first five years of marriage than in the rest of the state. This may explain why only a third of city divorces involve couples with children, compared to more than half of the divorces elsewhere in the state. If a couple is going to get divorced, it is preferable that they do so before having children rather than after. It would be a sad paradox if marriage counseling encouraged incompatible couples either to have children earlier in their marriages, or to stay together longer, resulting in more divorces taking place after children were born.

An Old-Fashioned Stigma Returns?

Supporters of marriage promotion programs include groups that encourage churchgoing, traditional women’s roles, and responsible fatherhood, and oppose divorce and gay marriage. Many of these groups use the term “illegitimate” to describe children born out of wedlock. A particularly cruel result of government emphasis on marriage for parents could be a belief among children of unwed parents that they are not legitimate human beings.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.





















Child Care For Welfare Recipients

The United States Senate voted last month to increase funding for child care for welfare recipients and other low-income families, over the objection of the White House, which is firmly against any increase (In PDF Format).

Even as advocates support the Senate's proposed increase in child care funding, they worry that it will not be sufficient. First of all, they say, child care is already very underfunded - current funding only pays for one child in seven, nationally.

Worse, the reason behind the increase is mostly to facilitate the reauthorization of the 1996 federal welfare reform law. This law currently requires that 50 percent of a state's welfare recipients work 30 hours a week. The definition of "work" is very narrow and includes almost no education and training programs. The reauthorization will probably include an increase in both the percentage of welfare recipients required to work (to 70 percent) and the number of hours they have to work (40). More people working means their children will need some place to go while their parents are on the job; welfare recipients receive child care assistance as part of their benefits.

"Even a substantial increase in child care funding won't meet the overall need, and barely keep up with the new need that's created by the work requirements," says Don Friedman of the Community Service Society.

One of the most significant changes of the welfare reform act was the creation of a new system entitled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which gives "block grants" to the states. Prior to the 1996 legislation, states received federal welfare funds based on the number of individuals or families enrolled. Today, welfare is no longer an entitlement but is only a temporary - five year -- stopgap. But states receive the same amount of money that they received in 1995, even as the number of people on public assistance declines. The legislation gives states greater control over their welfare programs, and also allows a way for them to use surplus funds as caseloads drop. So New York's $2.4 billion grant has stayed the same even as the rolls went from 561,762 cases to 140,758.

Like states across the country, New York has relied on its surplus from the block grants to pay for a wide variety of social services, including child care -- the lack of which is one of the main reasons low-income workers can't keep jobs once they get them. In the last budget the federal block grant funded almost two-thirds of the city's child care budget.

Most of the city's child care funds go to the city Human Resources Administration, which distributes 45,000 child care vouchers for parents on public assistance, and the Administration for Child Services, which oversees the largest municipal child care system in the country. It provides child care and Head Start services to approximately 75,000 children, toddlers to pre-teens, and their families each year, mostly through contracts with private, non-profit organizations. But tentative new research shows that the city only serves 30 percent of pre-schoolers and 13 percent of school-aged children, says Sandy Socolar of the Welfare Reform Network Child Care Committee.

In the 1990s, when the economy was strong, New York was able to put aside a reserve of welfare funds. But with both the economic downturn of the last few years and federal cutbacks, New York, like other states, has been spending down its block grant. Governor George Pataki's current proposed budget predicts a surplus from the grant of $1.48 billion, 40 percent lower than in 2002. The result in New York City could be a shortfall of as much as $80 million in aid next year for child welfare programs overall, according to a prediction (In PDF Format) by the Independent Budget Office.

"Over the next two to three years most states will have exhausted their reserves," says Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy. "That virtually assures cuts in services, just to manage their funding within the next five years. The particular implication for child care is that they will have to cut either welfare-funded child care, or other, larger services, such as child welfare, domestic violence, the earned income tax credit. Communities will be faced with terrible choices. This is inevitable."

When the original welfare reform legislation was passed nearly a decade ago, advocates were concerned about the lack of education provisions, low benefits that do not adequately reflect the high cost of food and housing in New York City; work requirements that do not offer benefits or training; and the lack of affordable child care. But today some are calling for what they call a "clean extension," the simple renewal of the current legislation.

"We're pushing to get it reauthorized because we are so afraid of what will come out of it if we open the whole thing up," says Elizabeth Lubetkin-Lipton of the Women's City Club of New York (In PDF Format). "Better to go with the devil you know than the one you don't."

Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine and the mother of a public school student, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization.












Meals and Wheels Threatened In The Bronx

If a group of old people got together on their own, advised by experts in gerontology, to come up with a way to keep seniors out of hospitals and nursing homes, the result could look a lot like Meals on Wheels. The current New York City program serves clients who are at high risk of having to leave their homes for institutions. Through face-to-face visits five times a week, it can call in extra care just when a client needs it most. It can ease depression with friendly human contact. And it can prevent one of the most common and deadly conditions underlying major illnesses among the elderly, malnutrition.

Unfortunately, the city’s proposed experiment with the lives of Meals on Wheels clients in the Bronx does not appear to be based on recommendations from old people, gerontologists, or anyone familiar with the role of preventive health care. Instead, the local Department for the Aging has become mired in secrecy, rumors, Bronx politics, and financial problems facing nonprofit agencies.

Freezing Out Senior Centers

In the fall of 2003, the Department for the Aging requested bids for a contract that would replace some of the hot lunches delivered by Meals on Wheels in the Bronx with frozen meals. Senior centers, which traditionally have cooked and delivered lunch to New York’s elderly, bitterly opposed the pilot project. For months, they boycotted the contract and refused to bid on it. There have been no announcements from the Department for the Aging, but it is generally believed that multiple proposals were eventually submitted for the newly designed Bronx Meals-on-Wheels program, from both nonprofit and for-profit contractors.

The most controversial change would be reducing the number of deliveries to each client from five days a week to once or twice a week. It is not clear how this would meet the need, stated in the department’s 2004-2005 annual plan, “to ensure greater access to appropriate food and nutrition services for older individuals.” The change would reduce delivery costs, but also reduce the number of visits clients receive with their meals, and require them to be able to safely store and heat up frozen food.

Critics of the proposal point out the need for companionship and safety monitoring as well as food, that frozen meals place new burdens for meal preparation on clients already assessed as being unable to cook for themselves, and that fewer deliveries mean fewer reminders to eat. Many elderly people have shrinking appetites. The loss of as little as 10 pounds in six months can nearly double the chance of being institutionalized. Half of the people admitted to nursing homes are found to be experiencing malnutrition.

But many communities outside New York are substituting frozen for hot meals. They find that some seniors prefer the independence of being able to choose when to eat, and not having to wait hours every weekday for their lunch to be delivered.

What The Research Shows About Frozen Meals On Wheels

A major federally-funded study compared frozen meals to the traditional hot lunch and found no significant advantage to frozen meals in improving nutritional and function status of clients. [“Effects of two models of nutritional intervention on homebound older adults at nutritional risk,” by Alison J. Kretser, Theresa Voss, Wendell W. Kerr, Claude Cavadini, Janet Friedmann, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, March, 2003.

This is not a good sign. The frozen-meal model studied was much richer than that proposed by the Bloomberg administration. It cost more than twice as much, and provided 21 meals a week, plus 14 snacks.

By contrast, New York City’s frozen-meal option would provide five to seven meals per week. There’s a good chance that the city’s less generous frozen-meal program will not be as good for seniors as the hot meals they are getting now.

How Will Clients Be Screened?

The Department for the Aging made several changes to their proposal in response to the criticism by advocates for the elderly. Among them was a decrease in the minimum share of clients that must be shifted from hot meals to frozen ones, from 60 percent to 30 percent. It is not clear what will be done if 30 percent are not found to be eligible for frozen meals, or how screening for eligibility will be done.

To be in the Meals on Wheels program in the first place, applicants must be unable to prepare nutritious meals because they cannot shop, lack cooking equipment, or cannot do the tasks involved in cooking. They must also be without friends, relatives, or paid assistants who could help them to cook. In addition, they must suffer from dementia or be unable to leave their homes.

New York City is not Virginia, where the study about frozen foods took place. Much of our housing is older than its tenants, and furnished with cranky refrigerators whose freezers have been iced up for years. Con Edison’s rates for electricity are among the highest in the nation; elderly customers can easily lose electricity if they forget to pay—or cannot pay--their bills.

Will aged clients be able to safely operate microwave ovens, if they have never used them before? Or will they nod and thank the social worker who suggests one, not having clearly heard what she said, or wanting to be polite about the offer?

Save Money?

According to a report issued by the New York City’s Comptroller’s Office, the first year of a frozen-meals program could cost the city $185,400 more than estimated by the Bloomberg Administration, for equipment and initial screening of clients. In subsequent years, it is likely to continue to cost more than the administration expects.














Deporting the “Bad” Immigrant

Recently a dear friend of mine observed that immigrants who broke the law deserved to be deported. In her eyes, certain elements in her community - like a cousin of hers who was busted and sent packing back to the Caribbean by American authorities for selling drugs in Washington Heights - were blights on the reputations of upstanding, hardworking folk who had arrived from distant shores seeking a better life.

Ironically, my friend’s mother had lived and worked illegally in New York long enough to arrange for my friend and her sisters to establish residency here. While of course she never followed her cousin into the drug trade, a strict application of my friend’s moral formula to her own immediate family history would probably find her today back in the Caribbean, without the benefit of the Ivy League degrees, corporate resume and Brooklyn brownstone she now enjoys.

Permanent Exile As Punishment

Behold the good immigrant/bad immigrant paradox. Until recently, it was little more than one of the oldest and slipperiest myths to wash up on the shores of the New World; the idea - often supported by xenophobic, racist and class-based notions - that certain newcomers are poster children for the American dream, while all others are shifty predators who need to “go back where they came from.” Ironically, in a city whose identity is proudly synonymous with the Statue of Liberty and taking in the world’s “tired” and “poor”, it’s as if immigrants arrive under moral probation. One false move is proof that they are pathologically unfit for “democracy” and capitalist consumption.

Immigrant groups and sub-groups have been stereotyped and treated with a different set of standards ever since the Mayflower drifted in. But what is relatively new and gaining widespread social acceptance is the legal enshrinement, through mandatory detention and deportation practices, of the view that being an immigrant is itself separately punishable.

According to a small chorus of immigrant activists, New York communities are being destabilized while a second-class status is enforced by the federal government using the fear of permanent exile. In 1996, years before the Patriot Act I and II or the Office of Homeland Security were activated, a set of landmark immigration laws were put in place by the Clinton Administration that essentially stripped immigrants of some of their most basic rights. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act vastly expanded the grounds for deportation to include, roughly speaking, past convictions, an accumulation of relatively minor repeat offenses and almost anything that requires a year or more in jail. At the same time these laws created new conditions for mandatory detention and deportation and denied certain criminal aliens and even asylum seekers the right to appeal deportation orders.

Ripped From Their Families

Subhash Kateel and Aarti Shahani, staff organizers for Families for Freedom , an immigrant defense network of New Yorkers facing deportation, maintain that detention and deportation excessively injure thousands of households every year, ripping people from their families. One of these households belong to Carol and Linden McDonald, a Guyanese-born couple who have been married for ten years and have together raised a child in Bushwick. According to Families for Freedom, “Linden, who is a Rastafarian, was arrested with a joint. His lawyer told him to plead guilty without advising him that he could be deported. A day after Linden began his two-week sentence, Immigration came to him in Rikers. They marked him for deportation, and transferred him to a Louisiana jail.” Carol and her daughter have not seen Linden, a green card holder, since September 2003 and don’t know when they will ever see him again.

Reportedly, stories like this are common, in which defendants, unable to afford high-priced lawyers, enter into plea bargains unaware of the consequences of their actions because even judges are not required to disclose this information. Many of these cases cannot be appealed or reviewed by a federal court and detentions can last years. And once deported, there is no such thing as a second chance. Likewise, if you received, for instance, probation for an offense ten years ago, dutifully served your sentence, became a model citizen and then tried to go on a trip outside the country, you too could find yourself detained and deported.

In other words, even as a permanent resident, you face a form of double jeopardy; if you commit a crime not only do you pay your debt to society as determined by the criminal code, but then, strictly on the basis of being a immigrant, you are forever purged from society.

Carol McDonald, along with another woman facing a similar predicament with her husband, wrote an open letter to New York elected officials complaining that “Immigration agents are stationed at Rikers to screen non-citizens…and hand them off for deportation…Detention and deportation have ruined our lives…(Our husbands) used to help with everything – pick up the kids from school, take them to the library, the park, McDonalds….We’re both terrified of people saying we are bad parents and taking our babies away.”

Deportation is, in effect, a life sentence. As Carol explains, “All our personal ambitions – to get better jobs, make real careers – are out the window…In detention you make $1 a day for full time work. Back home in the Caribbean, no one will hire a US deportee.”

A Chilling Effect

The implications for New York are far-reaching. According to Families for Freedom, 15 percent of American families are “mixed status”, meaning that at least one parent is a non-citizen and one child a citizen. In New York City, according to the New York Immigration Coalition, two thirds of all families have an immigrant parent and an American-born child. Deportees lose their social security benefits and their family members are not allowed to collect them.

Families for Freedom goes on to argue that immigrants increasingly risk deportation “when they turn to public servants for help... They are afraid to turn to hospitals, schools, fire departments and police officers. For example US born domestic violence victims report their abusers in one out of two situations; immigrant victims report one out of four instances and undocumented immigrant victims in just one of seven instances.”

Commensurate with the Crime?

The website for the federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (chillingly referred to as “ICE”), proudly extols the virtues of deportation and the kinds of actions that have led to over a million people from 120 countries being deported between 1996 and 2002, with billions of dollars being spent to do so. These kinds of results are seemingly designed to help Americans feel they are safer, that the “war on terror” is being won at home. In the now famous memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Coleen Rowley, an FBI Special Agent and Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel, wrote “After 9/11, FBI Headquarters encouraged more and more detentions for what seem to be essentially PR purposes.”

There are other cynical observations to be made. For example, the Bush administration’s newly proposed Temporary Worker Program, which sets up a legalized employment system for newcomers and immigrants currently living in the U.S. without authorization, is an explicit acknowledgement that there exists, in Bush’s own words, a “massive” underground economy thriving on undocumented immigrant labor, an economy in which all Americans enjoy the benefits of illegal immigration. The Temporary Worker Program, while offering no paths to citizenship, reinforces the concept of immigration as an indentured servitude mill. If you were prone to conspiracy theories, you could reasonably conclude that the specter of deportation functions to keep America’s imported servant class in line and scared straight.

Despite these views, politically speaking, deportation abolitionism or advocating for the rights of immigrants with criminal convictions remains about as unpopular and quixotic as it gets. Even many of the individuals fighting deportation are quick to point out that “yes, many immigrants do need to be kicked out – just not me.”

Criminal activity should be punished and the punishment should be commensurate with the crime. It’s also important to remember that behind the proud legacy of virtually every group of people that has arrived in this country over the last several hundred years, there has been a not so pretty tale of survival by any means necessary. Dust it off a bit and call it “entrepreneurial spirit”. Some refer to it as “pursuing the American dream”. The bottom line is immigrants are no more, no less, “bad” than those born on this soil. It’s time we had a social policy that can admit that.

Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of Talking Democracy Media, normally writes the community development topic page for Gotham Gazette.

No Breaks For Low Income New Yorkers; Also: Unemployment

If a series of proposed budget cuts by Governor George Pataki take effect, poor New Yorkers are in for some tough times.

No More “Invisible” Supplemental Security Income

The Pataki administration has proposed new regulations that will affect at least 26,700 impoverished households in which members have disabilities. The changes involve Supplemental Security Income, which is only available to people with major, long-term disabilities.

Until now, Supplemental Security Income has been covered by an “invisibility rule,” which recognizes that people with disabilities need this money for extra costs associated with their conditions; it is not counted toward the household’s income when determining the size of their monthly welfare check. The rule allows people with disabilities to eat nutritious food for special diets, wear clothing modified for their needs, and make small changes to their homes so that they can move around safely, without depriving other family members of income.

The governor proposes counting this as household income. The average loss to a household in which at least one member receives welfare benefits and another receives Supplemental Security Income will be about $90 a month. A single mother with a child who has a disability will see her monthly welfare check reduced from $414 to $250. (The child’s monthly Supplemental Security Income check of $575 in 2003 would not be affected).

This will bring the state only $9 million closer to filling in a budget gap over $5 billion.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance received dozens of comments in opposition to the new regulation, during the mandatory public comment period that ended March 8. When asked whether this public reaction might convince the state to change its course, Susan Antos of the Greater Upstate Law Project said, “They hardly ever do that. We’ve met with them about this and they didn’t seem to hold out any possibility of that.”

Some advocates believe that the invisibility rule is supported by state legislation passed before federal welfare reform, and that changes in federal welfare law do not affect that aspect of state law. Antos anticipates that people targeted by the new policy may have to take the state to court to win back their benefits.

Fiscal discipline for children

A welfare recipient who does not comply with all the rules, such as showing up for appointments and returning forms on time, can be “sanctioned.” This means that the person responsible for compliance, usually a parent, loses their benefits until they correct the situation. Until now, children in a sanctioned family have continued to receive assistance, even when their parents were cut off. Governor Pataki has proposed full-family sanctions, which will punish children for their parents’ behavior. As of mid-February, 2004, over 15,000 households were being sanctioned in New York City.

The penalty for chronic neediness

Another proposal of the governor’s is to wean welfare recipients off of their benefits by reducing them by ten percent after one year (for childless households), or five years (for households with children). This overlooks the fact that studies have found that long-term recipients have more disabilities and less education, and are less likely than other recipients to find jobs that pay enough to disqualify them for public assistance. About 42,000 families have reached the five-year limit.

Keeping the working poor in poverty

Nearly one in ten welfare recipients are employed, but earn so little that the family still qualifies for public assistance. The governor proposes a change in the complex formula that determines how much of a family’s earned income will be deducted from their public assistance. The result will be to effectively cut benefits even if a family’s earnings are not increasing. For a mother of two starting out at the minimum wage for a 40-hour week, five years of continuous work and five percent annual raises would still leave her below the poverty level.

“If the governor really wants to focus on getting people to work so they can get off of welfare, he needs to raise the minimum wage and make education and training more available to low-income people,” says Cristina DiMeo of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Minimum wage wars in Albany

The New York State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill this month that in 2006 would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.10. The increase would mean a minimum-wage worker supporting two family members could earn a salary almost equal to the poverty level, rather than 20 percent below it, which is the present situation.

“The majority of the Senate supports it,” says James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “But as we know, that’s not enough to bring it to a vote.” Senator Joseph Bruno, as Majority Leader, has in past years refused to allow the full chamber to vote on the issue. The governor is opposed to the bill.

Attitude towards the poor

The state budget cuts described above add up to about $77 million in savings, or less than half the value of already enacted tax cuts that will cost the state $164 million in the coming year.

“We’re very concerned that these are all targeting the most vulnerable people,” says Cristina DiMeo of the proposed state changes. When the proposals above are looked at as a group, they reveal the following assumptions:

  • Poor people get that way because they refuse to work. If they do work, they refuse to earn high salaries. Their poverty is not related to the shortage of jobs, their lack of education, or the fact that the jobs they can get pay too little to get them out of poverty.
  • If you give them too much assistance, the poor will squander it on “luxuries” like grab bars for family members with disabilities. Those who break the rules need to see their children go without necessities before they will change their ways. Those who take too long to find jobs will discover new opportunities if they lose a chunk of their monthly benefits.
  • The best way for poor people to earn their way out of poverty is to give tax breaks to rich people who will invest them in creating new jobs, just as they have throughout the current “jobless recovery.”


New York was among the six states with the highest unemployment rate as of December, 2003: 6.2 percent. For the city of New York, the 2003 unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. These days, it takes the average unemployed worker nearly five months to find a new job, the longest time in 20 years.


Yet, last month, the U.S. Senate fell two votes short of passing an extension of unemployment benefits, after the House of Representatives had passed its version of the bill. For the first time in three decades, there is no federal program to extend unemployment benefits in any January when more than 270,000 workers ran out of them – even though in January of this year, 392,000 Americans used up their unemployment benefits, more than in any January since 1983.

During the following month, the number of jobs nationwide increased by only 21,000, suggesting that long-term unemployed workers are not going to find jobs anytime soon.

Seven out of ten workers who stop getting benefits do so because they have run out of time, not because they find jobs. In New York State alone, more than 150,000 jobless workers are expected to run out of unemployment benefits during the first half of the year.

This number does not reflect the full extent of unemployment. Last month, for example, almost 400,000 Americans gave up on trying to find work and were dropped from the official count of the unemployed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the unemployed as those who “do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks, and are currently available for work”. This leaves out people working part-time, even if they are trying to find full-time jobs.

Job hunting efforts that are not considered active include looking at want ads, taking a job-training course, and letting your friends and acquaintances know that you are looking for work. People who last actively looked for work six weeks ago are not “unemployed,” and prisoners and soldiers on active duty are not even in the labor force.

If part-time workers who wish they had full-time work, and people who want to work and have looked for work any time in the last year are added to the number of unemployed, the national “underemployment” rate is nearly 10 percent.

A recent analysis by the Community Service Society shows that fewer than 52 percent of the African-American men of working age in New York City had jobs in 2003. The picture is only slightly better for African-American women, of whom 57 percent were employed. In contrast, nearly 78 percent of white men had jobs during that year.

Some of this discrepancy is caused by differences in educational levels: 11.2 percent of workers with only a high school degree were unemployed, as were 9.4 percent of those with some college, but no bachelor’s degree. For college graduates, the unemployment rate was 5.2 percent.

As tuition rises for the City University system, it becomes more difficult for low-income people to take the educational route out of poverty. Half of all adult welfare recipients are high school dropouts, but rigid welfare rules discourage them from going to college.

Federal tax cuts will cost the nation $264 billion next year, of which only $1 billion would be needed to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

Foster Children With Mothers In Jail

Several hundred children entering foster care each year have mothers who are, or will be, in jail, but they have not been studied, until a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice. “To our knowledge this is the first report ever done that looked at biological mothers in the criminal justice system who had children in foster care,” says Tim Ross, Vera's researcher director. In many ways, he says, the report, which is the result of a request from the Administration for Child Services, is good news. “When we began we were concerned that quality-of-life policing, resulting in even short jail terms, might be pushing children into foster care. But it’s not the case that the incarceration of mothers is resulting in a child’s placement. That happens rarely. We were also surprised at how relatively small the numbers are, and that most of the incarceration is jail, not prison, which is a huge distinction.” The periods of incarceration, Ross says, tend to happen after the child has been placed, not before, and they are heavily related to drug use or its corollaries, prostitution and petty theft.

Women In Prison

Working with city and state agencies, the researchers matched child welfare and criminal justice records to find nearly 15,000 mothers whose children were or had been in foster care. More than a third of the mothers had been arrested and convicted at least once in their lives. Those arrests were primarily for misdemeanors. Only a handful involved violent felonies, and even fewer involved child victims. About 20 percent of these mothers had been incarcerated at least once. About 10 percent had children in foster care during the time they were behind bars, and most of those imprisonments had occurred in the year after the child was placed.

“There is such a lack of data that we don’t know how many incarcerated women have children, how many of those children are in foster care, how many inmates have a family court matter,” says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project. “The State Department of Correctional Services doesn’t track this information. We need more reports like this, and on a broader scale.”

The number of women in prison nationwide has increased more than 500 percent since 1977, more than double that of men. Of the more than a million women in the criminal justice system across the country, (about one percent of the U.S. female population), New York has the fourth highest female prison population, behind Texas, California and Florida. Most women inmates are mothers, and while men can of course be fathers, most of the women were primary caretakers of their children before they were imprisoned.

Catch-22 For Incarcerated Mothers

The Adoption and Safe Family Act provides a way for authorities to terminate the parental rights of an incarcerated parent who does not have contact with his or her child for six months, or whose child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. The average minimum sentence for a woman in a New York State prison is 58 months. The vagaries of the prison system – people being moved without warning (for security reasons), difficulty corresponding – makes regular communication and visits extremely difficult, which puts incarcerated women at significant risk of losing their kids.

The state houses more than 40 percent of its women inmates in Albion, which is 400 miles and nine hours away from New York City, where most of the women come from and where most of their children live. “If a child welfare worker can document a reason for her not to lose the kids, she won’t,” says Kraft-Stolar. “But many times the worker only has a piece of paper in front of him. And foster care agencies don’t take collect calls, which is the only way someone who is incarcerated can make a phone call.”

These are not violent criminals; 80 percent of women who entered New York State prisons in 2000 were convicted of non-violent drug or property offenses and 45 percent have been incarcerated for drug offenses specifically as a result of the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws(in pdf format). The vast majority of the state’s more than 2,900 women prisoners are survivors of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse. Most are African-American or Latina; most come from a handful of neighborhoods in New York City; most have prior drug and alcohol problems.

Advocates for incarcerated women promote preventative services. It’s long been known that drug treatment reduces drug-related crime far more than mandatory minimum sentences; a 1997 Rand study says 15 times more. It costs about $32,000 annually to confine an inmate in New York state prison, and twice that to keep one in a New York City jail. In comparison, the cost of most drugfree outpatient care ranges between $2,700 and $4,500 per person per year; even residential drug treatment programs, which can cost as much as $21,000 annually, are cheaper than locking someone up.

Effect On Children

These children being separated from their primary caretaker are often placed in foster care or kinship care, which leads to what Kraft-Stolar calls “collateral consequences.” It’s very hard for them to stay focused in school, she says. “They can’t relate to classmates, they often feel isolated and have emotional problems.” But incarceration of a mother can create complications for the child welfare agency’s family reunification policies. Although keeping the family intact is a strong predictor of the mother not returning to prison -- and the child ending up there later -- arranging and supervising visits takes time and resources, and it means the child welfare agency and the correctional institution have to cooperate.

To that end, the Administration for Child Services has been “impressively responsive,” Ross says. They commissioned the report when they began realizing from their own experience that this was an important issue. And around the same time, in 2000, they started the respected Children of Incarcerated Parents program at Rikers Island . Among other things it arranges nearly 800 parent-child visits each year, including weekly visits to Rikers Island and at least monthly visits to other city, state and federal correctional facilities. “It’s a terrific model but it needs to be expanded,” says Kraft-Stolar, noting that the program needs more resources. “The staff is overworked and underpaid and there are not enough people to provide services to visiting kids. And the problem just increases on the state level.”

The Administration for Child Services is also working toward collecting information on parents’ incarceration at various stages of a family’s child welfare case, says spokeswoman Maclean Guthrie. “While most child welfare systems do not comprehensively track this data, ACS is currently exploring the feasibility of building a database that would collect information on incarcerated parents who have children in foster care.”


Should Federal Rebuilding Funds Pay for Affordable Housing in Lower Manhattan?

To affordable housing advocates and many city officials, the $1.6 billion in tax free bonds Washington set aside to build housing in lower Manhattan after September 11 looks like an amazing windfall -- one that could be used to counter New York City's affordable housing shortage.

"This is an unprecedented amount of money," City Council Speaker Gifford Miller said at a City Hall press conference about the bonds, known as "Liberty Bonds."

But Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg each have control over how half of the bonds are spent. And the governor has decided that just five percent of the bonds should be set aside for middle and low income New Yorkers, saying that requiring a larger commitment might mean that nothing gets built in lower Manhattan. Generally, the state requires that 20 percent of specially financed housing projects be affordable.

Bloomberg has yet to tell the public his own plans for the $800 million in bonds he controls, saying only that he is considering charging developers who receive Liberty Bonds a three percent fee. This money would then go into a trust fund for affordable housing projects.

City Council's Proposal

Looking to influence how the mayor spends his $800 million, the City Council released its own Liberty Bonds proposal, calling for over half of the apartments built with Liberty Bonds to be affordable. "I believe that we if are aggressive about it we can get as much as 55 percent of the Liberty Bond money for low to moderate income housing," said Speaker Miller. The council's plan also calls on Congress to allow Liberty Bonds to be used above Canal Street.

Luxury Buildings

In August, the Housing Finance Agency, the state's housing authority, agreed to give nearly half of the governor's bonds for housing -- $340 million -- to three downtown residential projects that were all in the works before the September 11 attacks. In order to comply with the governor's affordable housing requirement, the two buildings in Battery Park City and one on Liberty Street agreed to set aside five percent of their apartments for tenants who make $93,000 and under.

To many New Yorkers, that doesn't sound like affordable housing. "Low-wage working families, and most firefighters, police, emergency service workers and teachers, are virtually excluded... for them, there is no room at the inn," David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York and Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, wrote in a Newsday editorial.

Developers say that since September 11, banks have not been as willing to approve projects with a greater percentage of lower rent apartments. When issuing the Liberty Bonds, Congress did not say that any of the housing built downtown must be affordable. Housing Finance Agency spokesperson Sally Crockett has said that the agency is taking a major step in setting five percent aside, and the deal cannot be that great for developers: only four companies have sent in Liberty Bond applications so far.

Community Board 1 later approved the three development projects as well, voting that making sure new residential buildings are constructed right away in lower Manhattan trumps affordable housing needs.

Liberty Bonds for Campaign Contributors?

Soon after the state authority approved the projects, the citizens lobbying group Common Cause announced that the developers had given major campaign donations to Friends of Pataki, the New York Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the New York State Republican Committee. With $327,100 in donations to state committees over the past four years, Glenwood Management Corp. was the largest donor, but the other companies -- Related Companies, Albanese Development Corp. and Northwestern Mutual Life -- also contributed to state and city campaign committees.

To finance their lower Manhattan projects, each of the developers will receive about $100 million in bonds, which they will repay over 34 years. They will not have to pay real estate taxes for 20 years.

Urban Issues: Poverty


• • • • • • •

John Edwards

Edwards believes that welfare reform has produced some positive result, but that more should be done to give low-income people education, job training, and childcare. He would double federal funding for health centers that treat low-income people. He supports initiatives to require fathers to pay child support and a campaign to reduce teen pregnancy. He promises to build a safety net to help homeless families.

John Kerry

Kerry believes that welfare reform has produced some positive result, but that more should be done to give low-income people education, job training, and childcare. He opposes the Bush administration's tougher work requirements for welfare recipients. He wants to build affordable housing to help the homeless.

Dennis Kucinich

Kucinich promises a "zero-unemployment economy," will institute a living wage that keeps pace with inflation, provide universal health care and childcare, and create a jobs program. He would create a housing trust fund to build homes for low-income families.

Al Sharpton

Sharpton opposes the 1996 welfare reform act. He advocates more programs for the poor and a massive job program to put thousands to work rebuilding infrastructure.

George W. Bush

In 2003, President Bush proposed an extension of the welfare reform act with added requirements. Under the plan, recipients would be required to work 40 hours per week, the average funding for a family on public assistance would be increased, and state and local governments would consolidate food stamps, housing, and education programs. While welfare rolls have decreased drastically in recent years in New York City, there are signs that the poor are not finding jobs or the help they need. Homelessness in New York City is at a record high. The number of single mothers who are unemployed has risen and their average hourly pay has actually decreased since 2000, according to one report.

To help address poverty, Bush advocates federal funding for local faith based organizations to help people find jobs, address addictions, and care for children.

• • • • • • •
Back to Urban Issues Main Page
• • • • • • •


• Urban Agenda: Poverty
• Welfare Reform in New York
• Homelessness in New York
• Turning to Faith Based Organizations


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