Walk into the St. Paul and St. Andrew (SPSA) church on West 86th Street on a Monday morning and the atmosphere is electric. The volunteers are organized and ready to receive the close to 200 recently arrived immigrants who are there for food, clothing, a metro card, words of support from the Venezuelan and Immigrants Aid organization and legal assistance from the New York Justice for Our Neighbors (NY-JFON).
The Mayor and his administration have been scrambling to figure out how best to house, clothe and feed the over 44,000 recently arrived migrants who have landed in our midst, in part, due to the political shenanigans of the Texas and Florida governors. As a result, the city, which has an ironclad right to shelter law, has seen the shelter census rise to over 77,000 from the 45,000 people who were housed at the beginning of the Adams’s administration. The recent scuttlebutt about the city’s use of Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook to house many of these migrants harkens back to the early days of the homeless crisis when there were 1000 men sleeping on cots at the Fort Washington Armory in Upper Manhattan. It feels like we are back to where we were 40 years ago as the city gropes with helping some its most vulnerable people.
Still, the humanitarian need of these new arrivals is real. Unfortunately, what doesn’t get reported is how local communities have rallied against all odds to welcome and support their new neighbors. Unbeknownst to many, a robust volunteer effort has been launched at SPSA in partnership with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue on West 88th Street. The church has become a genuine sanctuary for these newcomers seeking assistance. https://www.westsidespirit.com/news/uws-sanctuary-offers-help-to-new-asylum-seekers-AC2224637
While many come to look for warm clothing, school supplies for their children and personal hygiene kits, they also come bearing the government documents they received when they crossed the border, unsure of their next steps in procuring legal status in, what is undisputedly, a complicated and confusing immigration system.
TJ Mills, the managing attorney at NY-JFON, has several decades of experience working in the field of immigration. Mills spent time after college helping Salvadoran refugees who were fleeing its brutal civil war in the 1980s. He was so taken by his work there that he decided to go to law school and dedicated himself to helping those who were escaping the horrendous conditions in their host countries and came to the United States seeking a better life. He served as an asylum officer with the Department of Justice after law school and witnessed, first hand, the hurdles placed by the government to prevent the granting of asylum.
“Back then, immigration was just a fringe subject,” Mills said. “Some days you felt like you were in the belly of the beast by championing immigrant rights. My asylum grant rate was so high that my supervisors came down hard on me. I realized I needed another outlet to put my passion and deep knowledge of immigrant issues to good use,” he added.
Through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Mills found a position running a mini law clinic in a church basement in the Washington DC area. The program later opened up a branch in New York City and Mills decide to relocate and lead the effort to establish a local JFON office.
When SPSA opened its doors and became a sanctuary for the new arrivals, the church reached out to NY-JFON and asked them to be part of the community’s response. The Reverend K Karpen, SPSA’s senior pastor, realized that while the distribution of clothing, backpacks and personal items was helpful, the need to provide some aspect of legal counsel would be critical.
“People come in and we try to meet their immediate needs,” said Karpen. “The larger question for asylum seekers is that without legal help their wish, and need, to stay here is in question.”
Mills conducts “Know Your Rights” seminars for those who arrive at the church. They hail from a diverse group of Latin American countries – many from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and Nicaragua. They present a human face to the myriad impersonal reports of the political aspects of the “migrant crisis.” The participants listen attentively as Mills describes the difference between an asylum claim, a “check-in” with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the need to complete a change of venue application, and the meaning of pro se or self-representation. Others are curious to find out how they can procure work and housing while they do their best to survive in the shelter system. The goal, for all, is to find a way to remain in this country.
Reverend Paul Fleck, NY-JFON’s executive director, joined the New York office in 2019 and has been charged with expanding the organization’s reach. He is an ordained Elder in The New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church as well as a former litigation attorney. He draws on both experiences in his work.
“When I was a leading a congregation in Connecticut we won several asylum cases which I found very rewarding. My legal background also helped,” he said. He underscored the need amongst the immigrant population for legal assistance. “While many seek asylum, the reality is that without legal representation, it is very difficult to win a case. Asylum data shows that 85% of cases are successful when the individual or family is legally represented in immigration court,” he commented.
NY-JFON is one of over 20 JFON sites throughout the country under the umbrella of the United Methodist Immigration Ministry. There are three other attorneys in addition to Mills and Fleck in the New York office. NY-JFON sponsors several other legal clinics across the city and on Long Island. Fleck describes the organization as “lean” and overwhelmed with cases.
There currently is a statewide effort to pass legislation that would ensure the right to counsel to anyone facing proceedings before an immigration judge. The Access to Representation Act would go a long way to leveling the playing field, according to Fleck.
The Monday morning that I volunteered at the NY-JFON legal table at SPSA, I encountered the Colombian father who now lives in an Upper Westside shelter with his 12 year-old son. They had arrived in New York several weeks ago having crossed into Texas by way of the Rio Grande. He had fled Colombia to escape the paramilitaries who were threatening him since he belonged to the local Green party. He was afraid he would be killed because of his political involvement if he went back to Colombia. I advised him on what he needed to do to apply for asylum.
There was also the Venezuelan couple with four children who made the dangerous trek through the infamous Darien Gap jungle in Panama and were now living in a Queens family shelter. They needed to file a change of address with immigration since they planned stay in NYC but were scheduled to report to ICE next year in another city. There are thousands of more stories like these right in our neighborhoods. We need “thousands” of more places like NY-JFON to answer the call.