Organization creates opportunities, fights for equality and economic justice for the city’s low-income people of color.
While 25 Mexican immigrants studied English in the next room of the Port Richmond Avenue office of Make the Road New York — a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping Hispanic and other newcomers — co-executive director Ana Maria Archila reflected on her own immigrant experience.
"Migration was the most important experience in my life," said Ms. Archila, 29, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who came here in 1996, and just became a citizen of the U.S. "It meant losing the place where I had friends and dreams, knew the language and was known, for a place where I had no friends and couldn’t communicate my ideas."
Now fluent in English, it took her three years of constant study to feel comfortable speaking the language, despite advantages most other immigrants don’t have. "I didn’t have to work, or take care of a family or study at night after working all day."
Also, her psychiatrist father, a political refugee from Colombia, had preceded her here and became a U.S. citizen, so her entry was easy. But she readily empathizes with the plight of others.
Her language struggle and feeling of separation were "very hard but also very empowering. The helped me find strength and be more humble and more appreciative of people. When I finished college (Montclair State University, anthropology major), I wanted to put my education to good use, and work in the immigrant community."
She’s done that for seven years, with Make the Road, whose mission is to create opportunities, equality and social and economic justice for the city’s low-income people of color.
The organization’s name comes from a line by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: "Searcher, there is no road; we make the road by walking," which, Ms. Archila explained, means "that, together, we have to forge the path of our lives; we can’t expect it to be made for us."
To that end, Make the Road provides adult education — 400 Staten Islanders in the last year — legal services, and education about accessing health care. In Brooklyn and in Queens, it’s also established an English-intensive public high school directed at immigrants.
The nightly English classes on the Island, taught by Wagner College volunteers, among others, also enable immigrants to build relationships and learn about their rights and how together they can transform their lives and community, she said.
Make the Road works to help improve working conditions and connect people to Staten Island Legal Services in St. George for support in wage negotiation and correction of safety violations. In the three boroughs it serves, it has recovered $3 million for immigrant workers in unpaid wages over the last three years.
Ms. Archila said the organization prefers to support individuals in their immediate needs and connect them to a group working for better conditions for all. It accomplished that in Brooklyn, when a committee of neighborhood retail workers, collaborating with the Department of Labor, pressed employers in a strip mall to stop paying below minimum wage and fix violations.
Two years ago, Make the Road helped two teen boys doing menial work 12-hours day, six days a week at an Island deli. They had been afraid to protest their low wages and the organization, through Staten Island Legal Services, got the money owed retroactively, to bring them to minimum wage — about $12,000 each.
She considers one of those boys, the same age as her brother, "one of the most important people" in her life.
"Even though he was so exploited, he was always very happy. And I respected him so much because I realized the difference between them was my brother had citizenship and an educated parent, and he didn’t. And because of those different circumstances, my brother could go to school, while he had to work for a few dollars.
"To this day, I feel knowing him sealed my commitment to work in this community," Ms. Archila said.
Noting that current economic instability is creating a lot of "rightful" anxiety feeding anti-immigration sentiments, she addressed commonly held myths. Many were due, she said, to lack of opportunity to ask difficult questions and get candid responses, without being labeled
From her work on the Island, she’s convinced "people do want to learn English" because immigrants see the ability to communicate is so important in all aspects of their lives.
Obviously, she added, there are big differences in wages for persons who speak English and those who do not. People without papers are especially vulnerable, according to Ms. Archila, less able to negotiate wages or working conditions.
She cited a recent-year New York City study that found that for every hundred non-English speakers who wanted to learn the language, there were only five classroom seats available. "We have to change the city policy to make sure there are more learning opportunities."
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Another myth, she contended, is that immigrants come here for benefits and exploit the system. "But the fact is undocumented people, and even immigrants who are here legally but for less than five years — cannot receive any type of public benefits, no public housing, no food stamps." The only exceptions: undocumented children can have health insurance until they are 19, and women who are pregnant can have insurance for the duration of the pregnancy.
Immigrants, many who have relatives here, "are not undocumented by choice," she declared, adding, "The difference between legals and illegals is having someone here legally to assist them."
Ms. Archila ardently believes Federal law must be changed "so people can enter the country without having to risk their lives, and live and work here without being in the shadows. A Mexican for instance should be able to come and do farm work here and return home without fear for his safety.
"We need to legalize the status of undocumented people, It’s not practical or humane to deport the undocumented and leave their kids here.
She feels better laws are needed to prevent companies from exploiting workers, whether American-born or immigrants.
The Port Richmond office of Make the Road is just blocks from where a man drove his car into three Mexican-owned shops, allegedly on purpose.
"My first reaction was surprise and sadness," she said. "I understood there were tensions and frustration about the presence of immigrants in the area. But in seven years here, I’ve never seen that kind of targeted violence."
Yet, she’s convinced "those expressions of frustration cannot stop Staten Island from becoming a diverse place, revitalized by people from different parts of the world."