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Know Your Rights
Source: Indypendent
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Finding a Road Through the Recession: An Interview with Make the Road New York Organizer Julissa Bisono

under a discreet awning along Roosevelt
in Elmhurst,
the Road New York

is nestled in a seemingly endless mall of discount groceries and gas marts. The
outside of the immigrant rights group’s office is painted with a mural of the New York skyline.

the walls are draped with national flags — yellow, red, white and blue.
Classrooms buzz with workshops on organizing, language, job-training and
computer skills. Make the Road New York
advocates for immigrants in housing, education and labor disputes, winning
numerous legal and political battles over the last decade. The Indypendent’s
Jon Gerberg sat down with

Julissa Bisono
, the workplace
justice organizer, to discuss her organization’s work and the current political
reality for immigrants living in the United States.

Gerberg: What is a normal day like here at Make
the Road
New York?

Julissa Bisono: What I do here is try to organize mostly
immigrant workers in order to improve working conditions and help them recover
On a typical day, a person comes in who has either been working for
a place for many, many years and been laid off, realized that they have not been receiving minimum wage,
or have not been paid overtime
. What I’ve been seeing lately is that people are working for a month or two,
being promised wages, and then never getting anything at all.

What are some examples that really infuriated you?

JB: Usually the people
that come in have very extreme cases. I had a worker come in yesterday who said
he left his job to work for a construction company. He worked there for two
months, was promised $150 a day, and then didn’t get a penny. Now he’s getting
evicted because he hasn’t been able to pay the rent.

Over the past two years, how has the recession been a factor in the increase in
workplace injustice?

JB: Undocumented workers
don’t have the benefit of applying for unemployment insurance, so they don’t
have many options. They need to find another job as soon as possible. So what
I’ve seen is that they go to these employment agencies to help them find a job,
and these employment agencies have become smarter about ripping off people. In
the last two years I’ve had a couple of our members move back to their
countries. After being here for 10 years, not seeing your family, it starts to
take a toll on you. Some people are hopeless about immigration reform and just
trying to survive day to day.

With such high unemployment, why do you think people are still immigrating?

JB: There’s something
about New York City.
Back in our countries, people still talk about that “American Dream”: “I’m
gonna work really hard here and I’m gonna build up and then go back to my
country.” I feel like maybe 30 years ago it was more possible to actually do
that, but now it’s more challenging. Jobs are not there. Wages are not there.
It’s really hard to live in New York
because it’s expensive.

You say there’s not as much racism in New
, but reports have shown that unemployment is an
issue that has vastly different effects across lines of race and class.

JB: I feel like it’s
easier to adapt here. It’s different from living in a town in the suburbs where
you’re the only Hispanic family. Queens is the most diverse place in the world.
In Queens, you see the diversity along the 7
train. You go to Main Street
and it’s Asian. Corona
is Mexican, Ecuadorian and Dominicans. And then Jackson Heights
is Colombian, Bangladeshi. It’s easier when there are different types of

Sometimes there are conflicts of interest between labor and immigrants’ rights
groups. What differences have you seen in your work and how do you think they can
be reconciled?

JB: We’re all
immigrants. That’s what I believe. The anti-immigrant groups have done a real
good job at trying to divide us and say that immigrant workers are taking up
most of the jobs.
lot of the unions say, “Wow, it’s hard for us to find jobs because the
immigrant workers are taking over.”

unions are stuck on the fact that they want work visas, which creates a space
where people are more vulnerable to exploitation. What we want as an organization is immigration reform that is going to
allow families to stay together and still work and follow a path to

How do you propose to solve some of these problems?

JB: Well there’s this
constant fear of immigration [police]. We need immigration reform as soon as
possible. There are a lot of workers
that pay their taxes here but never enjoy the benefits of a person that has
[legal] status.

What can New Yorkers do right now to start changing these injustices?

JB: They need to get
organized. They need to get together as a group and start fighting for justice.
I know it’s hard because people, especially undocumented workers, fear
immigration [police]. I think that people need to start believing that if we
get together there can actually be change
. I don’t want to sound like Obama,
but I’ve seen when workers organize themselves, the power that they have.