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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Helping Immigrants Navigate Government

At a Haitian church in Canarsie, Brooklyn, officials from the mayor’s office spent a recent Saturday morning discussing food stamps and discrimination in the workplace, their words translated into Creole for an audience of some 50 people.

The next night, another delegation spoke to a group of Bangladeshi immigrants in the Bronx about police precincts and community boards. In recent weeks, officials have held similar meetings with Albanians, Mexicans and West Africans.

The forums are part of a new program, run by the mayor’s office, that is intended to improve the relationship between city government and immigrants who are often wary of local authorities or unaware of city services available to them.

One N.Y.C., One Nation, as the program is called, is in some ways an acknowledgment that despite Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s vocal support for the city’s immigrants, too many of them remain cut off from the mainstream. The first forums have found many immigrants distrustful of the local police, unengaged with their elected officials and unable to find reliable legal help for their immigration problems.

“How do we fundamentally engage our immigrant communities to help them understand that their voice matters?” asked Fatima A. Shama, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which is coordinating the program.

The initiative, which began in February, also represents a shift of emphasis for the Bloomberg administration, which has spent significant energy rallying mayors and business leaders to lobby for a broad overhaul of federal immigration policy — only to see its campaign stall in Congress.

Instead of looking toward Washington, the new program focuses on government at its most humble: police precinct councils, community board meetings, zoning laws. While local officials and agencies directly affect immigrants’ quality of life and sense of empowerment and security, Ms. Shama said immigrants rarely connect with them.

At the meeting with Haitian immigrants at Beracan Baptist Church on Flatlands Avenue, the program’s director, Camelia Ghiuzeli Mitchell, asked whether anyone had ever heard of police precinct councils — neighborhood groups that meet with the local police to discuss safety issues. Not a hand went up.

“Our immigrant communities,” Ms. Shama said, “know how to navigate a lot of the city that they participate in — they know how to put a parade together. But do they know what a community board is? Are they engaged with the park cleanup?”

“The success of the city will always be dependent on people being a part of their communities,” she added. “Now more than ever we have to make sure that immigrants trust us.”

The program was created in part as a response to some of the inflammatory remarks in last summer’s debate over a proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, as well as several high-profile attacks against Muslims, gays and other minorities. “We had some intolerance happening in the city, which forces us to be smarter to ensure that our immigrant communities feel more comfortable,” Ms. Shama said.

One Nation, a national foundation that promotes civic engagement with an emphasis on reaching Muslims, is financing the project with a two-year, $500,000 grant to be supplemented by at least $500,000 raised by the New York Community Trust.

Ms. Shama said the New York initiative, which seeks to engage myriad immigrant groups on a wide range of projects, is the first of its scale in the country.

Posters and speakers will urge immigrants to become more involved with their children’s schools, to participate in English study programs and to open bank accounts. College readiness seminars and financial literacy sessions will be offered.

But the program also seeks to identify a new wave of leaders in immigrant communities who have ideas for reshaping their neighborhoods to better suit the changing populations. The mayor’s office is teaming up with the Coro New York Leadership Center to offer small grants to 20 immigrants, who will receive leadership training and help in creating community development projects. The hope is to cultivate a group of potential leaders to represent communities whose voices are seldom heard, Ms. Shama said.

Advocates for immigrants said they were pleased to see the city focusing on civic engagement, as long as the authorities continued offering basic services to the needy.

“If you’re shuttling your family to soup kitchens, it’s hard to play a meaningful role on the community board,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road NYC. “But there is a real desire in immigrant communities throughout the city to figure out how to engage.”

The meeting with the Haitians showed both the project’s potential and its challenges. The group sat patiently through more than an hour of presentations about city services and privacy policies, but at the end, few questions touched on any of the programs mentioned. Instead, nearly all asked about their immigration status, a matter largely beyond the program’s purview.

Still, many in the audience said the session proved valuable. “As an immigrant, we don’t know our rights, how to get help, who to talk to,” said Verlande Antoine, a Haitian nursing assistant who has lived in New York for nearly a decade. “You never know when you’re going to need help.”

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