Making a Home in Manhattan

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ILJ affiliate New York Justice for Our Neighbors assists bused asylum seekers at a weekly clinic.

It’s Monday morning at St Paul and St Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The space is bustling with volunteers, community organizers, and recently arrived migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and Cuba, as well as several other countries.

<em>Migrant families sort through winter clothing donated by local organizations. Photo by K Karpen.</em>
Migrant families sort through winter clothing donated by local organizations—photo by K Karpen.

There are tables for food, diapers, and other essential goods. Church pews are full of coats and other winter gear. Migrant families stop at a booth to learn about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or to receive free metro cards.

In the back, meanwhile, New York Justice for Our Neighbors Executive Director Paul Fleck, Managing Attorney TJ Mills, and Asylum Attorney Alexis Duecker are preparing to give their weekly Know-Your-Rights training for asylum seekers.

Everyone attends. Paul estimates there are 150 people here today, each clutching the hand-out and listening carefully while TJ explains the U.S. asylum process. Some of the information is deceptively simple; the difference between an ICE check-in and an immigration court date; how to recognize and avoid scams; and why the one-year deadline to file an asylum claim cannot, under any circumstances, be disregarded.

<em>Paul consults with an asylum seeker at the Monday legal clinic.</em>
Paul consults with an asylum seeker at the Monday legal clinic.

It is vital for families to have—and understand—this information if they seek safety and security in the United States.

“Adjusting to our opaque legal system is more difficult than most people can contemplate,” states Paul. “But the people we meet are resolved to improve their lives—and the lives of their children. I think that’s very admirable and worthy of respect.”

After the training, there is some time for one-on-one consultations. There are a lot of people wanting to talk to an attorney. Alexis gets up to find a bottle of water and is immediately waylaid by a man who pleads with her to take his case.

“People are desperate,” she says. “There is just such a need for immigration attorneys. It’s disheartening that we can’t do more.”

Taking on an asylum case is a huge commitment of time and resources—one case can go on for years. NY JFON—like other New York nonprofit immigration legal service providers–doesn’t currently have the capacity to accept new asylum clients for full representation.

They do, however, assist with partial representation for those asylum seekers needing a change of venue.

When asylum seekers are cleared to enter the country, they must provide a U.S. address before they are given a court date and a court location. An asylum seeker confused about the location of his court date—or who does not understand the absolute necessity of appearing at the right time and place—could risk deportation in absentia.

The court location provided to the asylum seeker can be New York; it can also be Texas, Atlanta, Portland, Oregon, or any of the other 58 immigration courts across the country. Perhaps the address the migrant first gave ICE belonged to a shelter along the border in Texas or Arizona. Perhaps it was an address of a family member who has since moved. Perhaps ICE made a mistake.

Asylum attorney Alexis Duecker
Asylum attorney Alexis Duecker

Or maybe the asylum seeker—once reaching the Big Apple on one of Texas Governor Greg Abbot’s buses—decided they wanted to stay.

That seems to be the case with the asylum seekers asking for NY JFON’s help. Out of one batch of 25 changes of venue, only two wanted to go elsewhere; the rest were determined to live in New York.

“It’s winter, it’s cold, and their children are traumatized by the journey, but these families are so resilient,” says Alexis. “I think they will find a way to make it work.”

They sound like New Yorkers already.

A Community of Radical Welcome…

When busloads of migrant families began arriving in the spring of 2022, New Yorkers responded in the way they do best: efficiently and compassionately. Within hours, mutual aid groups sprang into action, providing food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. They were joined by churches, houses of worship, and other organizations throughout the city, creating a de facto refugee resettlement program for newly arrived asylum seekers.  

St Paul and St Andrew United Methodist Church soon developed its own robust resource center on Monday mornings, providing all kinds of essential goods, metro cards, and support from benefits specialists. But after reading about the church’s efforts in the United Methodist News, NY JFON Executive Director Paul Fleck realized that these asylum seekers had one additional and crucial need that was not being met: access to immigration legal services.  

Paul immediately contacted the church to see if NY Justice for Our Neighbors could help. And since December, the Monday morning resource fair at St. Paul and St Andrew has also included an immigration legal clinic.  


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