Immigration reform may be in political and legal limbo nationally, but in New York officials used a national conference on the issue on Monday to announce plans to bolster support for immigrants in the city and across the state.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who has pushed immigration reform as part of his progressive platform, said the city would spend $7.9 million next year to boost its immigration services throughout the five boroughs, deploying community organizations to help residents seek free legal assistance to apply for protection from deportation or even for citizenship.
At the same time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vowed to continue to crack down on wage theft and the exploitation of workers — many of whom are immigrants who fear reporting abuse to the authorities — and said that the state had already recovered more than $28 million for workers who had been cheated out of their wages.
Mr. de Blasio, speaking in an address to the National Immigrant Integration Conference at the Brooklyn Marriott, said the city wanted to reach up to 75,000 immigrants in the first year of its plan, called ActionNYC.
“We know that when executive action fully takes effect, a huge number of New Yorkers will benefit, but we also know that they need the legal assistance to benefit from these opportunities,” the mayor said, referring to President Obama’s programs that would offer protections to some immigrants who came to the country illegally, which have been blocked by legal challenges.
Governor Cuomo noted that immigrants are often the victims of exploitation in the workplace. “This administration will not tolerate exploitation in any industry — period,” he said in a statement. “We aggressively investigate all allegations of abuse, and will not hesitate to crack down on bad actors and hold them accountable.”
Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, one of the participating groups, said that the city’s added legal services were coming at a critical time.
“There’s a lot of people, because of what’s been going on in national rhetoric about immigration, who don’t come forward, and who are always afraid to interact,” he said. “We need to go into the communities and not wait for those to come forward.”
Officials and community partners started to discuss the issue after President Obama announced his executive actions in November 2014, creating a program that would both expand the existing deferred deportation rule for those who came to the United States as children and, as a new component, protect parents of United States citizens. Those actions have since been blocked by a Texas appeals courtand could be decided by the Supreme Court next year.
But the city decided to forge ahead with its plan carved out of the $78.5 billion budget, even as the executive actions stalled. With ActionNYC, the city is inserting its money and infrastructure into an existing community network.
The mayor’s office said the city could improve the services for residents unaware that they were eligible for existing deferred action, or benefits such as green cards or temporary protection status afforded to immigrants from certain countries suffering hardship.
“The legal needs span up and down the spectrum,” Nisha Agarwal, the city’s commissioner for immigrant affairs, said. “It’s better that they get legal help and that they don’t spend thousands of dollars to go to a notario who will cheat them.”
For Maria Caba, one such organization, Atlas: DIY — an advocacy group in Brooklyn that works with immigrant youth — was the alternative that changed her life. Ms. Caba, 28, who came to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was 2, wanted to make her status legal. She said she met with a dozen lawyers who wanted to overcharge her until she found the group on YouTube in 2013.
Now a legal permanent resident, Ms. Caba is working for Atlas: DIY as its director of outreach, going into restaurants, schools, religious congregations and subway stops around Brooklyn. “When I share my story, people feel a sense of hope,” she said.
Through the city’s program, she will get a raise, as well as two new colleagues, including Arianna Flores. “What it means is more people getting the help that they need, more people coming out of the shadows or just being more informed,” Ms. Caba said.
At a recent workshop for immigrant youth about the President’s executive actions — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — Ms. Caba said she was surprised by how many participants did not know about the programs.
New York State lags behind the rest of the country in applications for deferred action. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of September, New York State had a total application rate of 48 percent compared to the national total of 53 percent among the population immediately eligible for deferred action.
Five organizations, including Atlas: DIY and Make the Road New York, will work outreach. Seven organizations together will hire 24 community navigators, people who, while not lawyers, can speak the language of the neighborhood and who can conduct comprehensive legal screenings.
The New York Immigration Coalition, which is sponsoring the national conference in Brooklyn, will oversee the training of the navigators. Six New York City organizations, with one lawyer each, will be paired with specific navigators. Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York will partner with Asian Americans for Equality.
Mario Russell, the director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities Community Services in New York, said: “It’s a really interesting and new model. The city is saying, here are a half-dozen lawyers, let’s deploy them in these areas and in this way.”
“It is a good thing, it is a right thing,” he said. “How it works, we’ll see.”