NYC Immigration Groups Say They’re Swamped

New York’s immigrant advocacy groups are saying that Donald Trump’s one-month old presidency is taking its toll on them.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained 40 people in New York City and 680 people nationwide for their status as undocumented immigrants. The agency’s actions triggered a panic in New York City’s immigrant community, which is still rippling through social media and neighborhood grapevines. In the preceding weeks, the executive orders around immigration and international travel set off similar waves of unease.

As a result, organizations that work with immigrant communities have reported being swamped with new cases and worried phone calls. “We haven’t had a day off since January 20,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, New York Immigration Coalition’s senior communications manager. “We are certainly overwhelmed as an organization.”

From her perspective, it has made a huge difference that Trump and his administration are openly supportive of deportations, whereas Barack Obama’s administration conducted deportations while rhetorically supporting immigrants. “The tactics that are being used were used during Obama, but Trump signed the executive orders, and he’s taking credit for it,” she said. Trump’s open support of deportations, Yakupitiyage said, is spurring the panic in immigrant communities, and causing more people to seek help from advocates.

“People are at capacity,” said Michael Velarde, a spokesman for the Immigrant Defense Project. “The Trump problem is mainly a workflow problem, and everybody in the immigrant rights community and social justice community is really pushing themselves to the limit.”

Velarde said the Immigrant Defense Project’s stretched legal help hotline, which has been running for years, is but one measure of the growing need for services. “This hotline exploded immediately following the election,” said Velarde. “We got an unprecedented number of calls.” The Legal Aid Society, one of the city’s biggest public defenders, has also reported that its new legal assistance hotline has been flooded with calls.

A recent training by the Immigrant Defense Project

A recent training by the Immigrant Defense Project. Photo by the Immigrant Defense Project.

Camilla Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the New York Legal Assistance Group, saw a similarly sharp increase in demand for the group’s immigration attorneys. “They are really swamped dealing with all of this,” she wrote in an email. The group is also putting on “Know Your Rights” training sessions for immigrant communities in schools and community centers throughout the city. “We are doing them virtually daily right now,” wrote Jenkins.

A flip side to the increased demand for services, many immigration advocates, like the Legal Assistance Group and the New York Immigration Coalition, are reporting an increase in donations.

While the donations are helpful, Velarde of the Immigrant Defense Project said. taking in more money won’t solve the ‘workflow’ problem created by the Trump presidency. He estimated the organization’s staff would have to triple in size to fully meet the new demands. “That’s impractical.”

The alternative, he said is finding ways to collaborate with other groups to create systems or ‘products,’ such as pamphlets or training sessions, that can be easily shared and replicated. One such product is the Immigrant Defense Project’s “Know Your Rights” materials, which were developed in collaboration with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and are now being distributed through many different local organizations. Velarde sees that as a blueprint for future cooperation.

“The normalization of violence and human rights abuses against immigrants, especially immigrants caught up in detention-deportation dragnet has really surfaced,” said Velarde. “This moment has activated a lot of people to get involved.”

Over 150 New York lawyers are among the newly involved, said Jenkins of the Legal Assistance Group. Private attorneys have signed up for training on the implications of the executive orders, and each lawyer who attends the training must agree to take on at least one case pro bono. “So that does help with the capacity issue,” she wrote.

The need could still grow. White House advisor Stephen Miller said in a February 12 interview that the Trump administration is considering new executive orders focused on curtailing immigration.