Op-Ed | CUNY Students Stepping Up To Support Asylum-Seekers

CUNY_Citizenship_Now_Checkin – PHOTO CHANC COLUMN – 1-25-26-2024

Jorge Alguera was 11 years old when he came to New York from Costa Rica with his family in 1995, launching his journey as an undocumented immigrant. He found open doors at CUNY, graduated from Queens College and became a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) at 29. Now, as a student at the CUNY School of Law, he is providing legal assistance to asylum-seekers through the school’s new Emerging Needs Clinics, part of a wide-ranging CUNY effort to support New York’s newly arrived migrants.

“Being able to help new arrivals is a full-circle moment that I cherish,” he says. “We see people from so many countries, from Senegal to Ecuador, and if we can help them avoid having to go years living in the shadows, we can change their lives and the trajectory of generations beyond.”

CUNY has a long and proud tradition of welcoming immigrants to the city, helping them become new Americans and propelling them up the economic ladder. The CUNY community also has a proud tradition of stepping up whenever the city has faced a major challenge — including during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have often mobilized our students, who are uniquely positioned to put their diverse experiences, compassion and sense of social justice into action.

And in CUNY Citizenship Now! — for more than 25 years the nation’s foremost university-based immigration law program — CUNY has the expertise, experience and structure to make a difference in the lives of migrants as they try to navigate a daunting and chaotic immigration system and an intimidating city.

More than 170,000 newly arrived migrants have come into the city over the past year. Most entered the country at the Mexican border and asked for asylum — permission to remain legally — after fleeing dangers or hardships in their home countries. The asylum application process is long and complex, and migrants must also apply for authorization to work legally while they await a decision.

Over the past few months, CUNY has launched a number of programs to help the city’s newly arrived migrants begin the arduous process. They include a series of Emerging Needs Clinics where students from CUNY Law School and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and volunteers recruited by CUNY Citizenship Now!, provide undocumented immigrants with guidance in applying for asylum and work authorization. The program, a rapid-response initiative to provide public interest legal assistance in a crisis, is aligned with the city’s Asylum Seeker Legal Assistance Network (ASLAN) and part of a $1.3-million partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

In the six clinics CUNY has sponsored since September, students and volunteers like Jorge Alguera have helped hundreds of asylum-seekers with their applications, including critical guidance in describing and documenting the situations they fled. They are assisted by students in the certificate program in Spanish legal translating and interpreting at John Jay.

CUNY has also played an important role supporting the city’s Asylum Application Help Center, the first in the nation to combine government, legal, corporate and university resources in a one-stop shop for application support. Dozens of student volunteers from City College, Baruch College and Queens College have assisted asylum-seekers at the center. Meanwhile, John Jay is serving as a satellite location to streamline the process for people in city shelters applying for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), available to those from certain countries where citizens face particular danger.

In recent months, meanwhile, the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy has paid six bilingual students and staff to help the city health department educate and vaccinate asylum-seekers living in the city’s shelter system. The New York City College of Technology is partnering with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to help Venezuelan nationals in Brooklyn shelters apply for TPS.

We are also grateful to Gov. Hochul’s funding for Citizenship Now!, through the state’s Office for New Americans, to help immigrants with applications for work authorization, TPS, Humanitarian parole and Family Reunification. To make an appointment at a center, please call (646) 664-9400.

I’m proud of these and other efforts by CUNY and its students to help New York meet a challenging moment in its history as a city of immigrants. And I’m proud that we are a university where these efforts grow organically from a deep and longstanding commitment to opening doors to the city’s newcomers.

“We’re a city that was built on the backs of immigrants,” Alguera says. “When you hear the stories of what people have escaped in their home countries, when you look into their eyes and see the person, it stops being work and becomes a mission.”

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.