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How Can Social Workers Support Immigration Efforts in NYC?


According to the New York Times, NYC has seen the arrival of over 130,000 asylum seekers since spring 2022. Whether willingly or unwillingly, many times these migrants arrive in the city and are left to fend for themselves without access to health care, shelter, and many of the human rights we take for granted daily. 

Founded in 2021 by Fordham GSS Professors Marciana Popescu, Ph.D., and Dana Alonzo, PhD, Her Migrant Hub is a platform with asylum seekers at the heart of its mission. Funded by a grant from the Mother Cabrini foundation, Her Migrant Hub has lifted the voices of countless numbers of asylum seekers and worked to improve access to vital resources creating a forum for their stories of hardship and hope. 

A spring symposium held last year was one such arena where attendees heard directly from women asylum seekers just how difficult navigating the immigration system is. The symposium’s success and the ongoing challenges faced by asylum seekers in NYC led to another event this month, which brought together two keynote speakers, and two panels comprised of professionals in the space as well as experienced asylum seekers. Participants discussed the holes within the NYC and broader US government immigration system and how that system is devastating a population of people so vital to our country’s success. 

‘Be Ready When You’re Called On’

Fordham GSS Dean Debra M. McPhee, Ph.D., opened the event, praising Her Migrant Hub for its work, the women asylum seekers for sharing their “experiences and dedication,” and the Fordham Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) students who work with Her Migrant Hub and are placed with several organizations serving the migrant population in the city, for providing such valuable support. McPhee thanked the Mother Cabrini Foundation and the NYC Mayor’s Office for their support, and, of course, Professors Popescu and Alonzo for their ongoing innovation and vision. 

McPhee then introduced a familiar face back to Fordham’s Lincoln Center Campus, NYC Deputy Director of Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom, who took to the podium to welcome everyone on behalf of the Mayor’s office. Williams-Isom, a Fordham graduate, honorary doctorate recipient, and former James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies, remarked that the moment was an “out of body experience” for her, having been 39 years since she was an undergraduate student at Fordham’s campus. 

Williams-Isom implored listeners to be “life-long learners,” even if “your path may not always be clear.” 

“Even if you don’t know where you’ll end up, be a life-long learner so you’re ready when you’re called on,” she said. 

Coming from an immigrant family—Williams-Isom’s mother, 93 this year, hails from Trinidad and Tobago, and immigrated to Harlem—Williams-Isom said that solutions to these broader issues will assimilate from the stories being told by those in need. She thanked Her Migrant Hub and Fordham for providing a platform for those stories to be told, and for students to use their voices to create change. 

“Thanks to Fordham University for being that place that planted a seed for me,” she said, “so that I could use my voice to make a difference.” 

Migration as a Gendered Issue

The day’s first keynote speaker, Dr. Natalia Cintra, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton, introduced an important theme for the day’s discussions: migration as a gendered issue, significantly impacting women. Her talk focused heavily on Venezuela, where gendered drivers of displacement included lack of food, lack of health care, violence, and economic crisis. 

This displacement often includes mothers and soon-to-be mothers, Cintra said, who migrate while pregnant out of care and love for their children, along with the aforementioned factors. These women are then forced to face the dangers of migration—specifically the gendered risks of trafficking and sexual abuse—while in an already-vulnerable state. They flee into the unknown, where the gap between the systems in place to protect them and what they actually experience is large. 

“They are entitled to live their lives like any other people,” Cintra said. “But until they can establish themselves, a huge part of their lives remains on hold.” 

NYC’s Housing Issue for Forced Migrants

The event’s first panel focused on one of the most fundamental of human rights – housing. However, as fundamental as it may be, housing is not always available to migrants entering NYC. 

Jahzeela Aguilar, a political scientist from Peru, detailed her immigration pathway, which she said has only gotten more difficult in the years since she made the trip. She came to the US with her two children and husband in the cold January winter. Aguilar said that while her struggle to find shelter and her child’s flu diagnosis along the way only made her family stronger, she still needed help generating resources. After the Red Cross directed her to Catholic Charities, a volunteer assisted Aguilar in applying for asylum status. She then found an apartment through NYC’s Office of Asylum Seeker Operations, which is led by Aguilar’s co-panelist Molly Shaeffer. 

Schaeffer acknowledged the challenges NYC has faced in the last few years around immigration, exacerbated by the busloads of migrants sent to the city by states like Florida and Texas.

“We’ve been getting between two and five thousand asylum seekers every week,” Schaeffer said. 

Schaeffer continued that her office is advocating for long-term solutions. She cited the city’s Migrant Relocation Assistance Program, which provides one year of housing for asylum seekers, as a step in the right direction.

“That’s the kind of program we want to get behind,” she said. 

New School Assistant Professor Achilles Kallergis, Ph.D., an expert on urbanization, migration, and mobility in rapidly growing cities, said that migration is obviously not a new phenomenon to NYC, which was built on migrant workers. Unfortunately, he said, the hostility toward migrants is also not new. Echoing Williams-Isom, Kallergis said the answer comes from the people’s voices. 

“There’s always been difficulties and hostility around immigration, but there’s always been integration,” he said. “It started with the people.” 

Kallergis agreed with Schaeffer that NYC needs long-term solutions, and accepting that the city has “always been” in a housing crisis is not an adequate answer. He noted that a win for asylum seekers is a win for NYC as a whole, given all the good they can bring into the city.

“We need to rethink what neighborhoods are, what community is, and what the mission of the city is,” he said. 

Fordham GSS doctoral student Luisa Fernanda Sandoval Cortes concluded the first panel by acknowledging that the families she sees in her role as a case manager at Catholic Charities have overwhelmingly faced four challenges: food, education, privacy, and a sense of belonging. 

“Social workers should be trained through an intersectional lens to understand gender, race, language, and empathy,” she said. 

“Housing is a social determinant of health, and we should look at it through that lens,” Alonzo said as the audience reflected on panel one. “A house is more than just a physical structure; it has to provide a sense of home for health and well-being.” 

Gendered Dimensions of Migration

Panel two revisited and focused on migration as a gendered issue. The discussion began with an emotional migration story retelling from Luvismar Florida Barridos, an 18-year-old asylum seeker and woman activist currently enrolled in Fordham’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program. 

Barridos’s journey began in Venezuela and continued through seven countries as she found her way to the US. She was bit by a spider and suffered convulsions crossing the jungle in South America, slept on the floor of multiple buses, and was held at gunpoint.

“Sometimes we need to talk and cry,” Barridos said about the Her Migrant Hub support group she participates in. “We are family.”

Barridos said she has now taken it upon herself to inform teenagers in her community just how hard their parents have worked and continue to work to keep them safe. This was confirmed by Marthe Kiemde, the panel’s second speaker, who came to America while pregnant but hid her condition to avoid being questioned about her citizenship status. When the birthing process was upon her and she couldn’t hide her pregnancy anymore, Kiemde went to an NYC hospital, only to leave after doctors suggested she receive a Cesarian section. 

“It was against my culture, so I said no,” she said. 

Eventually, Kiemde gave birth to her child, but her situation continued to stagnate in the system. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks following her birth and lived for four years in a shelter before finding an apartment for herself. While in the shelter, they were fed frozen food, with no ability to warm it up, as microwaves are not allowed in most shelters. 

“Every evening, I will take my child to the emergency room, and didn’t know why!” she said. 

Now, Kiemde has taken it upon herself to act as an advocate for women asylum seekers, particularly focusing on housing and domestic violence.

Liza Schwartzwald, director of economic justice and family empowerment at the New York Immigration Coalition, joined the discussion by noting that while the system may still have serious issues, there have been some incremental policy improvements along the way. Schwartzwald and the NYC Immigration Coalition were involved in the #Coverage4All campaign, which advocated for a statewide health insurance product for all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status.

Although the campaign was unsuccessful, it did “contribute to important wins for immigrant health coverage in the New York State Fiscal Year 2023 budget, which expands Medicaid coverage to undocumented New Yorkers over 65 and ensures 12 months of continuous post-pregnancy coverage for everyone regardless of immigration status,” according to the Coverage for All website.

Schwartzwald continued by stating the importance of community outreach and dissemination of information for those who may not have the knowledge of where to find resources, and framed childcare as a gendered issue of immigration.

“Childcare in New York City can cost up to $20,000 per year,” she said. “When children aren’t cared for, that’s a gendered problem, because it’s inevitably the mother who this falls on.” 

Deborah Lee, attorney-in-charge for the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, also advocated for long-term strategies as an alternative course of action to “bandaid solutions.” 

“Work permits are not a long-term strategy,” Lee said. 

She continued by noting that if asylum seekers don’t get these work permits or legal citizenship, this creates a situation where they must form and take part in an “underground economy” in order to survive. This, in turn, unfortunately frames them as “second-class citizens.”

“People are more than their immigration case and status,” she said. 

‘The Personal Is Political’

After a screening of Moving Forward, a documentary from the University of Southampton, and time for targeted working groups (aiming to identify solutions and provide recommendations on four different issues affecting women asylum seekers – housing, mental health, reproductive health, and employment), the group regathered for the final keynote of the day. Dr. Pia Riggirozi, a professor of Global Politics at Southampton, reminded everyone that a need for resources does not mean that asylum seekers should be perceived as “weak.”

Dr. Pia Riggirozi presents at the event

Dr. Pia Riggirozi

“We need to break the myth of the vulnerable, weak migrant and demand policies for the collective benefit,” she said. “The personal is political, and the personal is collective.”

Riggirozzi said that these stories, which are so crucial to garnering support for the collective, should be told from a framework of respect and dignity, as well as from a human rights perspective. She added that migrant protection is a shared responsibility, not just a city, state, or governmental one. 

“We have to talk to the education and housing sectors, all these social determinants of health,” she said. “These women deserve shared responsibility. Her Migrant Hub is a fantastic platform to demand what we’ve identified today.” 

Popescu agreed, stating that she hopes events like these will forge future collaborations to help those who need it. She also stressed the need to change the paradigm and center the voices of women migrants in any decision-making process, as they are the true experts on their own experiences. Throughout the symposium, women asylum seekers taught participants what it means to be a migrant in NYC in 2023 — what helps and what needs to be improved. Most importantly, Popescu concluded,

“We need to bring humanity back to New York, the US, and wherever else it is needed, which seems like everywhere.” 


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