Funding for Adult Literacy and Other Immigrant Services To Be Contested in City Budget Negotiations


Council Member Shahana Hanif (photo: @ShahanaFromBK)

How city government is addressing the needs of immigrant communities is shaping up to be one of several key issues as Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Council negotiate the next city budget, due by the July 1 start of the new city fiscal year.

Among a series of March hearings held by the Council on Mayor Adams’ $98.5 billion preliminary budget plan, representatives from the Mayor’s Office on Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and advocates appeared before Council members to discuss the allocation of resources to the city’s different programs designed to support and empower immigrant communities. The hearing was led by Council Member Shahana Hanif, a recently-elected Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Immigration.

Hanif is co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus and represents District 39, which includes parts or all of Park Slope, Borough Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill, and includes large Southeast Asian communities, including the Bangladeshi-Americans Hanif is among. Hanif has been among those critical of Adams’ approach to his first budget plan, which included planned reductions in spending at many city offices and agencies but not at the NYPD, which Hanif believes should see a significant reduction in funding to reinvest in communities.

MOIA is a relatively small office within the Mayor’s Office, not its own city department, with roughly seven staff members and, in Adams’ budget plan, funding of a little over $800,000. But MOIA is not the only city entity serving immigrant communities, instead operating more of a policy and coordination function, while also running some programming. The city’s major programs serving immigrant communities are run through specific city departments.

In her opening statement at the hearing, Hanif stressed the importance of addressing the needs of immigrant New Yorkers, zeroing in on recent cuts the Adams administration had proposed to adult literacy programs and calling for restoration in funding. Adult literacy was an issue Hanif returned to repeatedly during the hearing, then elevated afterward on social media, and is among the top priorities for immigrant advocates year in and year out in the city budget process.

The city’s adult literacy programming is run out of the Department of Youth and Community Development with coordination and policy development by MOIA, but Hanif said coordination among agencies is important, and that she is still seeking clarification after DYCD denied cuts during a separate hearing.

“It was evident to me that these agencies are not necessarily working as closely as they should to protect this vital programming and initiatives that are geared towards immigrant communities,” Hanif said in an interview with Gotham Gazette a few days after the hearing.

During the hearing, MOIA Commissioner Manuel Castro confirmed that there was a proposed reduction to funding for adult literacy programs. A report released by MOIA shows the funding proposed for fiscal year 2023, which begins this July 1, falls millions of dollars below that for the current fiscal year, FY22.

During the hearing Hanif called this proposed cut a “massive disappointment and a move toward disinvestment that will absolutely harm our immigrant communities.”

Though the specifics remain somewhat hazy, Hanif told Gotham Gazette that she understands the $1.6 million reduction is connected to the Adult Literacy Pilot Project out of DYCD, whose representatives said at the hearing it was due to underspending on case managers for that project.

Hanif described adult literacy programs as “essential to navigating healthcare, education, access to better jobs, and participating in the city’s recovery effort.” Further, she referenced recent targeted attacks on members of the Pan-Asian community throughout the city and described adult literacy classes as venues where the needs of this community, in particular, could be articulated.

During his opening testimony at the hearing, Commissioner Castro mostly reviewed the mission of his office and reaffirmed the need for an equitable recovery in New York City post-pandemic. Immigrant New Yorkers are generally less likely to have health insurance, more likely to be rent-burdened, and often suffer higher poverty rates, Castro pointed out, adding that both federal and state policies often fail to take into account the experiences of immigrant communities.

In a recap of MOIA’s activities in 2021, Castro listed emergency relief programs implemented during the pandemic, as well as covid vaccine outreach targeted at undocumented New Yorkers, language access and interpretation support, immigration legal services, and outreach for both the city’s “NYC Care” health care program and the IDNYC municipal identification card program, which are geared toward undocumented New Yorkers.

The Adams administration is committed to language access, Castro assured, saying 22% of New Yorkers have limited English proficiency and over 200 languages are spoken in the city.

Hanif noted she herself has helped assist in the translation of legal materials during her tenure working in predecessor Brad Lander’s City Council office. “Our big issue this year looks like it will be language access,” Hanif tweeted after the hearing. “The Mayor’s office is dragging its feet on Local Law 30, and we’re outsourcing too much translation work in a City that speaks 900 languages. We need a public language corps, and we need it now.”

Local Law 30 established baseline requirements for language access across city agencies. It mandates that city agencies appoint a language access coordinator and develop language access implementation plans, as well as provide over-the-phone interpretation in a minimum of 100 languages, translate the most commonly distributed government documents into the 10 designated citywide languages, and post signage about the availability of free interpretation services. Commissioner Castro affirmed that Local Law 30 should be enforced and mentioned that the language services team provides interpretation and translation for mayoral offices including MOIA.

As for her call for a public language corps, Hanif explained to Gotham Gazette it would mean a program hiring New Yorkers who speak the languages in their communities to well-paying translation and interpretation jobs.

“I really want to make New York City a city where we’re not relying on outsourcing language access providers from big companies and instead look towards us, look towards everyday people, immigrants, undocumented people who speak the languages, and then for us to be able to provide training,” she said.

Hanif referenced African Communities Together, a local non-profit organization, as a prime example of an effective worker cooperative model that services languages of limited diffusion, or languages spoken by a relatively small group of people throughout the city. Hanif also stressed the importance of feedback, explaining that if translated materials are written in jargon recipients are less likely to understand the vital information the documents hope to convey.

“Translation and interpretation save lives,” she said. “If you don’t know what your rights are you are more likely to open the door when ICE comes knocking.”

During the hearing, the Q&A section focused on several budget specifics. When prompted about the new needs MOIA might have in the upcoming year Commissioner Castro mentioned that the office had recommended to the mayor an emphasis on language access initiatives and support for refugees, including those from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, in the budget.

Hanif requested a number of different figures throughout the conversation including class sizes for the city’s adult literacy classes and enrollment numbers in IDNYC and We Speak NYC – the city’s free English Language Learning (ELL) program which provides online and in-person instructions across all five boroughs. MOIA staff was not able to provide many of the requested numbers during the hearing but assured Hanif they would follow up. A few days later, Hanif had still not received those numbers but said she hadn’t followed up yet.

“If we’re trying to make sure that the deeper investments are going towards immigrant specific initiatives,” Hanif said, “[it’s important] that we have the right numbers because those right numbers determine where we need to expand on outreach, and how many languages we need to bring into either MOIA’s translation and interpretation team, or the advocates’ effort to call on the city to broadly expand translation and interpretation across many more languages.”

As the Adams Administration tightens belts slightly at most city agencies, including by eliminating many vacant positions, Commissioner Castro mentioned that the municipal identification card program of IDNYC, open to all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status, would lose three budgeted positions that are currently unfilled. In his testimony, Castro emphasized the importance of outreach and enrollment so that the value of IDNYC could be better quantified, and shared that MOIA plans to increase enrollment by engaging with ethnic community media and advertising on social media.

In MOIA’s fifth annual report, released recently, it reported that since its inception, IDNYC had received upwards of 1.8 million applications – with the largest share coming from Brooklyn and Queens.

As for NYC Care, another focus of the hearing, Castro said the city plans to reach as many communities as possible, specifically immigrant communities, assuring outreach in the next year will be extensive and targeted. Launched under Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Care provides low- and no-cost access to health care for city residents who do not qualify for or cannot afford health insurance. It seeks to match individuals with primary care doctors, an important step in keeping people healthy.

Tom Tortorici, the Director of Legal Initiatives at MOIA, said past outreach has been conducted in 21 languages. As of February this year, over 100,000 New Yorkers had been enrolled in the NYC Care program.

Several other pressing issues facing immigrant communities were addressed at the hearing, including access to meaningful legal services, including those for refugees, and outreach for the Know York Rights (KYR) campaign – a system of city-sponsored forums that help ensure immigrant New Yorkers understand their rights and protections under the law regardless of immigration status. Hearing participants also discussed the need for an easier contracting process with the city for community-based organizations. Commissioner Castro, who previously served as the Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a Queens-based nonprofit, said he knew firsthand how challenging the process was and how many barriers exist.

“I can’t lie, there’s a lot of work to be done in this area,” Castro said of contracting, explaining that there was a consensus around the city that this was a process that needed to be refined in order to lift up local nonprofits. Mayor Adams and Comptroller Brad Lander recently issued a joint set of plans for improving the procurement and contracting processes aimed especially at helping nonprofit human service providers.

Several of those nonprofits were in attendance at the hearing, and as the meeting moved toward public testimony representatives from a broad array of organizations made their case for maintained or increased city funding.

Representatives from The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) as well as CUNY Citizenship Now! spoke on the importance of providing legal defense for immigrants facing deportation or detention. Both organizations were seeking over a million dollars to support their on-the-ground efforts to defend immigrants and their families.

Rex Chen of Legal Services NYC said immigration cases are taking longer since the pandemic, and there is a higher need for social services support. Terry Lawson of Unlocal, an organization that provides legal support to undocumented New Yorkers, said in her testimony: “World events are demonstrating more clearly than ever that migration is a human right and we support efforts to create greater access to migration for all.”

Council Member Hanif echoed that sentiment in the interview with Gotham Gazette, expressing a desire to expand pro-bono legal services for immigrant New Yorkers.

“Ensuring that we’re strengthening these legal service organizations and the services is going to be critical,” she said, “alongside fighting for ending the racist criminal carve-out for NYIFUP.”

There were a number of other governmental actions Hanif referenced in the movement for greater protection of immigrant New Yorkers, including the Dignity Not Detention Act, a state bill that would end all current and future contracts between ICE and immigration detention centers in New York, and city legislation around the ban of space heaters in the wake of the recent and fatal Bronx fire.

“The Council broadly has been showing that we are in support of our immigrant neighbors, our undocumented neighbors – that gives me a lot of joy and hope” Hanif said.

Jeffrey Lau, who heads up the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Adult Literacy program, echoed Hanif on the classes being a lifeline for the Asian community, including in helping members respond to the wave of anti-Asian violence. “How do I ever recognize racism if I can’t even speak English? How do I learn even how to protect myself,” Lau said, delineating the concerns of students or potential students.

A number of students in adult literacy programs joined the hearing to share their own personal experiences as well, explaining that the classes had helped them advocate for themselves in the workplace and assist their children with homework. Hanif drilled down on the importance of the classes on social media afterward, writing: “This is a vital program to so many New Yorkers, and we should be investing MORE in helping our immigrant communities grow and flourish.”

A number of others joined the hearing to speak for increased investment in the Our City Our Vote program, based on a recently passed law that will allow hundreds of thousands of non-citizen legal residents to vote in municipal elections. Theodore Moore, the director of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, called Our City Our Vote a real step towards representative democracy, and implored the Council to invest in the implementation of the law.

NYIC and other groups are seeking $25 million to ensure that the program is rolled out effectively.

“There are adult literacy programs that double as civic education hubs, and we can’t forget the inspiring work of the women-led day labor centers across our City,” Hanif wrote on Twitter of the effort. Speaking with Gotham Gazette, she doubled down on the importance of Our City Our Vote, calling it a major priority in equitable post-pandemic recovery.

The mayor’s preliminary budget did not include anything about Our City Our Vote,” Hanif said. “For there to be a successful mechanism to get those who are newly eligible to vote, registered, it’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take a deep investment.”

Reflecting on the “marathon” hearing, Hanif told Gotham Gazette she feels “so blessed to be the face in the Council for immigrants.”

The Council will soon craft its formal response to Adams’ preliminary budget in advance of the mayor’s executive budget, which will take that response, the new state budget due April 1, and other factors into consideration. After that budget plan is released, the Council will hold another round of hearings.


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