Calling on CUNY

Immigration phone-in is one part of CUNY's effort to assist New York City immigrants on a massive scale.
May 8, 2007

Talking into the telephone, Monique Francis scribbled some notes as she furrowed her brow, then shook her head and rolled her eyes upon recognizing the signs of a classic rip-off case. A woman from Jamaica on the other end had paid a lawyer $2,300 (including $1,000 in cash) to obtain green cards for her son and husband. More than six months after the papers should have been filed, she’d heard no word and had no copies of the applications to show for it all. Shaking her head, Francis – who’s heard stories like these all too often – told the woman that something was amiss, that immigration typically sends receipts within just two weeks. And so she advised her of protocol for filing the papers and wished her the best of luck.

Francis hung up, shook her head a bit more, the frustration filling her face. Then the phone sounded again and she bounced back into action, furrowing her brow and leaning over a sheet of paper as a new conversation began. “And how long have you had your green card?”

As budget and personnel coordinator for the City University of New York’s Citizenship and Immigration Project, Francis was one of about 200 volunteers staffing phones in a converted storage room last week at the New York Daily News headquarters for the fifth annual Citizenship Now! Phone-In. By the close of the call-in Friday evening, 12,895 people from all over had called in anonymously to ask their questions -- mainly about issues surrounding citizenship and permanent residency. A total of 7,362 people called in to the CUNY/ Daily News-sponsored phone-in the year before, and about 20,000 more were helped in the three previous events.

The call-in is only the most high-profile example of CUNY’s systematic efforts to help the city’s would-be citizens, efforts that have evolved from a two-person outfit 10 years ago to the establishment of seven professionally staffed immigration centers throughout the five boroughs – not counting a new one on a busy thoroughfare in Washington Heights to open next month – and the development of a volunteer corps and a curricular initiative.

In many states, immigration is controversial and public higher education systems face criticism for educating students who are from out-of-state, or granting in-state tuition rates to those without official immigration status. But at CUNY, immigrants comprise nearly half of the bursting student body and educating immigrants is part of the institution's historic identity. And so, not surprisingly, CUNY has approached assisting New York City's newcomers as a perfectly natural public service opportunity for a public university system set within and intricately connected to an immigrant city.

“In the early 90s, when the [Berlin} Wall came down and there was a great mass exodus from Eastern Europe, CUNY changed,” Ken Forsh, director of international student services at Brooklyn College, said between answering the phones Thursday.

The violence in Tiananmen Square, hurricanes in Jamaica, events all over the world trigger a ripple effect in New York City and its public university system, Forsh said: “There’s that constant connection.”

About the Project

As a professor at Baruch College and chairman of CUNY’s Citizenship and Immigration Project, Allan Wernick has overseen the initiative since the beginning. An immigration lawyer and a syndicated Daily News columnist, Wernick launched the project with the part-time help of one law student in February 1997 after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, which limited the availability of public benefits to individuals who weren’t already U.S. citizens, and the more restrictive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The project originally aimed to help foreign-born CUNY students navigate the immigration process.

From there, a staff of 1.5 grew into 25, and now at the seven campus-based immigration centers located throughout the city – funded by CUNY and the municipal government – absolutely anyone can walk in and talk to staff lawyers and paralegals about their questions on immigration. Although they do some work on asylum and deportation cases, staff at the centers primarily help aspiring citizens and permanent residents complete the proper paperwork and learn “how to help themselves." Staff typically do not represent the center's clients directly, and refer individuals who need legal representation or further legal assistance to the local bar association. All of the center's services are available free.

The newest center – a CUNY X-Press center on 181st Street in Washington Heights that will open June 6 – will combine CUNY student recruitment with immigration assistance. Among the project's other new initiatives, the CUNY/New York City Citizenship Corps was organized about a year ago. In collaboration with local politicians, the volunteers travel to a different community or campus each week to help 75, 150, 250 people at a time. “There’s a rolling cohort of people who qualify for citizenship,” Wernick said. The volunteer corps offers instructions for filling out the applications and hands out materials to help attendees prepare for their citizenship exams.

“So we take their photos and send them on their way with their pre-stamped envelopes," Wernick said. "All they have to do is put in the fees” – which, significantly, are expected to increase in June from $400 to $675, a major source of questions and concerns during last week’s call-in.

Meanwhile on a curricular level, a two-year-old Immigration Law Studies graduate certificate program in CUNY’s School of Professional Studies offers working professionals who interact with immigrants through their careers in -- for example -- law, government, or nonprofit work, the opportunity to gain some basic grounding in immigration law and policy. The university also recently began collaborating with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services so CUNY can play host to naturalization ceremonies.

“What we have tried to do here,” said Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations at CUNY, “is really create a public service that operates all year round.”

The Cacophony of the Call-In

In many cases, volunteers for last week’s phone-in referred callers to the various CUNY immigration centers for more hands-on help. Concetta Mennella, chair of law and paralegal studies at New York City College of Technology, said that the two staff members back at the college’s immigration center were “swamped with people who called this week.”

This year’s call-in featured double the number of phone lines as last year’s, with 24 English and 24 Spanish lines available. Not only that, but volunteers with skills in Albanian, Arabic, Bosnian, Cantonese, Creole, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Igbo, Italian, Mandarin, Russian and Yoruba could all be called to the phone upon special request.

Adorned in red and blue sashes, lawyers with 250 combined years of immigration law experience circulated the room Thursday, resources for the rank and file volunteers – among them trained CUNY faculty, administrators, and law and paralegal students – to call upon for help answering particularly tricky questions. Trays stacked with cookies and sandwiches, still largely intact at 4 p.m. the busy first day of the call-in, as Bob Sapio, senior executive editor of the Daily News recalled with some amazement, lined the perimeter of the space. Throughout it, people continually buzzed with the buzzing of the telephones, Wernick unable to sit still at points for more than a minute without facing a question or request.

“There are always more calls that come in than we can answer,” Wernick said while sitting at a computer loaded with immigration law resources during a rare moment of (relative) quiet. “We could have 100 phones and they would still be full.”

The callers are funny and they’re sad and they’re everything in between. “There are times it’s depressing,” said Mennella of City Tech, “because they’re illegally here and there’s nothing that can be done.” One woman, Mennella said, told her Thursday that while she’d come here legally with a green card, her husband came in illegally. The question: Should she list him as her spouse on her application for naturalization? If she didn’t, it could become a question of fraud; if she did, she would basically be reporting the illegal presence of her husband to immigration authorities. Mennella – an Italian who processed her own immigration papers at age 19 – suggested the woman speak with an immigration lawyer.

But, of course, there are the happy endings in this business too, like when Mennella informed a Jamaican seeking citizenship that he was already eligible, having derived it from his mother without knowing it. On that note, Mennella, off to another engagement, took off her blue sash -- folding it carefully for the next person -- and descended back into the city again.


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