Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in late May
New York City’s government has positioned itself as the antithesis to the Trump administration across almost every policy platform, especially immigration. With immigration policy set at the federal level, what power does the city have to oppose the government and live up to its own rhetoric? Documented sat down with Bitta Mostofi, the recently appointed commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs, to find out what this administration is doing for immigrants.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Documented: The City has been very forceful in its opposition to the Trump administration since the inauguration. What role does MOIA play in that? And what role do you see it playing going forward?
Mostofi: MOIA as an office is charged with a broad mandate, which is to advance programs and policies to promote the well-being of the immigrant New Yorkers. Immigrant New Yorkers are roughly three million of our city’s population. If you add in their children that takes you to 60 percent. The role that we play is looking at the barriers that immigrants face, on the spectrum of immigration statuses. Particularly looking at the most vulnerable and their ability to access their rights as they advocate for their own immigration status at the federal level. Making our city as inclusive as possible takes a lot of cross-agency work. We aren’t the ones that are doing the primary service delivery. Our sister agencies are so we work hand in hand with them, specifically around language access making sure that they have and are implementing policies that allow them to speak the languages of immigrant New Yorkers.
Documented: There’s a lot of advocates and City Council members who have been quite forceful in their criticisms of the limitations placed on access to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. What is your response to those criticisms?
Mostofi: I practiced immigration law for over a decade at a non-profit. I very much understand and know the experience of providers who have folks coming to them. I think from the administration’s perspective, from the Mayor’s perspective on this, again, this is an unheard of investment in legal services – over $30 million from the mayor, and if you add in council’s support funding that takes you to over $40 million. There’s never been anything like this in the city. There’s nothing like this in the country. For the mayor, what this came down to was: What are our priorities? Who are we trying to serve and how? We want to be able to serve as many people as possible with our funding. We also want to be able to serve some of the most vulnerable amongst us. Providers are making those decisions on a consistent basis as people are coming to them. On cases that they can take, cases that are viable, etc. And they’re not always able to take all the cases that come to them anyway.
The restriction is actually quite minimal. It’s not representing individuals who have been convicted of one of the 170 violent or serious offenses that the City Council and the administration have legislated they would cooperate with immigration enforcement on. So it’s very discreet: somebody who in the last five years had one of these convictions, representation would not be available to them. But what is available is a screening. So the ability for somebody to meet with the attorney and the attorney goes through your case history and through our Action NYC program, which is a universal screening program. It’s where you get connected when you call 311 there’s no restriction on the screening so anybody can call and they can get advice, and then if we can’t represent them for various reasons–maybe it’s income (they make too much money), maybe because they’ve been convicted of one of these 170 cases–they can still get advice and get turned to a different provider that’s trusted.
Documented: So you’re saying it’s an issue of cost that the city can’t afford to represent everyone?
Mostofi: For sure, I would say that it’s an issue of prioritization around that. Knowing you’re not universally representing everybody. On top of that the city has prioritized, frankly, people who we want to make sure we’re supporting as much as possible and people who we consider a public safety risk, and we might cooperate with immigration enforcement if they asked us if they were in our custody.
I think, unfortunately, you’re always making hard decisions around prioritization. You know, we have some programs that are designed to reach children and adults with children specifically. We have some programs that are designed to reach domestic violence survivors or crime victims. So you’re prioritizing as a city on a consistent basis and this is a part of that.
Documented: MOIA stated that there are 26,000 New Yorkers who are impacted by the travel ban. How did you get to that number? And what exactly is MOIA offering those people?
Mostofi: Our team looked at the number of New Yorkers that come from the countries that are impacted and estimated that there were about 26,000 individuals who could be impacted by this. Recently, before the oral arguments at the Supreme Court, we held a roundtable in partnership with the Arab American Association of New York and others and brought individuals who are of Yemeni, Iranian and Syrian [origin] who spoke about the very impact that these policies are having on them. Some spoke about the inability to reunite with their children who were abroad. That fact sheet and analysis is the numbers but we also want to make sure that the numbers have the real human story behind them.
We’re offering those people affected by the ban a couple of things. The Mayor’s Office made an unprecedented investment in immigration legal services and we are working very closely with providers that we fund and that our sister agency at The Office of Civil Justice at Human Resources Administration funds. Immigration law is a completely federally controlled and legislated law and primary for protecting individuals from deportation is getting good legal advice–that’s why there’s been unprecedented investment. We’ve translated these into a myriad of languages, but ultimately the recommendation is: speak to a safe and confidential immigration attorney. Don’t go to a fraudulent provider.Don’t pay thousands of dollars; these are free consultations that the city is supporting and the reason of course is because it really matters.
We have a know-your-rights program in partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation and the Mayor’s Fund. The idea here is that, one, we want to make sure we’re getting the word out to the community about the resources that are available to them: immigration legal services, Mental Health Services through Thrive NYC. Health Services, health services through Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. IDNYC. The Commission on Human Rights is available for reporting any bias or harassment in general or in the employment or housing context based on your immigration status. This information on those resources are available through our know your rights curriculum as well as what your rights are when you might be engaged with ICE enforcement.
Documented: What role does MOIA play for taxi drivers who are suffering due to the devaluation of their medallions, which has resulted in some committing suicide recently? Also how do you help ebike immigrant delivery workers who may be impacted by regulations on E-bikes?
Mostofi: We’re hearing these really horrifying stories about individuals who are choosing to take their own lives. I think this very consistently ties back to the larger agenda and the really great work that the first lady of New York City Chirlane McCray is doing in trying to eliminate the stigma attached to mental health, including depression, and making sure that there’s a universal way for people to access mental health services and to do so in the languages that they speak and are most comfortable.