fbpx On the Brink of Being Homeless in a Sanctuary City - Documented

On the Brink of Being Homeless in a Sanctuary City

Despite a citywide rise in deportations, families of undocumented persons are ineligible for housing benefits, putting them at risk of homelessness.

A mother and daughter in Queens are fighting eviction and the deportation of the father of the family after fleeing violence in Honduras, June 21, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg

This story was produced in collaboration with THE CITY.

At around 4 in the morning on Jan. 24, A.M. heard banging on his apartment door after getting out of the shower and preparing for bed.

He had just returned from a long shift at the Hilton hotel restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, a 90-minute commute from his home in Rego Park, Queens.

His wife, M.F., was panicking as agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced themselves through the door, but a friend had told her recently that she did not have to let ICE in if they did not have a warrant from a judge.

They wouldn’t need one. According to A.M., as described by his attorney, ICE agents banged on the door so hard the handle came undone and they burst into the apartment.

A.M. gave this account: Five agents rushed into the house and pinned him up against their couch. One of the agents pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. As he was being handcuffed, their 7-year-old daughter, D.A., came out of her room.

She cried “Daddy!” as they took him away.

So began a dual ordeal for this family from Honduras, fighting long-shot battles in not one but two legal systems — in immigration court and in Queens Housing Court, where the family is desperately trying to stave off eviction.

Since the raid, A.M., 48, has been held in detention at the Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, while a case to deport him — based on multiple prior deportations — is pending at the Varick Street immigration court in Lower Manhattan.

Rachael Yong Yow, a spokesperson for ICE said that he had been deported three times prior to his arrest. Calling A.M. “an illegally present Honduran national,” she said he has had “multiple criminal convictions dating back to 2011, and a pending criminal charge with local authorities.”

Most immigrants facing deportation await their hearings while living freely. ICE once reserved arrests and detention for individuals with serious criminal convictions.

One of A.M.’s past convictions was for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, which he said during a recent immigration court hearing involved a dispute with a former girlfriend over use of a car. Another was for common-law conspiracy of burglary in the second degree, following what he asserted was a party that got out of hand, resulting in a broken window.

His current charges involve a “disorderly conduct violation,” according to his attorney.

Local Arrests by ICE Double

Well before the mass arrests Immigration and Customs Enforcement has signaled it plans to launch Sunday, its agents have relied upon raids to round up and dispatch immigrants slated for deportation.

In the year ending in June 2018, ICE’s New York field office, which covers New York City, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley, carried out 3,476 arrests — almost double the 1,847 arrests it carried out in fiscal year 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Home raids by ICE typically take place early in the morning and involve plainclothes officers — just as A.M. and his family experienced — according to Yasmine Farhang, the lead immigration attorney at the Brooklyn-headquartered immigrant advocacy organization Make the Road.

“Every single day at least one, usually more, people are coming to our offices after a loved one has been taken,” said Farhang. Make the Road is co-counsel on A.M.’s immigration case, with Brooklyn Defender Services.

M.F., still living with her daughter in the apartment on 62nd Ave., has a pending asylum case. But her immediate priority is holding on to her family’s home.

Since the arrest, without her husband’s steady income at the restaurant and at a cement company, M.F. has struggled to pay the $1,750 monthly rent on their apartment. Meanwhile, late fees mount.

The 52-year-old has taken some odd jobs, including working as a part-time, off-the-books home caretaker for $10 an hour.

None of it was enough to pay the rent. Her landlord earlier this year filed for eviction, claiming she owed $15,675, an amount she disputed.

Seth Rosenfeld, an attorney for landlord Bijan Golyan, declined to comment.

On June 18, Queens Housing Court Judge Lydia Lai issued the eviction order, giving M.F. and her daughter until August 20 to either pay up or find a new place to live.

“These are tests for blessings that God sends sometimes,” M.F. said in Spanish. “But most of the time, I don’t know what to do.”

ICE officers tried to break into the Queens home of an immigrant family before the building super let them in and they arrested the family’s father, June 21, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg

No Sanctuary

Aura Zúñiga, a housing attorney with the group Make the Road who is representing M.F., noted that the family’s immigration status left them with scant options to avoid eviction. The few organizations that do assist undocumented people only provide small grants — not enough to put a dent in the rent bill.

“We’re kind of stuck,” said Zúñiga. “There are not many programs out there that specifically help undocumented folks.”

Had M.F. been a citizen or a green card holder, she could have applied for anti-eviction aid that the city’s Human Resources Administration routinely makes available to households on the brink of homelessness.

These include an emergency “one shot” grant to pay back rent, on the condition that a tenant adheres to a payment plan and repays the grant within a year.

Another option for many tenants on the edge or already living in homeless shelters is the Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement, or FHEPS. Since 2014, the city Department of Social Services has provided emergency rental assistance to 264,000 households, says a spokesperson.

But these federally funded programs come with strict eligibility guidelines — including proof of citizenship. Some families can be eligible for those programs if their child is a U.S. citizen, but that’s not the case with A.M. and M.F.’s daughter.

Federal law limits eligibility for public benefits — including welfare, health care and housing — for undocumented immigrants, except where states pass a law opening benefits to them. The restrictions on aid to undocumented immigrants endure even as they contribute significant sums in taxes — about $9 billion annually in tax witholdings, the Internal Revenue Service estimates.

Some immigrant-heavy states, including Texas, Florida, Illinois and California, have passed laws that ensure undocumented people qualify for certain benefits, such as health care. On a smaller scale, New York has too: Since 1997, anyone fleeing domestic violence is eligible for protective and residential services as well as foster care, according to the city Department of Social Services.

Under court decree, New York City homeless shelters are open to all regardless of immigration status. A longstanding executive order first signed in 2003 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg guarantees access to social services for all regardless of status — but not grants or aid.

That New York has not passed a law expanding benefits and services to undocumented immigrants shouldn’t stop agencies from stepping up with their own aid, advocates argue.

“The city could find tax-levy dollars to fund or expand a program that is federally funded and has restrictions because of immigration status,” urged J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses, which aids immigrants. “What are the policies that actually show that we are a sanctuary city?”

A representative of the city Department of Social Services, which encompasses the Human Resources Administration and Department of Homeless Services, urged anyone in need of housing help to ask for it.

“New Yorkers facing housing discrimination or eviction should reach out for legal guidance or services, regardless of immigration status,” said spokesperson Isaac McGinn.

But M.F. is frustrated. She wishes she had the means to find steady, non-exploitative work and care for her daughter.

“If I had a green card,” she said, “I’d be unstoppable.”

ICE officers tried to break into the room of a 7-year-old girl before detaining her father after the family fled violence in Honduras to Queens, June 21, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg

‘We Feel So Sad and Alone’

M.F. has no idea what she’ll do if she loses her home but knows she wants to stay in her Queens neighborhood. Her daughter does well in school: She’s fully bilingual in English and Spanish, has many friends, and loves her teachers. M.F. is afraid the girl will lose whatever stability she has left.

M.F. tries to maintain A.M.’s presence in the apartment as much as possible. His fishing rods are right where he left them in the hallway, next to the bathroom. His winter jackets and scarves still hang behind the bedroom door. A few weeks ago, she finally put away his toolbox — he did a lot of projects around the apartment — and his painting supplies.

But the child stopped sleeping in her own bedroom since A.M. was detained. M.F. thinks she doesn’t want to be surrounded by all the toys her father bought her over the years.

Sometimes, she says, they cry together.

M.F., in Spanish, called A.M. “my only friend.”

“We feel so sad and alone,” she added.

A.M. had to wait six months after his arrest to see his wife and daughter again. It was via a video stream from Essex County Correctional Facility to the Varick Street Immigration Court in Lower Manhattan.

As with many immigrant detainees, ICE did not present him physically for his hearing. His fate would be decided by Immigration Judge Francisco R. Prieto.

After hours of technical and communication difficulties, A.M.’s tall frame, in a white jumpsuit, popped up on the screen. M.F and her daughter could not contain their excitement.

With a 10-inch stack of documents piled up in front of them, his attorneys, Denia Perez from Make the Road and Jessica Cisneros from Brooklyn Defender Services, walked A.M. through his testimony to explain why he was afraid to return to his native Honduras. That’s the core of their case to keep him legally in the United States.

Once a member of an elite investigative unit in the Honduran police force, A.M. testified he found himself targeted by colleagues after he refused to join fellow officers in taking a bribe from gang members and instead reported the incident to his supervisors.

On duty weeks later, an assailant shot him three times, taking off part of his finger — which he lifted to show the court — and hitting him in his pelvis and right thigh.

A gang member then showed up to the hospital. “He told me that this was just a warning,” A.M. recounted to the court, adding the police officers who were supposed to be guarding him were nowhere to be seen.

He said two of his brothers were later killed by the same gang, one in the United States and the other in Honduras, in what he described as retaliatory slayings. Their deaths and the gang’s continued presence in Honduras made A.M. afraid to go back to one of the world’s most violent countries, his lawyers argued.

Prieto found his testimony lacked credibility and denied his application to halt his deportation.

‘She Walks Freely Here’

M.F. and their daughter were devastated. Their own application for asylum had been denied a few weeks earlier.

And so M.F. has started weighing her options while appealing the asylum denial. A.M.’s lawyers are also appealing the immigration court’s decision in his case.

She’s making arrangements to stay with a friend in the likely event she’ll have to leave the Rego Park apartment they’ve called home for the last two years.

She said she’s made an agreement with a friend in the city who will raise the girl if they are all separated.

“Why would I send her back to Honduras, so that she can get raped and murdered?” she said in Spanish on a recent afternoon in Bushwick, while waiting for the friend who has offered to raise her daughter.

The girl darted around a few feet away, chasing pigeons on the sidewalk. Remarked her mother, “She walks freely here.”

*This story uses initials to protect the confidentiality of individuals facing deportation.

Claudia Irizarry Aponte is a reporter for THE CITY.

Mazin Sidahmed

Mazin Sidahmed is the co-executive director of Documented. He previously worked for the Guardian US in New York. He started his career writing for The Daily Star in Beirut and he also contributed to Politico New York.




PO Box 924
New York, NY 10272

General Inquiries:
+1 (917) 409-6022
Sales Inquiries:
Documented Advertising Solutions
+1 (917) 409-6022
Pitches & Story Ideas: