February 5, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan
By NOEL PANGILINAN
New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the United States, has long had a mutually beneficial relationship with its immigrant population.
From around the time that the Statue of Liberty was erected at the mouth of the Hudson River, New York City has always extended welcoming arms to immigrants into the city. In return, the foreign-born population has contributed a lot in enriching the economic and cultural vitality of the city.
In recognition of this contribution, the city has established an office assisting its immigrant population in the mid-80s. In November 2001, the office became a charter agency, adopted by voter referendum into the city’s charter, and renamed the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).
This provided the office with direct access to the mayor and made it a permanent part of the city government.
Fatima Shama, commissioner of MOIA since 2009, gave an overview of the city’s continuing effort to provide assistance to its immigrant communities.
Below is an excerpt:
Can you tell us more about MOIA?
Shama: In behalf of Mayor Bloomberg, MOIA’s commitment is to work with immigrant communities in New York City to ensure their well-being, to ensure their ability to access city services, and particularly, to ensure their ability to integrate successfully into New York City’s civic, economic, social and cultural life.
Our commitment is to work with all the immigrant communities in our city to ensure that they know that our city is here to serve them and work with them to ensure their access to city services.
How does MOIA help immigrants in the city?
Shama: The city, Mayor Bloomberg in particular, has established several very important policies in working with immigrants.
One, is that we protect the immigration status of immigrants in our city. That whenever they come to access services from any city agency, we protect their immigration status.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re documented or undocumented. We want you to come to our schools, and enroll your children. We want you to access our health care. If you’re a victim of a crime, we want you to come forward and go to our police department.
The other thing is that in order to ensure access to services to our city, Mayor Bloomberg signed a “Language Access Order” in 2008. This ensures that for every city agency that directly serves New Yorkers, we speak the language that they are most comfortable in speaking. Our office’s job is to go out and remind people of these things, over and over again.
How does MOIA help the city in providing assistance to immigrants?
Shama: As we go out, we build our relations with immigrant communities. We learn about some of the opportunities that the city can think about; we learn about obstacles and challenges that are still quite real in immigrant communities.
And as a result of that, we come back to city government and work with our colleagues in city government. We recommend policies or different programmatic opportunities to enhance opportunities for immigrants.
Our office is here to be an advocate for immigrants on the inside and be an advocate for city government to immigrant communities.
Do you have specific programs for undocumented immigrants?
Shama: We don’t advertise anything in a way that says ‘this is for documented, or this is for undocumented’. This office’s job, specifically, is to make sure that all immigrants know that in this city, regardless of their immigration status, that they matter.
So, whether you’re documented or not, we want you in our schools. Whether you’re documented or not, you have access to health care. Whether you’re documented or not, you have the opportunity, if in the event of ever losing your home, you become homeless, to access care in one of our homeless shelters.
If you are a victim of domestic violence or felony violence, we have centers. Our justice centers are established to give you care.
Everything that we do in this city is available to immigrants – documented or undocumented. That said, there are programs that are identified for people with legal status. Undocumented immigrants are prohibited from accessing food stamps because that’s a federal program.
But we have partnerships with food pantries that give out food to individuals. And nobody is asking your immigration status when you go in line to get food from a food pantry. And those are programs that are supported through city partnerships.
How would you assess MOIA’s performance of its mandate?
Shama: MOIA has had a wonderful track record. Much of the success of the office and the opportunity we have provided immigrants should be given to Mayor Bloomberg.
He’s probably the most immigrant-friendly mayor the city has ever seen; the most committed in ensuring that immigrants are included in conversations, are protected, are recognized as an asset the way that they are.
The mayor says regularly that the immigrants are the lifeblood of the city, and he also says regularly that the city needs more immigrants, not less. So in my opinion, our track record has been pretty incredible.
From a program policy perspective and from a culture perspective, I think we were able to impart to immigrants in this city that they matter as part of the success of the city.
What are MOIA’s future plans?
Shama: We’ll be in office for the remaining 929 days, and so in that time, we will continue to do what we do.
We are engaged very thoughtfully and in a committed way to provide better opportunities around our immigrant communities, to encourage them to become more civically involved in their own neighborhoods, and in their own communities’ development.
There are a lot of things that we hope to continue to accomplish. So hopefully, we would be able to do some really great things in that remaining time. But whoever the next mayor is, I hope he gives as much attention to immigrants and opportunities for them the way that this mayor has.
If there’s anything that you think needs to be improved on, what would it be?
Shama: Everything could be better. Is there anything that we do specifically that could be better? I don’t know. But I think everything needs improvement. And if we don’t strive to improve everything we do, then that’s unfortunate. My commitment is to make sure that we better in everything that we do.
How would you gauge the public’s acceptance of MOIA?
Shama: I don’t know. I hope that their view of us is not of us but of our administration. We are just the facilitators in making sure they have the access to all of our city agencies and to government in general.
I hope that we are the vehicle to help people get better access to our schools, and actually inform them of more opportunities. So hopefully we’re doing that in a way that changes people’s lives for the good.
What made you decide to take on the job as MOIA commissioner?
Shama: That’s a good question. I think it’s a dream of a lifetime, honestly.
I would never have imagined, as I say often. I’m a kid from The Bronx. My parents were immigrants in this country. And I witnessed their experiences, and this has been my life’s work. This is what I do, presumed I’d always do.
Ever since I was young, the work I have been involved in has always been with and for bettering the lives of immigrants in one way or another, whether it’s in health care, whether it’s in work force opportunities, whether it’s in education, whether in family violence.
So this is a dream job that I have a chance to have.
What was the most challenging part of the job?
Shama: There are a lot of challenging aspects to anyone’s job. The challenge in this job is probably my desire to do so much more and to cross over different portfolios and in our inability to get there.
I would like to do more work with immigrant seniors. I would love to do more work around school and education. There are so many things that we can be doing.
I would like to say that the greatest challenge is not being able to do it all. But we’re on track.
(Originally posted on July 26, 2011. Reprinted from Queens7.com)