Opinion: To welcome immigrants, NYC’s government and philanthropists should invest in settlement houses

New York City now boasts more than 40 settlement houses, collectively serving over 800,000 New Yorkers each year.

University Settlement founded the nation’s first settlement house in 1886 on the Lower East Side and later moved to its current headquarters at 184 Eldridge St.

University Settlement founded the nation’s first settlement house in 1886 on the Lower East Side and later moved to its current headquarters at 184 Eldridge St. Sean Sime for University Settlement

“New York is a city of immigrants” is such a time-worn slogan that our leaders seem to have forgotten what it means.

Since 2022, the arrival of more than 200,000 asylum seekers has triggered a crisis of confidence in our capacity to welcome newcomers.

But integrating immigrants is an investment in the competitive future of our great city, and our history has left us well prepared for this moment.

It’s time for our government and philanthropists to stand up for NYC’s values on immigration by making significant investments in our established integration engine for new arrivals – our network of settlement houses, which have been doing this work since the 19th century. 

It’s true that welcoming asylum seekers effectively will be expensive – although the NYC Independent Budget Office suggests that Mayor Eric Adams’ executive budget significantly overstates the potential costs.

It's also worth noting that the city’s settlement houses have already devoted significant resources to integrating immigrants into our communities over the last several years, although as of last fall, 88% had yet to receive additional support from the government to fund this work.

Investing more of the city’s planned expenditures in our proven nonprofit safety net – rather than awarding billions to private companies without the proper oversight – would lower costs and create efficiencies while ensuring that migrants have access to the holistic support they need to thrive in their new home.

It would also strengthen programs for children, young people and older adults across the five boroughs, benefiting all our working families.

Let’s back up for a bit of perspective.

Between 1882 and 1912, more than 20 million people immigrated to the US, with more than 60% coming through NYC. That’s approximately 400,000 people each year, but who’s counting?

Like the immigrants of today, those new arrivals faced forbidding challenges, including language barriers and the need to find shelter and employment.

In response, New Yorkers who believed in access to opportunity for immigrants, inspired by social reformers in England, began establishing settlement houses on the Lower East Side – including my organization, University Settlement.

Named for the way they brought reformists directly into the communities where immigrants lived to facilitate learning and cooperation, settlement houses caught on quickly – by 1908, there were 19 settlement houses in NYC.

With critical investment from Gilded Age philanthropists, these became responsive institutions where immigrant families could build connections while accessing necessary resources, including food, education, childcare and basic hygiene.

Settlements became the foundation of our social safety net and remain an integral part of it. Today, New York City boasts 40 vibrant settlement houses, collectively serving 800,000 New Yorkers every year.

Our organizations insist on the personal – which is important because every single new arrival has a story, an identity and something they’re going to bring to our city.

Gustavo, one of our new neighbors, came to New York from Venezuela in 2020. Since then, his partner, his siblings and his mother have joined him here. Today, they’re all students in our Adult Literacy Program, which they love because their instructors set high expectations.

Gustavo dreams of starting a food truck, and he’s making it happen in partnership with our team. He recently took and passed his food handler’s test, and soon he’ll apply for licenses for the truck and to prepare food at home. Next, he hopes to obtain a loan for the truck from the LES Federal Credit Union, which partners with our literacy program. “Our food truck will help provide for our family,” he told me. “When I’m running the business I will need to communicate in English, and what I’m learning in this class will be fundamental.”

While demand for English instruction has risen dramatically with the recent immigration wave, the budget that just passed the New York City Council last week cut funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages programs by more than $10 million.

Welcoming immigrants and weaving them into our social fabric is difficult, time-consuming, long-term work. For philanthropists who are looking for the social justice equivalent of significant quarterly returns, it’s an understandably daunting prospect.Thankfully, some of NYC’s deepest philanthropic pockets, including Robin Hood and the New York Community Trust, have recently indicated that they’ll make more significant investments in this work.

Still, our capacity to support today’s new arrivals could be much greater if the investor class of New York recognized how much value it could unlock by renewing its commitment to our existing world-class infrastructure.

From English literacy, to pre-school, to food assistance, to housing advocacy, settlement houses are a comprehensive solution for setting immigrants up for success.

With increased strategic investment, we stand ready to build the next New York.

Dave Hughes is the director of communications at University Settlement.

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