Opinion: Our government – and philanthropy – have failed to support the newest New Yorkers

Black and brown migrants are paying the highest price.

Hizam Wahib is assistant executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center.

Hizam Wahib is assistant executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center. The Arab-American Family Support Center, Inc.

Mauritania. Then Morocco and Spain. Then Portugal. Across the ocean to Colombia and on through Panama and Costa Rica. Then Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. Across the checkpoint to Arizona. And then bussed, more than 11,000 miles later, to New York. At least for the moment. 

That is the journey that one of our students took to get to the United States this year. His experience is hardly unique.

And, since arriving in the United States, he – and so many others – are being shunted around like cargo instead of humans – fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, cousins.

Last summer, one of the many city-run migrant shelters opened down the street from my organization, the Arab-American Family Support Center. Since then, our team has greeted hundreds of newcomers who are exhausted and eager for assistance and stability. We did what we are excellent at: greeting them in their languages, connecting them to English classes and government benefits, feeding them halal food, and supporting them with legal advice. Maybe most importantly, we have offered thousands a sense of community.

Meanwhile, the unconscionable failure of our social safety net is on full display while our city and civic leaders are frozen by inaction.

Mayor Adams has rolled back New York City’s long-standing “right to shelter” policy. The city now provides single adults with a bed for only 30 days before they are forced out to reapply. In between shelter placements, they spend their nights in the streets, trains, or tents. When they're successful, they are often sent to an entirely different part of New York City, forcing them to restart the process of finding a nearby service provider like the Arab-American Family Support Center. Our student who traveled through eleven countries to get here has now been moved to three different boroughs.

Black and brown migrants bear the brunt of this failed system. Compared to migrants from Central and South America, migrants from African countries are more likely to arrive as single adults without children given the distance and cost of the journey. As a result, the city’s 30-day shelter stay limit disproportionately impacts newcomers from countries like Mauritania and Senegal. The policy, intentional or not, reinforces deep-seated discrimination. Anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab sentiments rear their ugly heads again and again.

Our country expects newcomers to navigate incredibly complex asylum processes. Most don’t understand that they must petition the courts to move their asylum cases from the border states in which they entered to the New York court district within ten days of arriving here. The complexity is compounded when many cannot yet understand English. We help them to do this. But what we’re able to do is a drop in the veritable bucket; for every one person we help, there are thousands more who don't even realize it's a requirement. 

At the Arab-American Family Support Center, we’ve responded swiftly to meet the needs of New York City's underserved community members without additional funding from government or – perhaps even more disappointingly – from philanthropy. My colleagues and I will keep doing this work. But community-based organizations shouldn’t have to go it alone. Now is the time for government and philanthropy to invest in the organizations serving at the frontlines of this crisis, to reimagine the policies that directly impact lives, and recommit to an equitable future for New York.

We know the challenges our community members face will only increase as anti-immigrant rhetoric takes center stage during this election year, despite the overwhelming evidence that immigrants strengthen our country and boost our economy. As a son of immigrants, trust me when I say, when we are given the chance, we make this city better.   

Hizam Wahib is the assistant executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center.