The cuts, including some scheduled for the next fiscal year that starts in July, include reductions for programs offering English-language classes and legal help for people at risk of deportation—at a time when demand for those services is only increasing, providers say.

Adi Talwar

Visitors enter 26 Federal Plaza, the building where many immigration hearings take place.

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Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams ordered city agencies to reduce spending as part of a November budget modification that will update the city’s expected spending plans for the current—and next three—fiscal years, affecting a wide range of programs, agencies, departments and positions that directly impact New Yorkers.

During the Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) announcement, the mayor stated that the city’s economic challenges are due to multiple factors coinciding at the same time: the reduction of tax revenue, the end of federal COVID-era stimulus funds, substantial pay increases for city workers, and the continuing influx of immigrants to the city. Days after that announcement, the Daily News reported that the budget for newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers would be reduced by $2.1 billion.

But the impact of the cuts on immigrant communities goes further than that: funding for other services, including English-language classes and legal help for people at risk of deportation, is also on the chopping block at a time when demand is only increasing, providers say.

“There’s already been a reduction in our funding from the city. And so we’re trying to meet this increased need with reduced resources, which has been a challenge,” said Jodi Ziesemer, director of the immigrant protection unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). 

NYLAG, along with Make the Road New York and Unlocal, provide immigration legal services through the Rapid Response Legal Collective, which under the mayor’s plan will see its city funding cut by $306,000 in the next fiscal year that starts in July. That’s on top of a previous $183,000 funding cut from the city earlier this year.

The program, created in 2019 with $1 million from both the city and the state, has since received over 1,500 referrals on a wide range of immigration cases—from people detained, about to be detained and deported, or those seeking to reopen cases. While the initiative also still receives funding from the state, that money is used to cover a wider breadth of cases, including those located outside the city, according to NYLAG.

In September, the collective received about 80 case referrals; in October, 90 referrals—four times the number received in the same month last year—and in November, they’ve received about 10 to 15 referrals a day. Ironically, many referrals come from the city’s Office of Asylum Seeker Operations (OASO), including instances of asylum seekers who’ve missed hearings and now face final orders of removals.

“We’re taking as many of those cases as we reasonably can,” Ziesemer said.

When asked about the cuts, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which oversees the program, said the agency “remains committed to uplifting every new and long-time immigrant in the city.”

“But as we have said time and time again, without significant and timely state and federal support to manage the dire humanitarian crisis we’re facing, we will have to make more tough, painful decisions that will impact all New Yorkers,” spokesperson Shaina Coronel said.

MOIA said any workload handled by the Rapid Response Legal Collaborative impacted by the cuts will be transferred to the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative, another city-funded program that handles immigration cases. The three organizations that operated Rapid Response, however, say the initiatives are not interchangeable.

“We created this program because those services do not develop expertise,” said Ziesemer. The stakes are high for the clients they represent, she added, especially those who’ve received deportation orders and are seeking to reopen their immigration cases.

“People only get one chance to get one motion to reopen in their entire pendency of their case,” Ziesemer said. “And so if they do not prepare an adequate motion and it gets denied, they will forever lose their chance to reopen and relitigate their case.”

Another MOIA-run program will also see budget cuts under the PEG, starting in the next fiscal year that begins in July. The city’s We Speak NYC initiative, which offers free civics-focused classes and English language learning resources, will see a $255,000 reduction. Coronel explains that much of the funding for this program went to producing high-cost videos, like the first season of the television series with soap opera-style episodes.

Formerly known as We Are New York, the program relied heavily on volunteers and initially targeted intermediate-level learners. MOIA said that they are currently restructuring We Speak NYC to include a beginner-level curriculum and in-person classes in immigrant-dense neighborhoods, and have added subtitles in more than 10 languages.

Adi Talwar

A drop-in English conversation class at the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library in January 2020.

Other impacts

Among the cuts for which Adams has been most criticized are the $547 million reduction to the NYC Department of Education and the $23.6 million cut to the city’s three library systems (Brooklyn, Queens, and New York), which serve immigrant populations with services like internet connection or free English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

“The New York Public Library is a vital ESOL hub, providing a comprehensive array of formal and informal classes across 34 branches in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island,” said Sara Beth Joren, a spokesperson for the New York Public Library.

With more than 140,000 asylum seekers arriving in New York City since the spring of 2022,  approximately 66,400 of whom remain in the city’s shelter systems, demand for English classes and adult literacy programs has increased accordingly across the city’s three public library systems.

NYPL reports a 113 percent increase in ESOL enrollment, from 71,373 in FY22 to 152,214 in FY23. The Queens Public Library reports a 35 percent increase between last calendar year and this one, going from 46,089 people in 4,140 ESOL programs to 62,313 people in 4,669 programs as of October.

Other programs offered at the libraries include citizenship classes, which have also seen an increase in the last year. The Brooklyn Library, for example, reports an almost two-fold increase in attendance, with 543 attendees last year and 1,083 attendees so far this year.

The cuts, said Brooklyn library spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer, mean “fewer classes and resources will be available for patrons including those seeking ESOL classes and similar programs.”