*This article was featured earlier this month in the March 2017 Erie County Bar Association Bulletin [at p.9 and p.17].
By Seeta Persaud, Staff Attorney at Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc.
Community-based, immigrant advocacy, and direct service organizations in Buffalo are building coalitions to collaborate on a range of matters affecting immigrant and refugee populations in Buffalo.
The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc. is proud to partner with and provide support to Journey’s End Refugee Services for a pro bono citizenship drive that will be held on March 29 at 5:30 p.m. Attorneys have been invited to participate in the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo/Journey’s End Refugee Services CLE training on completing applications for naturalization on March 13 from 5:30p.m. – 7:30p.m. Both the CLE and citizenship drive will be held at 2495 Main Street in Buffalo, Suite 317. The training is limited to attorneys who commit to volunteering for the pro bono citizenship drive.
The immediate goal of this effort is to assist lawful permanent residents who have met all legal requirements for U.S. citizenship to become naturalized and obtain the requisite documentation. In doing so, the hope is to ameliorate some of the backlog that has resulted in naturalization processing delays.
As a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Guyana to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in 1979, the significance of attaining full citizenship cannot possibly be overstated. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the early 1980s. The eldest child of an immigrant, working class, Indo-Caribbean family, I am not only a first generation high school and college graduate, but I also went on to become an attorney. Citizenship grants immigrants the opportunity to integrate and become full participants in our democratic institutions.
Buffalo is the second most populous city in New York State after New York City. According to a recent report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller, immigrants now represent 22 percent of the New York State’s population. The national average is 13 percent. Immigrants now comprise 10 percent of Buffalo’s population and roughly 10,000 refugees resettled in Buffalo during the last decade. Among the first wave of immigrants to settle in Buffalo were people from Germany, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and parts of Eastern Europe. Today, Buffalo’s immigrant groups include people from Myanmar, Thailand, Ethiopia, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Vietnam.
Unfortunately, while many embrace and celebrate our diversity, falsehoods about immigrants, documented and undocumented, abound. A prevalent misconception is that immigrants and refugees adversely impact the economy. However, it is no secret that immigrant and refugee populations have not only stemmed Erie County’s population decline but have also contributed to Buffalo’s cultural and economic renaissance.
More broadly, immigrants, documented and undocumented, pay taxes and contribute to the Social Security Fund. According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants collectively paid over $11 billion in state and local taxes last year. Undocumented immigrants, many of whom entered the U.S. lawfully but overstayed expired visas, provide as much as $12 billion a year to the Social Security Fund, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, many of them are unlikely to reap the benefits of their contributions later on without a clear path to citizenship.
Notwithstanding the historical, cultural, and economic contributions of immigrant and refugee populations, the demonization of certain immigrant and refugee groups has made these groups vulnerable to the deprivation of certain rights to which they are entitled under federal and state law, including the federal and state Equal Protection Clause (“No person shall be denied equal protection of the laws….”). Consequently, several organizations in Buffalo gathered on February 4 for a Know Your Rights event for immigrants and refugees at Jericho Road Community Health Center. The event covered topics such as housing, employment, consumer issues, matrimonial matters, and criminal defense. The event was advertised in community centers in English, Spanish, Arabic, Karen, French, Burmese, Nepali, Somali, Swahili, and Vietnamese.
The event was a collaboration of the Office of the New York State Attorney General, City of Buffalo Office of New Americans, Muslim & Immigrant Court Collaborative, Journey’s End, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc., Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc., and International Institute of Buffalo.
Several volunteers from these organizations fielded inquiries from many people in the community seeking counsel about issues affecting their families. Interpreters were also available.
There is no question that for many immigrants and refugees, this is a time of alarming uncertainty. The sweeping Executive Orders promulgated by the White House on January 27 regarding the ban on the admission of certain immigrant groups to the U.S. will continue to galvanize what is likely to be a long, systemic collaborative effort to protect the fundamental rights of immigrants and refugees residing in Buffalo. Our work as a cohesive and collective community has never been more important to protect the disenfranchised and promote the values of civil society. Our democratic ideals and institutions will depend upon our mutual support and service to one another.
For additional information regarding the citizenship drive, please contact Jennifer Kimura at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sarah Bertozzi at email@example.com. You may also visit legalaidbuffalo.org and jersbuffalo.org.
 A Portrait of Immigrants in New York, Office of the New York State Comptroller. (November 2016), https://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/immigration/immigration_2016.pdf
 Alexia Fernandez Campbell, The Truth About Undocumented Immigrants and Taxes, The Atlantic (September 12, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/09/undocumented-immigrants-and-taxes/499604/