In a City of Immigrant Heritage: New Directions in Activism

| April 20, 2012 2:02 PM

Even the first 17th-century settlers in New York, organized by the commercial venture of the Dutch West India Company, were a diverse mix of Europeans, Africans and South Americans who spoke a total of 18 languages. Four-hundred years later, 37 percent of New Yorkers come from another country and speak some 800 languages.

In the city’s ninth annual Immigrant Heritage Week (April 17-24), the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and its partners (including WNET/Thirteen, the parent company of MetroFocus) honor the histories and traditions of the city’s immigrant communities.

But immigrants are also the innovators of contemporary New York. This week, MetroFocus profiles immigrants who are shaping the arts, activism and politics, and technology and science, today.  Here we feature the activism and advocacy work of Abraham Paulos, director of Families for Freedom; Tania Mattos, advocacy coordinator of New York State Youth Leadership Council;  Mohammad Razvi, executive director of Council of Peoples Organization; and Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road.

The Activists

Abraham Paulos

Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, helps defend immigrants facing deportation. In 2010, due to a case of mistaken identity, Paulos was in the same boat as the people he now helps. Photo courtesy of Families for Freedom

Abraham Paulos  is the director of Families for Freedom, the nonprofit immigrant defense network. He first encountered the organization when facing potential deportation himself — the latest of many personal twists of fate.

“Basically, my father was a revolutionary fighting for the independence of Eritrea,” said Paulos, who was born in  Sudan in the wake of the African conflict. His family fled to Chicago under the stateless refugee asylum program when he was 3 years old. Due to his father’s psychological torment from combat, Paulos said times were very hard growing up. He was sent to a group home at 13, which he was asked to leave at 17.

Over the next two years, Paulos was slapped with criminal charges on two different occasions. But at age 20, his mother gave him $200 which he used to turn his life around. He enrolled in community college and later got a scholarship to George Washington University where he graduated in 2005, at age 25. Paulos taught English as a second language, and then landed a job as a reporter with City Limits. He was laid off after the recession hit in 2008, along with other staff members.

While interning at Human Rights First and bartending on the side in October 2011, unexpected trouble hit. Paulos was mistaken for a robbery suspect in front of his apartment in Crown Heights, and ended up detained in Rikers when he couldn’t afford bail. Because of his prior convictions, Paulos was facing possible deportation to a still very troubled country he’d only known as an infant.

Friends posted bail for him in the nick of time. “Just as I was walking out of Rikers, Department of Homeland Security officials were walking in,” he said.

Criminal assistance organizations and immigration lawyers were so backed up with cases of immigrants in detention that they said they couldn’t help him, because his 12-year-old convictions put him lower on their priority list.

A friend told him to go to Families for Freedom, which offers case support for immigrants facing detention and possible deportation, and with their help, his case was recently dismissed. While all this was going on, Paulos began working for Families with Freedom, and was promoted to executive director last year.

Now, he helps run a hotline for people facing deportation and families of immigrants in detainment, offers case support and makes connections with other community organizations. He’s currently creating a blog where immigrants in detainment and their families can post notes and postcards they’ve sent to one another. He says his experiences continue to have a major impact on his work.

“A lot of the conversation is about what pulled an immigrant to the U.S. But what people don’t understand is why we get pushed out of our own countries, whether it’s poverty or war or Western policies. It’s a legacy of colonialism,” said Paulos.

Tania Mattos

Tania Mattos, advocacy coordinator for the New York State Youth Leadership Council, advocates for the passage of the DREAM Act. Photo by Sophia Wallace for the New York State Youth Leadership Council.

Tania Mattos didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was 16 years old. That revelation put her on a course to becoming the advocacy coordinator at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization made up of young people dedicated to passing the DREAM Act — a bill that would provide permanent residence to undocumented immigrants who graduated from high school, have no criminal record and arrived in the U.S. as minors — at the federal and state level.

She was born in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1983, but at age four she arrived with her mother and brother in Queens, where her father had been working for one year.

Until she turned 16, life was normal. But when she wanted to get her driver’s license, her parents broke the difficult news: she was undocumented. From there, life became more complicated.

“I couldn’t get financial aid for college, so that limited my choices. I managed to pay out-of-pocket and graduated with a degree in marketing,” said Mattos. After graduating from SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked in the art industry, but found working life difficult without a social security number, so she applied to grad school. She graduated in 2010 with a masters in political science from CUNY, around the same time the movement for the DREAM Act was gaining steam.

“After college, I was watching Telemundo and these four or five undocumented youth were being arrested in Sen. McCain’s office for protesting Arizona’s immigration policies. That was a life-changing moment,” she said. “I’d always felt like nobody was going through what I was, but then I realized there were other people. I had to find them.”

A week later, she joined a six-day hunger strike in front of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office, to protest his inaction on the DREAM Act. From there, she began volunteering with the New York State Leadership Council. After the DREAM Act was defeated in Congress, she began working to pass a state version of the DREAM Act, which is currently in the New York legislature. Last year, Mattos was invited to speak on a panel about the DREAM Act hosted by Feet in Two Worlds.

At the moment, Mattos is in New Orleans building a campaign for a DREAM Act in Lousiana. But last week, she came back to the city to march to Albany with 150 other people demanding action on the bill. She plans to come back to New York soon before New York’s DREAM Act is up for a vote.

“If it doesn’t pass, we have to get something out of this, so we’ll go back and think about what we can do. It took California three years to pass the DREAM Act,” she said.

Mohammad Razvi

Mohammad Razvi, executive director of COPO. Razvi, who immigrated as a child from Pakistan to Midwood, Brooklyn, now works to empower members of his community and improve relationships with law enforcement. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Razvi.

Mohammad Razvi, executive director of the Council of Peoples Organization (COPO),  has had two careers — first as a successful businessman, and then as a community activist. But both paths can be traced back to the values he learned from his parents.

Razvi’s family immigrated from Pakistan to the Midwood section of Brooklyn in 1980, when he was 7 years old. Razvi’s parents worked multiple jobs and his father soon set up two successful pizza shops and a grocery store on Coney Island Ave., where a section of the traditionally Jewish area was beginning to transform into an ethnic enclave known as “Little Pakistan.”

“As I was growing up I made it a point to follow in my dad’s footsteps and work hard,” said Razvi.

Razvi got his U.S. citizenship at the age of 17 and went on to build a successful career in real estate. But the attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, changed everything.

The then 32-year-old father and husband quickly noticed that many of his neighbors were being detained by federal agents, often simply because of their last names or people to whom they had loose ties.

“A lot of things within our community that were happening were so heartbreaking. But when it happens to your own family that’s the worst,” said Razvi.  Right after 9/11, Razvi’s daughter was pushed down a flight of steps at her school. Her scarf was ripped off and she was told to “go back to her own country” by another student.

That’s when Razvi founded the Council for Pakistan Organization (COPO), now called Council of Peoples Organization, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to providing legal assistance to recent immigrants, South Asian or otherwise, and offering advice on other social services like education and housing. Razvi also consults various federal, state and city agencies on how to appropriately interact with members of his community, and works to connect and engage Brooklyn’s diverse ethnic communities.

“One of the key missions we have is community empowerment and community relationship building. When things happen in the Jewish community we are there to support them. And when things happen in the Muslim community they work with us,” said Razvi. To date, Razvi said COPO has helped over 2,000 people gain citizenship, provided legal assistance to 1,300 people who’ve been detained by law enforcement officials and assisted 25,000 people on a wide range of issues.

On May 19, COPO will host Muslim Youth Career Day, a career fair for young Muslims to learn about opportunities in federal, state and local agencies, with the goal of developing greater understanding and cohesion between government and community members.

As with his business aspirations, Razvi says his dedication to his community came from his parents. He recalls an endless series of roommates growing up, which his dad said were uncles, but he later realized were recent immigrants his family was helping to get settled in America. When his father opened a grocery store, he extended credit to families who couldn’t immediately pay. He also advised  immigrant parents whose children were having trouble in school. Today, having sold all of his own businesses, Razvi works full time supporting vulnerable New Yorkers. His source of motivation is right in his own home.

“I long for the day that my daughter can walk in the streets without being categorized, and not be judged for the acts of others,” said Razvi.

Razvi’s story was recently included in the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center, and in 2011 he was awarded the “Freedom Medal” by the New York Post‘s Liberty Medal Awards.

Javier Valdes

Javier Vadles, co-executive director at Make the Road New York, speaks at a press conference at Rikers prison. Make the Road New York worked to pass a city law that prevents prisons from turning inmates over to ICE officials. Photo courtesy of Make the Road New York.

Javier Valdes is co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an organization which empowers and promotes the rights of low-income Latino and working class communities. His parents are Argentinian, but he was born in Boston, so he’s a U.S. citizen — the only one in his family. That doesn’t mean his situation wasn’t complicated growing up.

When he was three months old, his family moved to Caracas, Venezuela. When he was 12, they moved again, this time to a small town in Texas.

“I didn’t speak English, so I had to take ESOL classes for a year,” said Valdes. His parents spoke English and were able to help him learn, but he noticed his peers, almost exclusively immigrants from Mexico, had a more difficult time.

“The best way I can define my experience is what we call ‘living in the hyphen.’ In the U.S. you are never American enough, but when you go back home, you’re never Argentine enough,” Valdes explained.

While growing up in Texas, Valdes’ mother, a nurse, rented out two hotel rooms where she set up a makeshift healthcare clinic for undocumented immigrants. On weekends, he and his sister were the receptionists. That’s where he says he really began to understand the differences between haves and have nots.

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, Valdes went on to become the director of advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition.

Today, at Make the Road, he advocates for a wide range of policy initiatives that impact low-wage immigrants, related to housing, education, environmental justice, workers rights and small business legislation. The organization also runs a leadership school for its members to learn about politics. Make the Road was instrumental in getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pass an executive order requiring city agencies to provide translated materials, and in promoting the city law that prevents prisons from passing detainees off to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Make the Road is currently working to reform the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy.

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