Juan Carlos Ruiz, an immigrant from Mexico, spends most Thursday evenings at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he volunteers to counsel fellow immigrants in navigating life in New York City. The bone-white structure, with its vaulted and Germanic architecture, bears no resemblance to the ornate Catholic cathedrals of his home country, but the Mexican parishioners make it feel a bit like home.
By 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday, more than 70 migrants were gathered under the pinched arches of Good Shepherd. The room was filled with the sound of families speaking in Spanish. Between unfinished pizza dinners, families waited in line to receive legal aid from a handful of volunteer-run tables. Children slid up and down pews.
“We need to put on the table the hard questions,” Ruiz said. “Why hasn’t there been any humane immigration reform for the last 40 years? Why don’t we claim amnesty for those that have been living in the shadows for so many years?”
Throughout New York, church-based social service providers such as Good Shepherd are facing pressure from a surge of migrants to the city. Some collect donations. Others offer food or a place to sleep. At Good Shepherd, Ruiz and his group of volunteers host weekly English classes, know-your-rights sessions, a legal aid clinic and workshops aimed at teaching migrants practical employment skills like sewing. Now, Ruiz and his team are formalizing their efforts through the creation of their own non-profit organization.
His goal is to someday be able to pay his volunteers by arranging additional funding.
In a city of 110,000 migrants, there is no shortage of aid-seekers. Luke Petrinovic, 33, a legal aid volunteer and Spanish translator, said legal clinics across the city have been asking Good Shepherd to do more. In June, a backlog of more than 2 million asylum cases sat waiting to be processed. Asylum-seekers in the U.S. can now expect to be assigned court dates as far as 10 years in advance. There are not enough immigration lawyers in New York City to keep up.
Increasing legal aid alone will not solve the migrant crisis, Petrinovic said. “A bigger point is getting people to come back, to get them to understand that they can get legal help and food,” he said. “They need to feel supported or else they lose faith.”
After attending Sunday service in Spanish, migrants often line up to seek advice from Ruiz. One young father is fearful of losing his two young sons to social services. Another is at risk of being deported—he illegally owns and operates a motorcycle.
Yet there is cause for hope.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Greater Caribbean Studies program at the Columbia University Institute of Latin American Studies, said the city’s 110,000 migrants hold the potential to make significant contributions to the city after its loss of almost 500,000 residents during the pandemic.
“About 40% of asylum seekers have already moved on from the shelter system,” she said.
Aid workers throughout the boroughs have started viewing Good Shepherd as a model to emulate. Lou Kuhlmann, 59, a volunteer from the Sunset Park 5th Avenue BID, has been coming to Good Shepherd every week for the last six weeks.
His goal is to learn the ins and outs the asylum application process. “It’s pretty complicated,” Kuhlmann said. “It’s like doing college applications and taxes at the same time.” He plans to bring back what he learns to Sunset Park, where he lives, and start a sister program there.
It’s this penchant for change that is fundamental to the work Ruiz pursues, said parishioner Philip Dominguez, adding that Good Shepherd regularly adapts to serve its community through changing crises. “Yesterday it was COVID, today it’s migrants —tomorrow, who knows,” he said.