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Dead ends in the sanctuary

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WORLD Radio - Dead ends in the sanctuary

A church in New York City helps migrants apply for asylum and work permits


The Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan Photo by Grace Snell

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, January 18th, 2024. Thank you for listening to WORLD Radio to get your day started. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: what happens to so-called sanctuary cities when migrants take them up on the welcome?

Last month, the border patrol encountered more than 300,000 migrants trying to enter the U.S. Many came with big cities in mind.

MIGRANTS: Pennsylvania, New York, Chicago, Chicago...

BROWN: But city leaders are finding it difficult to keep their promises as sanctuaries. New York City Mayor Eric Adams for example.

ADAMS: Our goal is to treat people with dignity and respect that people deserve. And this is unfair what's happening to migrants and asylum seekers and it's unfair what's happening to long term New Yorkers, we are out of room. We are accommodating as best we can.

The immigration court has a massive backlog. Asylum law is complicated. And it’s not easy living in one of the biggest, most expensive cities in the world.

REICHARD: WORLD Feature Reporter Grace Snell traveled to New York to find out how the city is getting along. And she found a story of one ministry in the city trying to solve one part of an enormous problem.

SOUND: [Cars honking, sirens wailing]

GRACE SNELL, REPORTER: The Church of St. Francis of Assisi sits off a narrow side street in the heart of Manhattan. People bustle by without a glance, and sheer walls overshadow it on either side—but its green copper spire points resolutely heavenward.

SOUND: [Door creaking open, quiet voices in waiting room]

Inside, a group of people huddle together in the church’s migrant center. People like Alec. He’s a migrant from Ecuador—one of over 160,000 who have come to the city since 2022.

ALEC: Mi nombre es Alec… [Speaking Spanish, explaining why he left Ecuador]

Alec says he left Ecuador to escape extortion from the cartels. He crossed the border into Arizona after trekking across Panama and Mexico. He’s been in New York City just 15 days.

ALEC: [Speaking Spanish, explaining what he wants to do in NYC]

Like many migrants pouring into the city, Alec says he’s come to work and wants to build a better life. But for those released into the country to seek asylum, that’s proving extremely difficult. *

Julian Jagudilla is a Franciscan friar and the migrant center’s director. He explains that migrants can’t get approval to work without having legal status in the U.S.

JAGUDILLA: They want to get out of the welfare system. And the only way for them to do that is to get a job.

But, those jobs require work permits. And that’s exactly what they can’t get without at least a pending immigration application. So, they come to St. Francis to apply for asylum. It’s a legal protection migrants can seek no matter how they enter the country. *

SOUND: [People talking, feet scuffing]

It’s their best hope to stay in the U.S. and find lawful work.

SOUND: [Papers shuffling]

Every morning, Jagudilla gathers his team of volunteers in the center’s conference room for a briefing.

JAGUDILLA: We want them to own their process. We want them to be part of the solution of the situation. Okay, so we’re not going to do everything for them…

A dozen people sit around the polished wooden table, listening. Jagudilla gives them the bottom line up front.

JAGUDILLA: Our primary objective is for them to get the work permits. The approval or even denial of their application will take three to five years…

But, they can apply for a work permit once their asylum applications have been pending for five months. Still, that’s only a band-aid solution if they don’t win their asylum claims.

And for many, their chances of that aren’t good. Asylum has a particular legal definition. Migrants have to prove they’re at risk of targeted persecution for traits like race or religion to qualify. Simply fleeing poverty and gang violence isn’t a basis for asylum.

JAGUDILLA: Para asylum…How do you say that in French and Arabic?

VOLUNTEERS: [Translating into French and Arabic]

Around 10:30 a.m., Jagudilla heads through a glass door into the lobby. He starts calling names from a list and sorting people into different language groups.

JAGUDILLA: Susannah… Claudo…

Many of the applicants come here from countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. But Jagudilla says they are also seeing more people from West African countries like Senegal and Mauritania.

JAGUDILLA: We are going to take the first twenty…

VOLUNTEERS: Speaking Spanish, French, Arabic…Translating…

Finding enough translators is a constant battle.

JAGUDILLA: You follow Marianne for Spanish…

Jagudilla ushers everyone downstairs to a wood-paneled room set up with folding tables.

SOUND: [Footsteps on the stairs, directions, chairs scuffing]

The migrants take their seats. All eyes turn toward the front as a volunteer gives a short introduction.

VOLUNTEER: Good morning and welcome.

MIGRANTS: Good morning.

VOLUNTEER: We are glad you were here at St. Francis and we are here to assist you in your applications for asylum…

AUDIO: [Arabic translation]

Then, they hand out pencils and dive in.

SOUND: [Pencils clattering, people talking]

Around the room, people bend dutifully over their papers.

SOUND: [Background instructions and conversation]

Jagudilla knows many of their asylum claims aren’t very strong. And that worries him. Migrants can only stay in city shelters for 30 and 60 days before they have to move out and wait for another spot to open up.

As the second intake begins, Jagudilla asks the group how many of them are worried about losing their shelter beds.

Hands go up around the room. Jagudilla tells them there’s nothing he can do.

JAGUDILLA: The only solution that you have when you don’t have place to stay is to stay at Penn Station or Port Authority…

In the meantime, more and more migrants arrive in the city each day. And that means a new crowd of people waiting for help at St. Francis each morning.

SOUND: [Voices, scuffing feet, creaking door]

Still, Jagudilla is determined to keep doing what he can for them. And he’s committed to treating them with dignity—no matter the outcome.

JAGUDILLA: The most important thing here is that when people come here, they feel welcome. They feel safe. We provide a welcome here in our church, you know, following Jesus’ command, you know, that whatever we do to the least of his sisters or brothers, we do it to him.

SOUND: [Sirens, traffic]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell in New York.

REICHARD: For more information on the unfolding migrant crisis, you can keep an eye out for Grace’s print feature in the February 10th issue of WORLD Magazine.

Editor’s note: WORLD has edited this episode and transcript since its first airing to more accurately reflect the nature of the church’s migrant center outreach.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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