Teresa García, Finance Director, Asociación Tepeyac de New York: Helping Undocumented Immigrants in the Wake of 9/11

August 5, 2003
Teresa García, Finance Director, Asociación Tepeyac de New York: Helping Undocumented Immigrants in the Wake of 9/11

Census results show that the Mexican population in New York City nearly tripled — to 183,813 — between 1990 and 2000, compared with a modest increase in the number of Dominicans and a decline in the Puerto Rican population, the city's two largest Hispanic groups. And some leaders in the Mexican community believe the figure would be closer to 500,000 if it included undocumented immigrants.

The dramatic increase in the city's Mexican population has caused its share of problems. Undocumented Mexican workers struggle to get paid for work they have done, those who have been injured on the job often don't receive medical treatment, and still others are cheated out of wages intended for their families back in Mexico. The events of September 11, 2001, added a new dimension to these problems. Many families already living in poverty lost their primary breadwinner. Undocumented immigrants who survived scrambled to prove they had worked downtown or worried whether they would be able to find work again in an economy that had been staggered. Others who were in the country illegally suffered in silence, too scared to ask for help.

Within days, staff at Asociación Tepeyac de New York, a network of forty groups dedicated to organizing and educating the city's Latino immigrants and protecting their social welfare and human rights, were answering phone calls from frantic relatives in Latin America, offering psychological counseling and providing financial assistance to immigrants who were ineligible to receive assistance from other agencies. The young organization – formed just four years earlier by Brother Joel Magallan, SJ, who was sent by Mexican Jesuits in response to an appeal for help from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York — quickly proved that it could effectively serve the urgent needs of a community whose members, because of their illegal status, often don't trust authorities and other agencies.

Earlier this year, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Teresa García, the finance director at Tepeyac, about the organization's role in the Hispanic community, its work after September 11, 2001, and its plans for the future. 

García came to New York City from Mexico in 1995 to study English and philosophy. She later earned a degree in international marketing from Baruch College in New York and worked in the financial services industry for a few years. She began to work with Tepeyac as a volunteer in late 1999 and joined the staff as finance director in May 2001.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about Tepeyac de New York — what is its mission, how did it get started, and how does it fulfill its mission?

Teresa García: I think the heart of what Tepeyac does is organizing and educating people in the Latino community. We were started by community-based activists who were already doing something and wanted to create a formal organization. Once they had done that, they said, "Okay, one of our priorities now that we have formed this organization will be to focus on educational problems." Not formal education, but something that could help people survive and access various agencies that provide assistance to the community. So Tepeyac started a leadership program to teach people in the neighborhoods how to talk to each other and organize. Some people were already doing that, but they didn't have all the skills they needed. It's still one of the most important programs we have — leadership and community organizing.

PND: Your offices, which are less than two miles from the World Trade Center site, were a refuge for many Hispanics who had been downtown on the morning of September 11, 2001. Can you describe the atmosphere in the office that morning?

TG: A lot of immigrants who were working in the World Trade Center area that morning — in construction, in restaurants, in delis — got separated from their friends and co-workers; they didn't know what to do, so they came to our office. Around 10:30, one person who had been working with us for five years appeared at our door. We were watching TV, like everyone else, to see what was going on, and all of a sudden there he was. He was covered by dust and so scared when I saw him; he was just desperate. Pretty soon, more people started to arrive on foot — remember, there were no trains, no transportation. So we began to take them in, and we also began to receive phone calls from relatives in other countries. It was a crazy day.

"...A lot of people have asked, "How did you find the people you helped [on September 11]?" We didn't find them; they found us...."

Everybody thought that we would be able to help them. But we didn't know what to do — nobody knew what to do. So we just started helping them. A lot of people have asked, "How did you find the people you helped?" We didn't find them; they found us.

PND: Tepeyac originally was formed to serve Mexican immigrants. Did you also serve immigrants from other Latin American countries in the wake of 9/11?

TG: We have a very close relationship with the Mexican immigrant community; the organization was founded by Mexican leaders. We mainly serve undocumented workers, and we've been fighting for amnesty for them since the organization was founded five years ago. We also have a good reputation with the media — the Hispanic media — and we were receiving lots of media coverage around that time. So everybody in the Latin American community began to come to us, even people that had never come to us before. We welcomed everyone.

In the first few weeks, we were working on one hundred and six cases involving people reported missing, and we ended up working on a total of sixty-seven cases. Sixteen of those are Mexican families, and we're also working with families from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, and other countries. In addition, we serve nine hundred dislocated workers – sixty-four percent of them Mexican, about nine percent Ecuadorian, five percent from Colombia, five percent from the Caribbean, and about three percent Peruvian. Most of these workers are undocumented, and about half of them worked downtown. The other half worked for bakeries and delivered dough, cookies, or bread, or delivered produce, or did laundry for restaurants downtown. They all lost their jobs. It was a chain reaction.

PND: What did you do initially to help these people?

TG: We started by putting together a database of people who were reported missing and by searching for people in hospitals. Actually, most of our volunteers were working on an event we were going to have in Battery Park the following week, so we already had a lot of people downtown. We just changed the focus of our activity, and everybody started to do different tasks. Some people took phone calls; others worked on creating the database. A lot of people went downtown to the World Trade Center site to see if they could help. We also began to think that we needed to do something more organized and not just react to what people needed. We knew at that point that most of the people coming to us were coming because they couldn't get assistance anywhere else. They came because their experience accessing public services hadn't been good, or because many services simply aren't available to the undocumented population. So we said, "Okay, let's see what we can do."

PND: Did you keep track of people who visited or called Tepeyac looking for assistance?

TG: We compiled a lot of statistics. For a while, workers from the World Trade Center area met here every night and would go through the same routine: "Okay, we were working in this business. In this business we had ten people; eight of them were Mexicans, five of them were undocumented," and so on. We started writing down the names of the businesses and how many people were in each business, and put it all into a database along with the addresses of the businesses, how many people worked in each one, and what their occupation was. Most of the missing worked in the restaurant business — forty-nine percent. Most of the rest were in the service industry — construction, delis, pizzerias, dry cleaning, parking, et cetera.

"...The office was open twenty hours a day, seven days a week, with a staff of three people and twenty-one full-time volunteers...."

During the first month after 9/11, we were working from twelve to twenty hours a day. The office was open twenty hours a day, seven days a week, with a staff of three people and twenty-one full-time volunteers, many of them interns from colleges and universities in Mexico. We were trying like crazy to figure out what to do. We started providing counseling for the families of the missing, and we started trying to contact the authorities and the media so they could see what was happening in our community.

PND: When did you start receiving assistance from other agencies?

TG: During that fall, we were able to function thanks to a $20,000 check from the AFL-CIO, which we received on September 19, and the donations of individuals. At first, everyone knew about the other heroes but not really about our community. But pretty soon we had media coming in from all over the place, and people from all over the country started sending us $5, $10, $20. We gave that money to the families of the victims and began organizing how we would give money to dislocated workers. We also told their stories to media from other countries. We talked to one magazine from France and then a couple of newspapers from Japan, so it was really nice to know that a lot of people cared about the people we serve.

We started to contact FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and other agencies in September to tell them about the needs in our community, and I think they began to work with us in October — FEMA, the Red Cross, and other voluntary organizations that help in disasters. The Red Cross said, "Okay, if the people don't have Social Security numbers and they don't have documentation, how should we do this? How do you know they're victims and not just someone off the street?" So we had to come up with a way for people to prove they were victims. Some of them had proof to work with, like the delivery boys who had to show identification every time they made a delivery in the towers. For others who didn't have proof, not even a pay stub, we ended up grouping them by type of business, so they could serve as witnesses for each other.

PND: Can you give us an example?

TG: Let's take restaurants. We created a long list of all the restaurants downtown that employed undocumented immigrants. I think, at the beginning, we had the names of fifty-eight places. So when someone came in who had worked at a restaurant on that list, we would tell him to bring in the other people he knew who worked there. And when they came in, they'd say, "Okay, this lady was a cashier, and I was the cook." We put that information together with other information — how many people were employed by a particular restaurant, what their jobs were, how much money they made, how many dependents they had – then sent them to a public notary, where they signed an affidavit. We wanted them to prove they were who they said they were, but we also wanted to protect ourselves. In fact, Safe Horizon and a couple of other relief agencies adopted the same system; they learned it from us.

PND: What about people who didn't work downtown?

TG: So many of the dislocated workers in our community did not work downtown. They worked in the construction industry, or at the airports, or in restaurants throughout the city and needed assistance as much as anyone. But they didn't qualify for it, either because much of that assistance was earmarked for people who lived or worked below Canal Street [about a mile north of the World Trade Center] or because people had to be able to prove that they were working. Most of the relief agencies had the same criteria. We had about fifty people who were directly affected by the attacks but couldn't get any kind of assistance. So we had to see what else we could do for them.

PND: Besides helping people financially and providing counseling, what other kinds of services did Tepeyac offer to victims?

TG: We started providing case-management services in October, and then we expanded the computer and English classes we were already offering to the community. We knew that a lot of the people who had lost their jobs wouldn't be able to find new ones right away. And because we knew the experience had been hard on them, and we were worried about depression, we decided that the best thing for them at that moment was to get them doing something. So we expanded those programs and made sure we included dislocated workers. We also held a lot of workshops and tried to bring people together, giving them an opportunity to network and support each other while they were looking for jobs. We didn't want them to feel alone.

PND: When did you realize you might need a longer-term plan to address some of these needs?

TG: We thought we were finished with September 11 assistance in December [of 2001], but then we realized many needs still existed and that we needed to design something for the long term. By that point, I had started writing to foundations and asking them for assistance, but they didn't know us and were reluctant to give us anything. I knocked on a lot of doors and just didn't receive anything.

PND: Did any of the foundations you approached eventually get past their reluctance and provide you with funding?

"...Before they would fund us, they wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure in place to use the funds appropriately. It took us a long time to meet that requirement...."

TG: We worked a long time trying to arrange something with the Robin Hood Foundation. We initially met with them in September, when we were going to meetings with the Salvation Army, FEMA, and other relief agencies. But before they would fund us, they wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure in place to use the funds appropriately. It took us a long time to meet that requirement because we simply didn't have the equipment. I had a computer, but it was from my other job. In total, the organization had two computers — that was it. We also needed to hire more people; we needed desks, chairs, office equipment; and we needed to convince foundations that we could be efficient in distributing resources to our community. So the negotiations were really hard, and it took several months to secure the funding.

After the AFL-CIO contribution, the first one to give us money was the American Jewish World Service. I asked everyone for money except them, and they were the first to approach us. We received a check for $40,000 from them on November 13, 2001, to distribute to victims and dislocated workers. Then, in January, we started getting money from some of the big funders, including Robin Hood and the September 11th Fund, and that money allowed us to hire five caseworkers, a psychologist, an ESL [English-as-a-Second Language] coordinator, and a computer-class coordinator. 

PND: What other things did you do to provide for longer-term needs?

TG: Well, we continued to provide assistance to almost nine hundred dislocated workers. In addition to financial assistance, we offered job-networking support, medical services referrals, psychological counseling, immigration counseling, and legal advice — fortunately, we received a lot of pro bono help.

For the sixty-seven families of the deceased, especially the families abroad, we raised money for them from foundations, churches, and individual donors; provided medical insurance, scholarships for their children, and housing; and helped them set up small businesses so they could survive on their own. We didn't want to just give them money for food or expenses; we wanted to help them learn to survive without us. So we provided financial planning for their education, health, and housing needs down the road. 

PND: Did any of your clients qualify for federal assistance?

TG: When we finally got the chance to talk to FEMA about a month and a half after the tragedy, we told them that we had all these people that couldn't get assistance of any kind. Many had children and were on the verge of not having anything to eat. So FEMA agreed to let the parents of children born in this country apply for emergency assistance and came and gave us training on how to fill out the application. We eventually submitted something like three hundred applications — and only one person received assistance. One reason was because the application package was so complicated that it really required more training to figure out than most of our clients received. But another reason was that in every place where you were asked to sign, there was also a warning that said something like, "If you are not in this country legally, you are liable to prosecution."

So, many people who applied got a notice that said they were ineligible. Well, we contacted the people at FEMA and asked them, "Do you want us to do the paperwork again?" And they said, "Okay, let's do the applications again." We wanted more people to apply, but many of them wouldn't; they were just too scared. As things stand, forty-eight families who lost a relative will receive death certificates. Among those, we know that thirty-seven are eligible to receive federal compensation, but eleven are still not sure because they lack other required documentation.

PND: When do you expect to bring your 9/11 programs to a close?

TG: As I said, we thought they would last six months and then people would get jobs, say thank you, and that would be that. But the economy is so bad they keep coming back. Sometimes they've managed to find part-time work, but things are very unstable right now. So we'll probably keep them going for at least another year, even though they require a lot of resources. The need is there.

And we plan to continue helping families — victims' families — apply for financial assistance. We were with them when they started the process, and we want to be there at the end of the process. We also want to work with those who weren't able to receive the assistance they needed. We've completed projects with some of those families — we helped them buy a house or set up a small business that will enable them to survive even without assistance. But we have many other families to serve. So we're probably looking at two more years for victims' families, and maybe longer.

PND: What are you doing to help those families who were not eligible for assistance?

TG: We didn't have any hope that those families were going to receive anything. But from the very beginning, we have had volunteers — people who have experience in financial planning — help with the planning for these families. It's a very different kind of planning than what you see with people who have 401(k)s. I mean, these people have nothing, and in many cases their dependents don't even live in the U.S. So we offer them customized financial planning, and we help where we can with projects of the kind I mentioned — getting them set up with a house and income so that they can survive and provide for their children and pay for basic medical care. You have to understand, many immigrants who come to the U.S. come because they want a house or to send their children to a good school. That's all. But for some of the families that live outside the U.S., we had to close their cases because we couldn't get the proof we needed in order to include them in the program.

PND: Because Tepeyac was positioned to help a population that few agencies were prepared to reach in the wake of 9/11, it grew considerably in the months that followed the attack. How has that expansion affected the organization?

TG: The 9/11 funding we received allowed us to build our programs and reach out, very successfully, to more members of the community. We would like to continue providing that level of assistance to the Latin American community. We have waiting lists for our computer classes, for our ESL classes, for our GED classes. We want to provide scholarships to those people who have completed the ESL and computer classes. They are eager to continue learning and want to keep busy. We have also heard from a lot of Hispanics who have documentation and want to take advantage of our services — they've heard good things about us. How can we say no to others in the community who want to enroll in our classes? We need people — we need funders — to see and understand what we are doing to serve this population, especially what we did to serve 9/11 victims, because it's going to go down in history. And we don't want our community to remain invisible.

"...Because of September 11, we have more clients and fewer resources. Funders want to give grants for specific programs, but we're struggling with operational expenses...."

Right now we have a big challenge: Because of September 11, we have more clients and fewer resources. Funders want to give grants for specific programs, but we're struggling with operational expenses. We need to pay rent, and foundations don't like to give money for rent. We need to pay utility bills and administrative costs. I've been knocking on a lot of doors, with mixed results. Because of the market and the poor economy, a lot of funders don't have the money right now. They say our proposals are good, but they can't help us with funding.

It's not all bad for us, because we have been able to prove to funders over the last year and a half that we do good work and that we are capable of doing more good work in the future, if they help us. For us, it's been an investment in relationship building with foundations. It's difficult, but I am convinced it will pay off for us in the long run.

PND: Tepeyac relies heavily on volunteers and interns, both full- and part-time. Can you tell us about those programs?

TG: Most of our interns are students from the top universities in Mexico. We have around ten interns right now, and we're bringing on five more to help us with a big event in the city — Our Lady of Guadalupe, which includes a run called the Torch of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Carrera Antorcha Guadalupana. The race starts in Mexico City, and thousands of young immigrants will participate by passing a torch off to one another until it reaches Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on December 12. The event encourages immigrants from all nationalities to organize and educate themselves to promote their own rights. It also allows Tepeyac to share its organizational model with other immigrant leaders in towns across the country.

We also have some full-time volunteers, people who aren't working who are able to come in and help out for a month or more at a time. And we have some young people who want to continue studying in the afternoon, so they come in after school and we give them a MetroCard [transit pass] to make it worth their while.

So we have a range of people, from professionals who are teaching ESL and computer classes to people who are unemployed and unable to find work. It's really amazing. Six months ago we had about fifty volunteers, and now we have sixty. I've even been thinking that we need to do something for them to show our appreciation, because right now their work is so crucial to what we do. We really should develop a system that sustains them and also makes them feel good about what they do.

PND: We've talked about your 9/11 and leadership and community-organizing programs. Anything else we should know about?

TG: Well, we haven't talked about immigration counseling. People come here to see what kind of application they need to submit to the INS [now the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services] or where they are in the process. Also, when these people see lawyers and the lawyers don't have time to respond to their questions, they often come to us. Our person in charge of immigration will tell them what's going on with their cases, and she also does workshops, both here and in different neighborhoods.

We also have a labor-counseling program. Most of our clients don't have a Social Security number, so when they get injured on the job they tend not to go to a hospital. We try to explain to them what their rights are. The person in charge of that program will also phone the employer and politely ask them if they can provide some medical attention to our injured client. Or, if our client is unable to work anymore, we try to negotiate with the employer to see whether they qualify for worker's compensation. If it's not possible for the employer to provide worker's comp, we'll take the case to the Labor Department. 

Another important thing we do is to help clients get their wages when an employer decides to withhold some or all of their pay. Most of our clients in the labor-counseling program are there because they haven't been paid wages they are owed.

Then we have the educational programs — the computer training and the ESL classes. Volunteers teach those classes, and we have paid staff members who coordinate them. The coordinators are in charge of developing the curriculum; hiring, supervising, and training volunteers; and also looking at other locations for classes. We prefer to keep our classes small — we have been very successful with groups of ten people. With smaller groups, we can evaluate progress better — students' progress as well as whether we are able to deliver on their expectations.

In the ESL classes, they learn the vocabulary they need in order to survive in the workplace, read a lease or negotiate with the landlord, access emergency room services or Medicare, and so on. Basically, the classes are designed to give immigrants the language skills they need to survive in New York City. We also offer conversational classes taught by volunteers — many from Wall Street or big midtown companies — that give our people an opportunity to learn to speak English properly and have meaningful one-on-one conversations. That's what I love the most about the ESL classes — they give people a chance to connect with people who may have a different social status.

We also have a television program that teaches people how to make a documentary, use a camera, edit. The participants decide what the documentary is going to be about and are part of the production. We already have one group of people who have gone through the program, and they're teaching a new group of students. We get space on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network channel, the public access cable station in Manhattan, and it's just a very nice program because people who used to think that television was only for celebrities or important people get a chance to share their dreams and experiences and ideas with other people. It's inspiring. Most of the participants are young — sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds. And that's great, because before they go through the program most of them think that the only job they can get is working in a kitchen or something. It's very rewarding for them. 

PND: Do Latin American immigrants in New York differ from other immigrants in the city?

"...I think all undocumented immigrants...have the same needs. The thing is that when it comes to solving immigration issues, people from other places have more help available...."

TG: I think all undocumented immigrants, regardless of where they're from, have the same needs. The thing is that when it comes to solving immigration issues, people from other places have more help available; there are more initiatives set up to help them. People who come from Eastern Europe can solve their problems relatively quickly, and then they stop having the problems that come with being an undocumented immigrant. People from Asian countries get help through their agencies and organizations and are able to build a business and establish a stable life sooner.

Don't get me wrong: All immigrants have the same problems and the same needs at the beginning. But somehow immigrants from other regions of the world are solving their problems faster. The federal government isn't helping matters by denying legal residency to Latin American people. As a result, we have immigrants who have been in this country for fifteen years and are still finding it difficult to advance.

PND: Are you excited about the future of your organization?

TG: I'm very excited about the future of Tepeyac, but it's also going to be a challenge. Because we don't have a contract with the city or the state or the federal government, we aren't tied to a set plan. That gives us a lot of flexibility to do things for the population we serve. And I think very few organizations have such close contact with or intimate knowledge of the needs of the communities they serve. Most of our organizers either live with immigrants or are immigrants themselves. So it's very exciting to be able to help the people we are supposed to help. It's very exciting that all these people are approaching us because they trust us. For me, it's a privilege to work here. In the three years I've been here, I can think of so many things we have done and so many people we have helped. It's incredible, really.

At the same time, we still have a lot of work to do. And because we are the ones that are actually doing the work, we are becoming the experts in serving this population. Other agencies and organizations and unions are now coming to us and asking how they should reach out to our community, or are asking us to send people to them — everyone is asking us what our people need. It means a lot for us to be that kind of connection between the people who want to help and the people who need help. And it's just really nice that in New York, people appreciate that these immigrants are contributing to the city's economy and want to help them.

PND: Well, Teresa, thanks so much for your time.

TG: Thank you.

Jennifer Furl, an associate editor at Philanthropy News Digest, interviewed Teresa Garcia in April. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@fdncenter.org