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The purpose of this study is to provide additional context to publicly available estimates of state and national compensation for persons working as Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). Commissioned by three Pennsylvania associations The Alliance of Community Service Providers (The Alliance CSP), PAR (Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability), and Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association (RCPA), this report will largely focus on individuals working as DSPs in Pennsylvania. Specifically, this study will outline:

  1. The relationship between increasing DSP wages and service quality improvement,
  2. The cost benefit to the Commonwealth when increasing DSP wages, and
  3. The positive impact on the DSP quality of life by increasing DSP wages.

The study concludes that current wages require DSPs to rely on public assistance creating increased demand on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s budget. In addition, current wages cause DSPs to leave their jobs at an alarming rate (11.9 percent vacancy rate and 26 percent staff turnover), thus compromising the quality of care to Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable individuals: children; persons with intellectual disability or autism; and persons with drug and alcohol addiction.

While the study answers several important questions about DSPs, further research is warranted in the following areas: 

  1. A wage study to determine the extent that increased wages reduce vacancy and attrition rates and inclusion of an analysis of the impact on managers and supervisors that currently make only marginally more than the current DSP wage.
  2. A study on the economic impact on Pennsylvania, namely to determine the percentage of dollars spent through increased wages which are returned to taxpayers through additional tax revenues.
  3. A study that assesses the impact on service quality to DSP compensation practices.  
  4. A study to determine the economic impact on the local economy when raising DSP wages.


Direct Support Professional (DSPs) are individuals who receive monetary compensation to “provide a wide range of supportive services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a day to day basis, including habilitation, health needs, personal care and hygiene, employment, transportation, recreation, and housekeeping and other home management related supports and services so that these individuals can live and work in their communities.” i This workforce may also be known as Client Care Workers, Residential Counselors, or Personal Care Aides, and they provide critical support to ensure that individuals who have intellectual disability, autism, and/or behavioral health concerns can “lead self-­‐directed, community and social lives.”ii 

In June 2003,iii per the US Department of Health & Human Services, there were 874,000 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) DSPs assisting individuals with intellectual disability, autism and/or behavioral health concerns in various settings. DSPs provide care and support to over one million Americans in need of these life-span services and supports. By 2020, it is estimated that the demand for DSPs will grow to 1.2 million due to increased life expectancy of individuals who require services; aging of the baby boomers; increased prevalence of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities; and expansion of community support systems. This constitutes a 40 percent increase in the demand of services in a little more than 17 years. With 2020 just three years away, one must speculate that the 874,000 figure substantially underestimates the current demand for services and supports.

Compensation for DSPs has long been an issue of concern,iv with numerous salary surveys conducted over the past 40 years. Some studies focused on the distinction between private community and public congregate care settings (i.e. state centers), while others made no such distinctions. The primary collectors of this data have been researchers associated with the University of Minnesota. The below figure represents a summary of the DSP wage data and trends from 1979 to 2015 in both private and state settings.

The main factor that stands out from this figure is that DSPs working for private providers in the community tend to make roughly two-thirds of the wages of similarly employed individuals who work for the state. 

More recent studies reveal a continuing pattern of low pay being associated with the DSP position. The 2014 Minnesota studyv reported a mean hourly wage of $11.26 for private DSPs, while a systematic replicationvi conducted in Pennsylvaniavii reported a mean hourly wage of $11.26 in 2014. More current Pennsylvania dataviii revealed a modest increase to a median of $11.50 per hour for DSPs. This trend is confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statisticsix as seen in the chart below, where 73,630 DSPs in Pennsylvania make a slightly higher annual mean wage than the national average, at $22,160.

To break down the DSP workforce by type of service (e.g., intellectual disability, mental health, autism, and drug and alcohol) we pulled data from job listings and recruitment sites. According to Glassdoor,x a job listing and recruiting website, salaries for DSPs align with the aforementioned references. The hourly wages as shown in the chart below ranged from $9.39 to $12.01 per hour. DSP positions are listed at $9.39 per hour for the mental health field, $10.04 per hour for the intellectual disability field, and $11.47 for the autism field. A DSP position for drug and alcohol rehabilitation was listed at $10.35 per hour, while a DSP position for child care was listed at $12.01 per hour. These wages are consistent with national data.


One might argue that the proper price for a DSP is the price for which people are willing to work. This is the basic Economics 101 argument, and it would pertain if Pennsylvania providers could hire enough appropriately trained staff to work as DSPs. However, given the current 11.9 percent vacancy ratexi, it is clear providers are unable to hire enough DSPs. There is also a significant concern that DSPs are not adequately prepared.xii Implied is the suggestion that even with relaxed expectations for DSPs, the field is unable to fill all vacant positions. Combined with the aforementioned rapidly growing demand for DSPs, by 2020, we are positioned to experience a latent crisis.

A variety of demographic trends have united to result in an increased demand for DSPs in the immediate future. Given the challenges currently being faced in the recruitment and retention of DSPs, the projected increase in demand can only result in the forecast of a potential catastrophe with providers being unable to hire the appropriate number of DSPs to support the needs of individuals who have intellectual disability, autism, and/or behavioral health concerns. It appears unlikely that providers will be able to manage the 26 percent turnover rate; fill the current 11.9 percent vacancy rate; or meet the increased demand for DSPs with the current government-suppressed wages.

Numerous studiesxii have examined factors related to Direct Support Professional turnover. Wages remain the most consistent and impactful predictor of turnover. With high vacancy rates and high turnover rates, employers become less selective, and staff quality declines. Furthermore, if higher standards were required, it could reasonably be anticipated that the vacancy rate would increase further.

These concerns extend well beyond the mere ability to fill vacant positions. The inability to fill DSP positions directly affects the quality of life for the persons supported by DSPs. The constant turnover of staff results in a transitory quality in regard to the knowledge held about consumers, as well as consumers themselves losing contact with trusted and relied-upon staff. Both turnover and staff vacancies affect the quality of care by disrupting social support networks, jeopardizing program continuity, and, ultimately, increasing the costs of providing services. The high turnover and vacancy rates require providers to offer overtime to existing DSPs to meet the needs of consumers which increases provider costs. The stress and strain on DSPs, due to working overtime hours and serving a challenging population, poses risks to consumers and overall lowers service quality. This risk has been detailed in overtime work within the nursing population.xiii

When comparing fair compensation practices to the related profession of Nursing Assistants, we note that there is current legislation in Pennsylvania, the “Nursing Home Accountability Act” (House Bill 192 and Senate Bill 1057 (Appendix A), that is based upon the Nursing Home Jobs That Pay Studyxiii that argues for “an increase of the average wage for nursing assistants to $15 per hour to meet a living sufficiency standard for an employee with one child to provide for themselves and the child without the need for public assistance.” Studies on the cross-section of public benefits and low-income workersxiv argue that wages need to rise to $19-22 per hour for individuals to no longer need to rely on public benefits, while many DSPs would need to earn as high as $32 per hour to cover expenses related to making up the difference for lost benefits.xv

When taking the above data and trends into consideration, we conclude that DSPs, at a minimum, need to receive equal compensation to Nursing Assistants as they provide a similar level of care. In addition, this would level the playing field since providers of intellectual disability and autism supports/services and providers of nursing home services are competing for the same candidates for potential employees.

When taking into consideration the reality that a large portion of the 34,000 DSP workers in our study work overtime or rely upon public subsidies to make ends meet, a fair wage for a DSP should be at least $18 per hour, which would increase their projected annual earnings from $24,752 to $37,440.  A DSP wage of $18 per hour still falls below the living wage recommendations,1 but it would improve service quality by reducing turnover rates, decreasing vacancy rates, and reducing current overtime practices which result in overworked DSPs, and reducing reliance on public assistance.  

1 According to a study from the Alliance for a Just Society, a living wage for a single adult in Pennsylvania would be $16.41 per hour.  A single adult with a school-age child should make $24.35 per hour, with two children, that increases to $31.67 per hour.


Nationally, low wages cost taxpayers $152.8 Billion annually in costs related to supporting working families with public benefits, per a 2015 studyxvi from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. The study states:

“Stagnating wages and decreased benefits are a problem not only for low-­‐wage workers who increasingly cannot make ends meet, but also for the federal government as well as the 50 state governments that finance the public assistance programs many of these workers and their families turn to. Nearly three-­‐quarters (73 percent) of enrollees in America’s major public support programs are members of working families; the taxpayers bear a significant portion of the hidden costs of low-­‐wage work in America.”

Working families with young children, especially single parent families, are more likely to receive multiple public benefits. This family type is more likely to be low-­‐income. Because of this, many public subsidy programs target outreach to help them secure benefits. Public support helps many single parent families meet basic needs.xvii However, navigating eligibility requirements can be difficult. The process is likened to that of a Rubix Cube, wherein the various pieces of the puzzle are difficult to line up. Income eligibility levels differ for each type of public support, programs count different forms of income to determine eligibility, while still other programs allow recipients to deduct basic needs from their income creating further ambiguity.

Organizations such as Benefits Data Trust have developed sophisticated algorithms and computer programs to navigate the public benefits maze. Benefits Data Trust has developed a chart (Appendix B) that serves as a guideline rubric for benefit qualifications. The chart summarizes 16 benefit programs for which an individual would qualify based on age, income, assets, and family size. Benefit qualifications, payouts, and scheduled disbursements differ in each of these benefit programs, and the size of the benefit payout differs for each benefit based on the requisite qualifications listed. Other organizations such as Single Stop USA and Benefits Kitchen have also developed software to align individual scenarios to public benefit qualifications. The complexity of obtaining these benefits is an obvious deterrent for the persons and families who might potentially benefit from these programs, such as the average low-­‐wage DSP worker.

To provide perspectivexviii, based on the national average, an individual working 40 hours per week and making below $12.16 an hour (or $25,293 annually) would qualify for an average of $1,917 in Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); $1,078 in Child Tax Credit (CTC); $295 in Low-­‐Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); $3,162 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); $3,308 in Housing Assistance, $2,201 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); and $712 in Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). If all benefits were obtained, the average DSP would qualify for $12,673 in public benefits, excluding Medicaid.

The below figure provided by Benefits Data Trust references benefits payouts and qualifications specific for Pennsylvania.

To better understand how wages are correlated with public benefits, below are three scenarios of a DSP worker in PA earning $11.50 per hour; a single DSP worker in PA with one dependent earning $11.50 per hour; and a single DSP worker in PA with two dependents earning $11.50 per hour.

Our reliance on illustrative scenarios is the unfortunate product of the complexities of public benefits qualifications and data that does not exist (i.e. valid estimates of the family compositions of the Pennsylvania DSP workforce and numbers of DSPs who receive public benefits by type). The savings on public benefits requires additional data on Pennsylvania DSPs’ access to benefits. Rather than offer an estimate of likely benefits based on guesswork, a scenario based approached was adopted. Admittedly, this is less than ideal, but it emerged as the only reasonable compromise.


Based upon the 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI),xvii  raising wages for all workers making below $12.16 an hour will reduce taxpayer spending on public benefits. Raising wages to $18 per hour does not guarantee that all public benefits will be eliminated. However, it does move many DSPs along the continuum to being self-sufficient and not needing public subsidies. In addition, it saves taxpayer dollars. The Economic Policy Institute demonstrated that for every one dollar increase in hourly wages for the roughly 27.5 million workers earning up to $12.16 an hour, the share relying on public assistance is predicted to decline by 3.1 percent. 

What is important in the Pennsylvania context is that many DSPs in Pennsylvania currently work overtime due to low wages and depend upon this additional income to meet basic living requirements. For many of these DSPs, by working overtime hours, they eliminate their eligibility for public benefit subsidies. This requires most DSPs to make an unfortunate trade-off: either accept public benefits, or work significant overtime to make ends meet. 


Impact on Consumers:  High turnover negatively impacts the quality of service delivery. Employees are the most critical input to achieving high-performance outcomes.xx  Reducing turnover translates into increased program continuity and an enhanced ability to provide ongoing support to each individual consumer. With a significantly higher pay rate, providers would attract more capable staff that would provide consumers with a higher quality of care. It would reduce competition with other businesses like fast food chains for employees with the most potential. Providers would become an employer of choice, much as the state developmental centers have been employers of choice for years.

Impact on DSP Employees and their families:  Referencing Pennsylvania dataxxi the typical DSP at $18 per hour would now earn $37,440 annually, and even with reducing overtime by 60 percent to 206 hours for a DSP each year, many DSPs could still earn an additional $5,572 per year ($43,012 total per year).  In all likelihood, DSPs would lose access to and not need most forms of public benefits with an increase in their hourly wages. They would be able to work fewer hours and be more financially capable of supporting their children in achieving educational goals. 

The literature has documented that an individual that had to either work overtime or subsist on public benefits due to low wages has been proven to experience diminished health, increased obesity, and hypertension.xxv This low-wage environment has a striking human cost. It minimizes the ability of parents to fully participate in their children’s development, and children of low-wage parents are often forced into the labor market early. Children of low-wage parents are more likely to face educational difficulties, and “trade-offs between spending time with children and earning an adequate wage can trap parents in familial hardship.” Finally, children of low-wage earning parents are more at risk for health problems and complications.xxvi

Impact on Tax Payers:  The literature suggests that vacancies and overtime are surprisingly linked to wages. Low wages, even within the context of the relatively narrow range of hourly wages, correlate to higher rates of vacancy and turnover. A reasonable hypothesis would be that higher pay might reduce turnover. We note that higher pay to employees of state centers has been associated with positive outcomes such as lower rates of turnover (Price, 2015), with Ohio Civil Service Employee Association president Christopher Mabe reporting state center turnover rates as low as 10 percent. A similar news report (Hult, 2017) cited a reduction in staff turnover in a mental hospital following a pay increase.

A reasonable question then becomes to what extent turnover and vacancies might decline in the event of an increase in DSP compensation in Pennsylvania. Once again, strong data on this issue is unavailable. The Hult study mentioned the above referenced 60 percent decrease in turnover in a state mental hospital. We have elected to follow the Hult study conclusion of a 60 percent decrease in turnover if wages increase to $18 per hour. Given this conclusion, below are the costs and benefits to taxpayers. 

Considering the two scenarios of raising DSP wages to $15 and $18 per hour respectively, increasing DSP wages to $15 per hour would cost taxpayers $237 million ($7,275,000 would be returned in income tax payments), but would ultimately result in taxpayer savings of $199 million. Increasing wages to $18 per hour would initially cost taxpayers $467 million annually which would be reduced to $41 million once taxpayer savings were accounted for. This equation does not consider the $934 million that would be injected into the Pennsylvania economy in the form of higher wages for workers resulting in additional state and local tax revenues. 


  1. Immediately increase wages for DSP workers to $15 per hour and eventually to $18 per hour from the current median of $11.50.  These increases initially require additional funding, but will result in long-term and substantial taxpayer cost savings and are vital to avoid the growing DSP employment crisis driven by the 26 percent annual turnover rate; 11.9 percent vacancy rate; and a projected increased demand for DSPs due to increased life expectancy of individuals requiring services; aging of the baby boomers; increased prevalence of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and behavioral health concerns; and expansion of community support systems. 
  2. Fund a pilot study for one to two percent of the DSP population (an estimated 736 – 1,472 individuals) that will determine the benefits of increasing the DSP base hourly wage of $18 per hour for each directly employed or subcontracted employee of an agency hiring DSPs. 


Pennsylvania public officials, in order to address the DSP workforce crisis (26 percent  turnover rate; a 11.9 percent vacancy rate; and a projected increased demand for DSPs) and substandard care for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable, need to enact a transparent rate setting process that will provide adequate wages for DSPs that eliminate the need for public assistance and will provide them with the dignity they deserve. We recommend an immediate increase in wages for DSP workers to $15 per hour with a scheduled increase to $18 per hour from the current median hourly wage of $11.50.


Special Thanks to Benefits Data Trust who provided the public benefits chart and the benefit access scenarios. Benefits Data Trust assists tens of thousands of people with government programs using private sector strategies. 


Michael Clark, M.P.A., is the Executive Director of Impact Germantown. He is a systems entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has researched, published, and worked in the areas of collective impact, financial innovation, impact investing and social entrepreneurship. Mike is the lead researcher and policy analyst regarding the social impacts of paying direct service workers low wages forcing them to be dependents upon society through public benefits and reducing the quality of care due to high staff attrition and increased stress levels. Mike also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Scranton, and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.

Scott Spreat, Ed.D. is the President of Woods Research and Evaulation Institute at Woods Services. He has been a member of the Woods team since joining in 1992 as the Administrator of Clinical Services. He was responsible for designing, opening and running the Woodlands program and served as its Executive Director before being promoted to Vice President for Behavioral Health in 2005. In recent years, Dr. Spreat has been the key liaison with Harrisburg legislators and lobbyists and serves on the board of PAR (Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability). He was a member of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability’s Terminology and Classification Task Force and served in the work group that developed the definition of Intellectual Disability. Dr. Spreat received his doctorate in Educational Psychology and is a licensed psychologist who worked for Temple University’s Woodhaven Center, conducting research, directing the clinical services department, and serving as the Executive Director of the 284-bed program before coming to Woods.

Nicholas D. Torres M.Ed. has over 20 years of experience in executive management. He built and led one of the largest and nationally recognized human services organizations; founded/governed/led two charter schools and a nonprofit dedicated in scaling high-impact social enterprises (e.g., school based health centers; college access and completion pipelines; and early literacy technology platform); founded and currently leads a social sector “think-tank” organization; and teaches at UPENN Fels Institute of Policy and the Wharton School. From 2000 – 2010 Nicholas served as President of Congreso de Latinos Unidos. Under his leadership, Congreso was one of just six national leadership investments ($5 million) from Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to demonstrate multi-service organization impact on young people aged 16-24. As a result of this investment, he created a first-of-its-kind performance management system to measure organizational effectiveness for over 50 service lines and 17,000 clients/customers that would later be used as a model for Social Solutions’ Efforts To Outcome (ETO) to scale in nonprofits nationally. He then served as a member of the National Alliance for Effective Social Investments that led the nation on integrating Social Impact Indicators into nonprofit best practices. Currently, Mr. Torres serves as CEO/Co-Founder of Social Innovations Partners that manages the Social Innovation Journal; Institute; and Lab and teaches Policy; Leading Non Profits; and Social Enterprise at the University of Pennsylvania. He has co-authored several books and serves on many regional and national.  Mr. Torres received his BA from Carleton College and his Master's in Educational Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.


Pennsylvania Bill: Nursing Home Accountability Act (House Bill 1449[7] (Rep. Ed Gainey) and Senate Bill 1057[8] (Sen. Daylin Leach)

“Nursing facilities are predominately taxpayer-funded through reimbursements from the medical assistance program and Medicare program”[9] and that “Taxpayers should not subsidize nursing facilities to reap profits while many of their employees are living in poverty.”[10]

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry reports, “the average wage for nurse assistants is $13.39 and the average wage for dietary and housekeeping employees is $9.81.”[11]  PathWays PA, a not-for profit Pennsylvania organization that provides services and advocacy for women, children, and families,[12] finds, “a wage of $15 per hour would meet the sufficiency standard for many, but not all, counties of this Commonwealth for an employee with one child to provide for the employee and child without the need for public assistance.”[13]

The Bill also states, “A worker who faces low wages or part-time work, or both, is too often eligible for taxpayer-funded medical assistance instead of affordable, employer-based coverage. Controlling health care costs can be more readily achieved if a greater share of working people and their families have health benefits so that cost shifting is minimized.”[14]

Accordingly, the proposed Nursing Home Accountability Act has four purposes:

(1) Create a living wage certification program for each nursing facility that provides a base hourly wage of $15 per hour for each directly employed or subcontracted employee of the nursing facility.

(2) Encourage the provision of a living wage to each nursing facility employee by providing information to each nursing facility resident and the public on the wage rate paid to the employees of the nursing facility.

(3) Ensure that each nursing facility pay a nursing facility employer responsibility penalty for health coverage received by each employee of the nursing facility through the medical assistance program and another public assistance program that is fully or partially funded with funds from the Commonwealth, with that penalty based on the costs incurred by the Commonwealth for providing these benefits to the employee of the nursing facility.

(4) Ensure that each nursing facility employee who receives public assistance is protected from possible retaliation by the nursing facility for seeking or obtaining that assistance.[15]

There are two key components of the legislation:

A Nursing Facility Living Wage Certification program “requires each facility participating in the Medicaid program to report” information,[16] in a verifiable and auditable form,[17] about the minimum base hourly wage paid for each job classification and the number of employees in each classification. The Department of Public Health will give a “living wage certification” to each facility whose wages meet the living wage certification standard,[18] which is defined as $15 as a base hourly wage, adjusted annually.[19]

A Nursing Facility Employer Responsibility Penalty imposes a penalty on each facility whose employees are receiving public assistance, with the amount of the penalty based on the “actual cost of providing public assistance to each covered employee for the most recent fiscal year.”[20] The Bill authorizes limited administrative appeals: facilities may “only challenge whether the Department correctly determined the number of covered employees that are the subject of the penalty.”[21] The Department of Human Services may deduct any unpaid penalty and interest from Medicaid payments that are otherwise due the facility[22] and the Department of Health may refuse to renew the license of a facility that has not paid the penalties and interest or agreed with the Department on a plan of installment payments.[23] The Bill provides for interest payments;[24] prohibits practices that designate employees as independent contractors, prohibit employees from enrolling in public assistance, or discriminate against employees enrolled in public assistance;[25] and provides for employee remedies.[26]



i       Hewitt, A., & Larson, S. (2007).  The direct support workforce in community supports to individuals with developmental disabilities: Issues, implications, and promising practices.  Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13, 178-187.

ii Hewitt, A., & Larson, S. (2007).  The direct support workforce in community supports to individuals with developmental disabilities: Issues, implications, and promising practices.  Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13, 178-187.

iii US Department of Health & Human Services. (2006). The supply of direct support professionals serving individuals with intellectual disabilities and other developmental disabilities: Report to Congress.   Washington, DC:  US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

iv Larson, S., Hewitt, A., & Knoblauch, B. (2005).  Recruitment, Retention, and Training Challenges in Community Homes: a review of the literature.   ‘In S. Larson & A. Hewitt (Eds.), Staff recruitment, retention, & training strategies for community human services organizations (pp1-18).  Baltimore: Brookes.

v Bogenschutz, M., Hewitt, A., Nord, D., & Hepperlen, R. (2014).  Direct support workforce supporting individuals with IDD: Current wages, benefits, and stability.  Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 52(5), 317-329. 

vi Sidman, M. (1960)  Tactics of Scientific Research.  New York City: Basic Books.

vii Spreat, S., Brown-McHale, K., & Walker, S. (2016).  PAR Pennsylvania DSP Wage Study.  Lemoyne, PA: PAR.  

viii Spreat, S. (2017).  Pennsylvania Direct Support Professional Wage Study.  Langhorne, PA:  Alliance of Community Service Providers (ACSP), Moving Agencies toward Excellence (MAX), Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability (PAR), Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association (RCPA), Arc of Pennsylvania (Arc/PA), The Provider Alliance (TPA), United Cerebral Palsy of Pennsylvania (UCPA).

ix Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016.  Link.

x Link.

xi Spreat, S. (2017).  Pennsylvania Direct Support Professional Wage Study.  Langhorne, PA:  Alliance of Community Service Providers (ACSP), Moving Agencies toward Excellence (MAX), Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability (PAR), Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association (RCPA), Arc of Pennsylvania (Arc/PA), The Provider Alliance (TPA), United Cerebral Palsy of Pennsylvania (UCPA).

xii Test, D., Flowers, C., Hewitt, A., Solow, J., & Taylor, S. (2003).   Statewide study of the direct support staff workforce.  Mental Retardation, 41(4), 276-285.

xii Olds, D. & Clarke, S. (2010).  The Effect of Work Hours on Adverse Events and Errors in Health Care Access.

xiii Herzenberg, S. (2015).  Nursing Home Jobs That Pay.  Keystone Research Center

xiv Kasperkevic, J. (2014).  The benefits cliff: When minimum wage increase backfires on the people in need.  Link.

xv Albeida, R. * Carr, M. (2016).  Between a rock and a hard place: A closer look at cliff effects in Massachusetts.  UMASS Boston Center for Social Policy.  Link.

xvi Jacobs, K., Perry, I., & MacGillvary, J. (2015).  The High Public Cost of Low Wages.  Poverty Level Wages Cost US Taxpayers $125.8 Billion Each Year in Public Support for Working Families.  UC Berkeley labor Center.  Link.

xvii Albeida, R. * Carr, M. (2016).  Between a rock and a hard place: A closer look at cliff effects in Massachusetts.  UMASS Boston Center for Social Policy.  Link.

xviii Cooper, D. (2016).  Balancing paychecks and public assistance.  How higher wages would strengthen what government can do.  Economic Policy Institute.  Link

xix Seldan, S. (2015).  Voluntary turnover in nonprofit organizations: The impact of high performance work practices.  Human Services Organization Journal.  Link

xx Spreat, S. (2017).  Pennsylvania Direct Support Professional Wage Study.  Langhorne, PA:  Alliance of Community Service Providers (ACSP), Moving Agencies toward Excellence (MAX), Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability (PAR), Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association (RCPA), Arc of Pennsylvania (Arc/PA), The Provider Alliance (TPA), United Cerebral Palsy of Pennsylvania (UCPA).

xxi Leigh, P. (2013).  Raising the minimum wage could improve public health.   Economic Policy Institute.  Link

Download the PDF of this article here.

Community Context

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church was built in 1895 by Irish and Italian immigrants who called South Philadelphia home. They worked in manufacturing, on the docks along the Schuylkill River, and in small family-owned businesses including butcher’s shops, hardware stores, and pastry shops, that were never more than a few steps from their front door. Many families enrolled their children in the local parish school, attended social activities hosted by the church, had kids who played sports in the Catholic Youth Organization leagues, and attended Mass during the week and on the weekends.

50 years later, the neighborhood became home to Black families migrating from the south to the northeastern United States, often for employment opportunities. Fast-forward another 50 years and the community continues to be attractive to newly arrived immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. 

Affordable housing, proximity to service industry jobs in the central business district, cultural and language-specific organizations, and strong public transit options make South Philadelphia attractive for new arrivals and a place where families can put down roots. These individuals and families, who hailed from across Southeast Asia and Latin America, were later joined by African refugees and immigrants from the West Indies. Throughout all of this change, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, the associated school that is governed by an independent regional board, and now the affiliated community outreach organization, Aquinas Center, have collectively maintained a positive orientation toward new arrivals by embracing an Old Testament imperative to "Welcome the immigrant and the stranger."

The parish is distinctive within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in that it offers Mass in four languages each week -- English, Spanish, Bahasa Indonesia, and Vietnamese, and in the way that the lay leadership including the parish council, comes from across these constituent groups. A small, but active Filipino community identifies with the English-speaking Mass and the parish also maintains cultural and devotional practices that include programs in Tagalog.

While robust, the community is not wealthy, nor even considered middle class. Researcher Robert LeBlanc (2016) noted that, "According to the 2010 US Census, a majority of families in this neighborhood live below the poverty line, and clergy indicate the rate of poverty within the congregation is even higher." The St. Thomas Aquinas parish, which numbers 3,900 households with an average attendance of 1,200 people at Mass between Saturday and Sunday, is largely comprised of people who identify as Asian, Latin American, and Black, with a small percentage of White or Anglo-Europeans.

In 2015, the parish council re-worked its mission statement to include advocacy as a core focus. This reflects the parish and center's collaborative approach to organizing and outreach, which seeks to equip and empower people to seek social change that serves the needs of those on the margins and benefits the common good. This would include citizens, those who are undocumented, those holding green cards, legal permanent residents, asylum seekers, and newly resettled refugees. It also deploys a concept described by Pope Francis, which is to work toward a "Culture of Encounter."

In September 2013, the newly installed pontiff, formerly Cardinal Bergolio of Argentina, addressed the growing conflict in Syria with a call for peace that was rooted in this culture of encounter. Pope Francis described this as the opposite of a "culture of conflict," or of a "throwaway culture" in which people are used and discarded, such as low-wage workers, migrant workers, the homeless, the disabled, the unborn, those experiencing addiction, humans who are trafficked, and more. Pope Francis has continued this theme throughout his papacy with exhortations to engage in relationship building, dialogue, and reconciliation. The concept of encounter, of being in the same place at the same time, of beginning with hospitality and moving toward solidarity, is at the heart of a holistic vision for community-initiated education, organizing, and accompaniment.

History, Mission, and Values of Aquinas Center 

Aquinas Center was launched in 2012 as a special project of St. Thomas Aquinas Church that was designed to respond to the needs and goals of the largely immigrant community. However, it quickly became apparent that there was significant demand and possibility for the entity to function as a separate, but affiliated social justice arm that could creatively engage both immigrants and allies.

After a series of one-on-one listening sessions, group discussions, research, and dialogue with potential partners, the parish's former convent was re-purposed in 2013 to house a center with a mission to build unity in diversity, support learning, and inspire thoughtful action. Hospitality, responsiveness, solidarity, and transformation were identified as values that would animate and advance this mission. Aquinas Center's founding board members and stakeholders agreed that activities, which are motivated by Catholic faith and framed by Catholic Social Teaching, be inclusive of a range of affiliations and perspectives.

Most program participants who access literacy, legal supports, mental health counseling, youth development, or other immigrant-oriented programs come from within the densely-populated neighborhoods of the 19145, 19146, 19147, and 19148 zip codes that comprise South Philadelphia. Many walk, bike, or take public transit. These realities suggested that the center should focus on being a place-based site with additional energies spent on transforming the streetscape and campus where it is housed. This has been pursued through mural and mosaic projects as well as greening and gardening activities. An Indego Bikeshare station was installed in 2016 as part of an effort to increase affordable cycling options for underserved communities.

A Holistic Approach: Education, Organizing, Accompaniment, and Advocacy

Aquinas Center seeks to encounter the whole person across all dimensions: body, mind, and spirit. Programs and activities are then designed to engage individuals and communities across boundaries that often divide, such as language, culture, religion, socio-economic status, citizenship status, etc. This level of complexity, while at times frustrating to funders who want to support specific program outcomes for individual populations, is at the heart of the center's holistic approach. It is also the framework for dynamic multi-cultural, multi-lingual learning experiences that create a strong foundation for other forms of collaboration for change, such as advocacy and organizing.

Because Aquinas Center is in relationship with a range of immigrant communities, it is frequently sought out by other organizations as an outreach site through which to communicate information to these groups. Outside requests for collaboration and partnership typically average three to four per month. These requests range from very specific to very broad. They have included opportunities to co-sponsor citizenship workshops for any interested individuals, host colon cancer screenings for Vietnamese seniors, offer fatherhood classes in Spanish, and storytelling circles for African refugees.

Serving as a link to social service providers and advocates is a role the center takes seriously, but one that comes with significant decision making considerations. Each request represents social and political capital that must be expended by Aquinas Center team members (whether that be paid, volunteer, or academic intern) to determine the relevance, fit, and benefit of the proposed opportunity. These are considered with lead gatekeepers from specific constituent groups within the context of the center's mission.

For example, does the request come from an organization that is trusted by the neighbors or by peer organizations? Has the organization, contact, or issue been divisive in the past? Does the group practice mutuality in how they approach the community they wish to support, empower, or engage with? Meaning, is the engagement truly bi-directional or is it handed out top down? Is fair compensation included in the use of space or stipends for participants? Will it lead to clear action that benefits the targeted group or will it simply serve to bolster the reputation of the one who proposed the partnership? Well meaning providers can desire to do good and assist vulnerable communities, but do so in a way that is extractive or further marginalizing. Organizations can also propose interventions that are not a good fit for the actual lived experiences of the community they wish to reach, such as choosing a day or time when that community is working or providing materials only in English. In addition, resources and team time are limited in a grassroots organization like Aquinas Center. Every good idea cannot result in a partnership project or program. 

Education, and bi-directional learning, is the elemental work of Aquinas Center that drives related activities. For the local community, the center offers English language classes, literacy programs, leadership development, topical workshops, and participatory research activities. Immersion experiences that engage visitors from outside of Philadelphia offer hands-on experiences and learning spaces that invite guests to grapple with social justice issues like poverty, hunger, homelessness, the environment, unmitigated redevelopment, poor working conditions, failing schools, and more. All of these activities are framed through the lens of migration and faith, which is the rooting concept for the center's founding and the shared reality of its neighbors.

The educational immersion experiences with high school and college students, parish groups, and university faculty invite visitors to be uncomfortable, to face difficult realities about injustice in society, and to explore ways they can take thoughtful action when they return to their own community. Adults and teens from the community help to set the agenda for these experiences. They use community atlases generated by teens in a summer leadership camp to lead immersive tours of various dimensions of the neighborhood. For example, one tour might focus on houses of worship and another looks at immigrant-owned food businesses. Teens are paid tour guide facilitators and help to foster dialogue before, during, and after the street level experiences. The funding from these programs helps to maintain the day-to-day operations of the center. The remainder of the center's operating budget comes from grants and private donations with significant in-kind collaboration from higher education partners such as the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education or West Chester University's Philadelphia campus.

Advocacy and organizing on issues related to migration flows naturally from critical inquiry. Once individuals, families, and allied groups understand the power dynamics, human rights considerations, and governing bodies that are involved, they are better able to act for the common good. Aquinas Center has cultivated and supported youth, young adult, and adult leaders to participate in lobbying efforts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. on behalf of immigrant justice. The center has hosted city council members, police captains, and city agency staff for information sessions and programs relating to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, street level violence, and gentrification concerns that impact the community's access to affordable housing and youth-inclusive public space. Community education/legal clinics to address immigration legal issues and targeted workshops on topics like obtaining or renewing an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) are regular offerings throughout the year.

Identifying and equipping youth leaders from across different cultural and language groups is a key part of Aquinas Center's holistic approach to education and organizing. These young people represent the future of Point Breeze and South Philadelphia. They are also often more clear about the potential for multi-lingual, multi-cultural, allied collaboration to yield strong organizing wins. Teens may first come to Aquinas Center seeking to fulfill a community service requirement for their school or to find a welcoming place to be themselves. The Youth Voices program, which meets on Tuesday afternoons, then plugs them into civic engagement activities that are both skill and relationship building. Teens have participated in asset mapping, power mapping, listening sessions, mural painting, community gardening, lot clean-up, career panels, and more. From this base, other programs have developed and attracted funding, such as the Youth Entrepreneurship Project, Kasama farmstand and pop-up cafe, mural corps, youth researchers, and Aquinas Ambassadors. Each one has an advocacy or social change component, which prepares the teens to participate in larger conversations within Philadelphia and beyond the city limits.

One way the center conceives of these intersecting activities and constituent groups is through the language of "advocacy discourse communities" with the "congregation" or community at the center.  In the image below, which was first designed for a book entitled Partnering with Immigrant Communities: Action for Literacy (2016), one can also come to understand the framing of what the authors refer to as the "human rights metanarrative," that "offers a language through which community members name inequities and appeal to a social justice vision that links their disparate and overlapping struggles" (p. 33).

Activism as it is named above, also known as community organizing, is an effort that, for the first four years of the center's existence, was pursued largely in collaboration with other organizations. For example, for two years, Aquinas Center was a site for meetings related to the PA Fight for Driver's Licenses. The center provided the space, advertised the gatherings, and supported the work financially as donations and grant funding allowed. Community members who are involved in several center programs (English classes, parenting workshops, yoga classes, and more) were the core of the organizing effort.

In 2015, the St. Thomas Aquinas parish council voted to join the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which since the founding of the center had been a collaborating partner for Know Your Rights trainings. The Aquinas Center again hosted meetings and associated activities, used social media to garner participation, funded the membership fee, and cultivated leaders from the local community. In this way, the parish and center work collaboratively to leverage resources and expertise to respond to constituents’ greatest hopes and most pressing needs.

Aquinas Center's capacity to organize community members on its own has evolved as funding, the political climate, and need changed. One specific example of this work is the newly launched Community ID program.

Case example: Community ID Program 

According to a report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law (2006), 11 percent of U.S. citizens do not have a government-issued identification and those who are poor, elderly, and minorities are the most likely to experience challenges in obtaining and maintaining access to a suitable identification card. This is especially true for undocumented immigrants, yet these IDs are critical to accessing public institutions, hospitals, schools, and other locations. In these situations, it can become very difficult for parents to pick up their children from a public school classroom, to show proof of age to make some purchases, or to even visit a loved one in the hospital when they are critically ill. 

Some municipal governments have assisted residents with the creation of a municipal ID that includes basic information, such as a photo, legal name, address, date of birth, physical descriptors, and the signature of the person named on the card. There is no claim that this kind of card offers citizenship, but it is a dignified way to assist marginalized communities with some of the foundational considerations of life in the United States. Cities that have initiated Community or Municipal IDs include: New Haven, Connecticut; El Paso, Texas; Oakland, California; and Newark, New Jersey. A white paper from CLINIC (2016) suggests that, if municipal IDs are not feasible, non-profits might pursue their own form of alternative identification.

The impetus for a Community ID program through Aquinas Center came from the local Indonesian diaspora, which is estimated to include ten thousand people in South Philadelphia.  The administrative effort through Aquinas Center was led by an AmeriCorps*VISTA member (who later transitioned to a paid employee in the role of Director of Outreach at Aquinas Center) and an advocacy intern from West Chester University's Philadelphia campus. Together they researched models from across the country, contacted advocacy groups who had successfully launched programs, and prepared materials for discussion with the larger parish community and non-affiliated residents. Several weeks of dialogue and meetings unfolded as the parameters of the ID were considered. Opportunities and challenges were explored collectively.

Ultimately, the Community ID working group presented the final concept to the parish council (a body of 22 people) who gave their consent for the ID program to move forward under the auspices of the church's logo and name. The data was handled extremely carefully and a small fee of ten dollars was charged per ID to cover the cost of purchasing the ID machine, software, and supplies. Approximately 125 people registered in the first round through the leadership of the Indonesian community. The entire process took about five months from start to finish. 

The next step, after the IDs are in circulation, is to conduct trainings with local police, library staff, school staff, and other local groups that might encounter the IDs. There is also a Latinx leadership team convening to expand the program to Spanish-speaking community members. This staggered pacing reflects the need for sensitive information -- against the backdrop of a rapid rise of exclusionary rhetoric -- to be handled with trust by respected leaders. This leadership comes from long-time residents and the center team provides administrative, educational, and technological support.

Challenges and Improvement Opportunities

A significant challenge of deploying a holistic approach to community-initiated education, organizing, and accompaniment is the need to stay close to the mission and values of the organization. There is a constant checking and re-checking to ensure that, in a desire to address the whole person, the work has not strayed too far or demanded too much from an already stretched team. Aquinas Center grew quickly by engaging an energized local community rich in leadership gifts and by leveraging institutional partnerships.

However, maintaining leadership structures in situations of precarity is challenging. A community member with leadership potential might work six days a week and not have much of any leisure time to participate in trainings that could strengthen his or her skill set. Others might be facing threats of deportation, which restrict their movements in the neighborhood. Funding, which is hard to come by for community organizing work that is in its nature about relationships and power dynamics, can limit the staff time allocated to nurturing emerging ideas. Moreover, the rapidly changing demographics introduce concerns about who will be able to afford to live in walking distance of Aquinas Center, which has defined itself as a neighborhood entity with a distinctive geographic, place-based orientation. Ways to mediate aspects of neighborhood change continue to be considered by the board of directors and community residents.

Looking ahead, Aquinas Center desires to maintain the place-based nature of the current work while serving as a resource to organizations and institutions beyond the neighborhood. For example, the center might deepen its commitment to publishing community-based action research findings in accessible forms, speaking about the tangible realities of the adaptive re-use of church property, and welcoming visitors seeking models for intercultural collaboration. Coalition relationships across Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania are another way to broaden the impact of Aquinas Center's mission to build unity in diversity, support learning, and inspire thoughtful action.

Works Cited

Brennan Center. (2006)

Campano, G., M.P. Ghiso, B.J. Welch. (2016) Partnering with immigrant communities: Action through literacy. TC Press, New York, NY. 

CLINIC. (2016)

Leblanc, R. (2016). "Literacy, Strategy, and Identity in Interaction: Vietnamese and Mexican Immigrant Students in Urban Catholic Schooling." Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1827.

Vatican. (2013)

Author Bios

Andrea Rusli is originally from Indonesia and moved to the United States in 2012.  She is a rising senior at Neumann-Goretti Catholic High School. Ms. Rusli has served as the secretary of the Aquinas Center's Youth Voices program and participates in the Youth Entrepreneurship Project. She is passionate about issues of social justice and intersectionality and wants to attend a liberal arts college with a major in religious, ethnic, and women's studies. 

Atianah Thomas is a rising senior at Neumann-Goretti Catholic High School. She is an active member of the Aquinas Center's Youth Voices program and the Youth Entrepreneurship Project. Ms. Thomas has worked for nearly one year as a research assistant on participatory action research projects with Aquinas Center, including helping to write two book chapters and a conference presentation at the Penn Ethnography Forum. She is particularly interested in issues of neighborhood change and equal pay for women. Ms. Thomas aspires to be a doctor of osteopathic medicine.

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founding director of the Aquinas Center and a practitioner/scholar whose research looks at faith-based community development, intercultural collaboration, university-community partnerships, and national service. Originally from Rochester, NY, Dr. Welch came to Philadelphia to serve as an AmeriCorps*VISTA to help open the Community Center at Visitation in 2003 and fell in love with the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. She is the co-author of a book called Partnering with Immigrant Communities: Action through Literacy and has published in the Harvard Educational Review.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito celebrating IDNYC in 2015.
Attribution: NYC Mayor’s Office


As cities across the country experience growth in their immigrant populations, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs shows every day that engaging in meaningful partnerships with immigrant communities, advocates, nonprofit, private sector, and philanthropic leaders, is key to our success as a city. This collaboration strengthens our ability to create innovative programming that advances immigrant inclusion, promotes access to justice, and advocates for positive reforms for immigrant communities at the national level. We envision a city in which immigrant families thrive, being an immigrant is an asset, immigrants are able to access and participate in civic life, and immigrant communities are empowered and informed about their rights, available services, and opportunities.  As part of this mission, we must ensure City agencies and policymakers systematically integrate immigrant inclusion in their work, and engage a range of communities at all levels of government. This article shares our experiences and best practices in an effort to accomplish these goals, through robust partnerships with key stakeholders in the field.

New York’s Immigrant Experience

New York City has a long history as a city of immigrants. Since the city’s early days, New York has been a top destination for immigrants.  Today, nearly 38 percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born, the highest level in a century (NYC Department of City Planning n.d.; NYC Department of City Planning 2017). At 3.2 million people, if New York City’s immigrant population were a city on its own, it would be the second largest city in the country -- only trailing NYC itself. These numbers increase substantially when factoring in the children of immigrants; together, immigrants and their children constitute approximately 60 percent of NYC’s population (American Community Survey 2015). Immigrant New Yorkers contribute greatly to the city’s cultural and civic life, with many immigrants and their children taking prominent roles in the arts, the restaurant and tech industries, and politics, among others. Immigrants contribute substantially to the city’s economy, earning one hundred billion dollars a year (about one-third of total earned income in New York City), owning 51 percent of small businesses, and accounting for roughly half of workers in core sectors of our economy like technology, financial analysis, entertainment, and medical (NYC Comptroller 2017). The benefits of steady immigration to New York City over the last half century in the areas of civics, culture, and the economy are mirrored across the country, and highlight the importance of working with and supporting immigrants as integral members of our communities.

For decades, recognizing and celebrating the value of immigrant New Yorkers has been a priority for local government across mayoral administrations. Former Mayor Ed Koch first created the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in 1984. At that time, the Office of Immigrant Affairs was a branch under the Department of City Planning. Former mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, both elevated the office to further prominence during their administrations. In 2001, the city’s voters approved a referendum establishing the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs as part of the city’s Charter, safeguarding the rights of immigrants to City services as the city’s legal responsibility. The following year, Mayor Bloomberg appointed the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs’ first commissioner. Under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has considerably expanded its programming and staff to more meaningfully integrate the voices and experiences of immigrants into City government.

Immigrant Inclusion

Given the central role that immigrant communities play in the vibrancy of the city, it is critically important to integrate their voices and experiences in City government, including in policymaking and program development. Through our trailblazing work with the IDNYC program, language access and immigrant workers’ rights, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has reified our commitment to make New York City even more inclusive.


New York City’s landmark municipal identification card program, IDNYC, is a prime example of how the public, nonprofit, and private sectors can come together to respond to the needs of immigrant communities. IDNYC was developed to meet the gap of residents who did not have government-issued identification, including immigrants, homeless individuals, seniors, survivors of domestic violence, and transgender and gender non-conforming residents. Until recently, many New Yorkers lacked government-issued IDs and many immigrant New Yorkers faced a heightened challenge in obtaining IDs, as undocumented immigrants generally cannot apply for driver’s licenses in the State of New York. For years, activists and organizers pushed for the creation of a municipal ID program, and during his first campaign for mayor, then-candidate Bill de Blasio vowed to sign a bill enacting a municipal ID. In July 2015, Mayor de Blasio delivered on this promise by signing into law the municipal ID program and tasking the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to take the lead in crafting the program.

IDNYC has several features that benefit immigrant communities, which has led to more than one million New Yorkers obtaining the card. First and foremost, immigration status is not a barrier to obtaining an IDNYC. To apply for IDNYC, New Yorkers age 14 and up must prove identity and residency in New York City. To establish identity and meet eligibility criteria, a variety of documents including foreign and domestic passports, driver’s licenses, and a range of other ID documents can be used, often in combination (NYC Human Resources Administration/IDNYC 2017). Second, on the back of an IDNYC, each cardholder can designate their preferred language. This is valuable not only because the city of New York recognizes its residents speak over 200 languages, but also because awareness of an individual’s preferred language has important applications in emergency situations. Third, IDNYC’s comprehensive security protections mean that an applicant’s personal information is safe. The city respects and takes seriously that confidentiality is a major concern for New Yorkers across all backgrounds. These three features play an important role in the overwhelming demand for IDNYC since its launch in January 2015 -- by March 2017, IDNYC had more than one million cardholders. Today, roughly one in 10 eligible residents is connected to her fellow New Yorker through this common signifier of belonging.

To better understand the cardholder experience, in August 2016, the city commissioned an independent, comprehensive evaluation to obtain a better understanding of how the program was working with cardholders in the year and a half since launch. The study analyzed survey response data from more than 70,000 cardholders, as well as from focus groups and interviews (Bergman et al 2016, i). In the evaluation, 77 percent of immigrant survey respondents said that they felt a stronger connection with New York City thanks to their IDNYC (Bergman et al 2016, ii). 52 percent of respondents reported that they used IDNYC as their primary form of identification. Critically, nearly a quarter of immigrant respondents noted that it was their only form of U.S. photo ID. This data validated the city’s approach in making a municipal ID accessible and responsive to the diversity of communities we serve.

Immigrant advocate groups and community-based organizations rooted in immigrant communities have been integral to IDNYC’s success. In addition to IDNYC’s many permanent enrollment centers throughout the five boroughs and IDNYC’s mobile enrollment center, IDNYC operates temporary “pop-up” enrollment sites. Many advocacy and service-based organizations have hosted a pop-up site, in which IDNYC staff set-up the equipment to process applications at a venue, as they would at a permanent site, and operate out of the venue typically from one to two weeks. This brings IDNYC even closer to the community so that organizations can more easily promote IDNYC and bring their staff, volunteers, and community members to sign up for the card. These pop-ups are also important opportunities to forge deeper partnerships and share information on City services with senior centers and shelters, among other organizations. Innovative collaborations for service delivery are a core piece of the city’s approach to ensuring that immigrant communities are plugged into New York.

While the IDNYC program has had many successes, the program also faced challenges in its early days including responding to initial overwhelming demand and coordinating with banks to recognize IDNYC as a valid form of identification to open an account. The city estimated that approximately 100,000 people would have IDNYC after the first year. However, 50,000 people applied for IDNYC in the program’s first week alone, and by the end of the first year, more than 670,000 New Yorkers had IDNYC. This demand reflects the broad support IDNYC has across NYC’s communities, resonating with many New Yorkers. The city was able to manage this demand through programmatic changes and by working across agencies to increase enrollment capacity. On its third day of operation, responding to high demand, IDNYC switched from walk-in enrollment to an appointment-based system (NYC Mayor’s Office 2015). Shortly thereafter, the city was able to expand enrollment sites at City agencies and public buildings, such as at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and LaGuardia Community College, as well as pop-up enrollment sites across the city. These measures allowed the city to meet demand swiftly and improve the enrollment experience.

The city has been able to form meaningful partnerships across sister agencies and with private and nonprofit partners to offer a myriad of popular benefits to cardholders. The city has worked to make the card highly functional across many agencies. New Yorkers can use their IDNYC as their library card for all three City library systems, to look up their children’s vaccination records with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and as valid ID recognized in interactions with the New York City Police Department. Beyond our work with City agencies, IDNYC’s partnerships have enabled New Yorkers to open bank accounts, realize savings, and enjoy some of the city’s most celebrated cultural touchstones. With participating banks and credit unions, IDNYC can be used as a primary or secondary form of ID to open a bank account, critical to many New Yorkers who would otherwise have difficulty accessing traditional banking. Since the beginning of the program, cardholders have saved more than $908,000 on groceries through partnering with Food Bazaar, as well as more than $569,000 on generic prescription drugs through the city’s prescription drug discount plan, Big Apple Rx (Banks et al 2017, 7). IDNYC cardholders can receive free and discount memberships at more than 40 cultural institutions across the city, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More than 500,000 New Yorkers have redeemed cultural benefits to date. These partnerships have made tangible, measurable impacts in New Yorkers’ lives and have helped make IDNYC as popular as it is.

Interagency Work and Language Access

Much like with IDNYC, our sister agencies play an extremely important role in making New York a city for all New Yorkers. In a city of more than 8.5 million people -- with nearly 300,000 City and other public employees (Goodman 2017) -- the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs advises fellow City agencies on best practices to make services more inclusive of immigrants. This year, for example, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs worked with the NYC Department of Education to issue updated protocol on access to schools for non-local law enforcement, including federal immigration agents (NYC Mayor’s Office 2017). Under this protocol, non-local law enforcement will not be permitted to enter public schools, except when absolutely required by law. Similarly, information will only be shared when required by law.  This guidance has been important in demonstrating to many New York City school families that the city is seriously responding to their concerns. By working with City agencies, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs can leverage its role as chief advocate for immigrant New Yorkers to make the city even more inclusive.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs builds on this approach by advancing language rights in New York City and serving as a language bridge to our city’s residents. Nearly half of New Yorkers speak at least one language other than English at home, and almost a quarter of New Yorkers have limited English proficiency. Since the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs was established in 2003, our office has worked to strengthen language rights. The Office facilitates interpretation and translation services for the Mayor’s Office, such as at town halls in which the Mayor meets directly with community members, and we advise our sister agencies on how to bolster their internal commitments to language access. This year, our office worked with the City Council on Local Law 30, the city’s new language access law requiring agencies that provide direct services to the public to make their most popular documents available to New Yorkers in the city’s ten most spoken languages, including the six that were previously required via executive order -- Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Haitian Creole, Korean, and Bengali -- as well as four additional languages -- Arabic, Urdu, French, and Polish (NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs 2017). The Office is helping to implement the new law in a variety of ways, including closer work with agency language access coordinators. The de Blasio Administration has also increased local investments: contracted language services expenditures have increased from 13.8 million dollars in FY2014 to 21.2 million dollars in FY2016 (Agarwal 2016). Multiple agencies have increased their bilingual and multilingual staff, such as the New York City Commission on Human Rights.  Protecting and advancing language rights in New York helps city residents get the information they need to take advantage of their rights and opportunities.

Workers’ Justice

Mayor de Blasio’s Administration has not only worked to make City agencies more inclusive and responsive to needs of immigrant communities, but has also launched many new initiatives to strengthen workers’ rights and immigrant working families. Universal Pre-K and guaranteed paid sick leave have been major boons to advancing workers’ rights, including immigrant workers (NYC Mayor’s Office 2014). In partnership with the NYC City Council, in 2014, the first bill Mayor de Blasio signed into law guaranteed paid sick leave for an additional 500,000 New York City workers. Through the Department of Consumer Affairs’ enforcement of the paid sick leave law, two years after its enactment, nearly 9,600 workers received restitution under the law, and the city received 1.7 million dollars in fines. Mayor de Blasio’s championing of high-quality childcare has been important for working families of all backgrounds, including immigrant families.  The Mayor made universal Pre-K a reality in New York for the approximately 70,000 eligible four-year-olds in the city (NYC Mayor’s Office 2014); families with students enrolled in the universal Pre-K program now save on average $10,000 a year on childcare (NYC Mayor’s Office 2016). As with our K-12 schools, the universal Pre-K program in New York City is available to all students, regardless of immigration status. These initiatives have made New York City a more sustainable home for immigrant working families.

With the leadership of the de Blasio administration, including the Department of Consumer Affairs, New York City has been at the forefront of safeguarding immigrant workers’ rights. A major advancement in this effort was the establishment of the Office of Labor and Policy Standards (OLPS) within the Department of Consumer Affairs, to serve as the city’s permanent voice for New York City’s workers (NYC Mayor’s Office 2016). The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has worked closely with OLPS to advance immigrant workers’ rights -- in April 2017, our Office, OLPS, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights held a public hearing on the state of workers’ rights in the city -- hearing directly from workers, particularly many immigrant workers, about challenges they have faced (NYC Department of Consumer Affairs 2017). The Office of Labor and Policy Standards enforces many local labor laws, including the city’s new Fair Workweek laws, which enshrine predictable schedules and paychecks as a right in the fast food and retail industries (NYC Mayor’s Office 2017). This will significantly benefit immigrant families -- while immigrant New Yorkers make up approximately 46 percent of the city’s workforce, they play a large role in the retail industry, as 48 percent of first-line supervisors of retail workers and 56 percent of cashiers (Rivera and Hamaji 2016, 8). Under the de Blasio Administration, New York City will continue to lead the way to protect and advance the rights of immigrant workers.

City Immigration Legal Services Programs

New York City has a wide variety of immigration legal service programs that allow the city to work with existing community-based providers with deep ties to the residents they serve. Legal status plays a complex and important role in the lives of many New Yorkers. About half of all immigrant New Yorkers are naturalized citizens, approximately 1.6 million people in total. Another 650,000 New Yorkers are legal permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize and become U.S. citizens (Enchautegui and Giannarelli 2015, 10). In addition, about 500,000 New Yorkers are undocumented, including more than 30,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DACA (American Community Service 2015). This wide range of immigration statuses in New York City requires that City services, such as immigration legal services, limits the degree to which immigration status is a barrier, so that as many people as possible have access to resources they need to thrive. By partnering with providers New Yorkers already know and trust, we can reach more people, more efficiently. Many immigrants are interested to learn how they can apply for citizenship or certain visa programs, but are unsure of the procedures or lack the funding to seek legal help. This is where the city has stepped in to remove barriers to access to justice for immigrant New Yorkers with two signature legal programs, NYCitizenship and ActionNYC

NYCitizenship provides no-cost and secure legal help and financial counseling for immigrants interested in applying for naturalization. While an estimated 650,000 New Yorkers are eligible to apply for citizenship, some find the process daunting and unaffordable. NYCitizenship works to bridge that gap, enabling more immigrants and their communities to enjoy the many benefits that come with citizenship. Through the program, New Yorkers can make an appointment to receive a free screening at a participating public library to help answer questions related to applying for citizenship, including fee waivers. All clients are also referred to free, confidential financial counseling services. Citizenship status bestows meaningful benefits for immigrants and their communities. Citizenship is positively correlated with increased pay, greater levels of home ownership and more civic participation.  On average, immigrants who naturalize realize an increase in annual earnings of 8.9 percent (American Community Service 2015). Private philanthropy has played a major role in supporting NYCitizenship, helping the program reach 1.6 million dollars in funding for its second year (NYC Mayor’s Office 2017), a demonstration of how the city and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs can leverage its role as a convener and advocate to increase immigrants’ access to services.

While NYCitizenship specifically targets naturalization, ActionNYC provides free and safe immigration legal help on a wide range of immigration issues for New Yorkers. In order to reach as many people as possible, the city encourages New Yorkers with immigration legal questions to schedule an appointment with ActionNYC, the city’s premier program providing immigration legal services to New Yorkers. Through ActionNYC, New Yorkers can receive a free legal screening in the languages they speak from community navigators at trusted locations, like local community-based organizations, schools, and hospitals. From there, attorneys and community navigators work to determine which clients they will represent through the program and which will be referred to other City-funded, free legal service providers, among other legal services.  In the process of receiving a legal screening, ActionNYC can also connect its clients to other public programs that they are eligible for, like IDNYC or Medicaid. In the year and a half that ActionNYC has been in operation, the program has served thousands.  Helping immigrants receive a qualified legal screening, more secure immigration status and bringing City services closer to the people we serve is not only a great economic empowerment tool, it increases accessibility and visibility for services like Medicaid that can meaningfully improve an individual’s quality of life.

ActionNYC’s ability to deliver immigration services across the city is a result of working with a variety of partners in creative ways. Mayor de Blasio announced the creation of the program in December 2015, starting with a 7.9-million-dollar investment from the city (NYC Mayor’s Office 2015). Through ActionNYC, the city contracts with partners throughout the five boroughs to achieve the three goals at the heart of the ActionNYC model: community navigation, legal services, and outreach. Permanent navigation sites within community-based organizations situated in immigrant-dense neighborhoods have allowed ActionNYC to be accessible to the thousands of clients it has already served. With a combination of attorneys and community navigators, the navigation sites efficiently provide legal screenings, deliver legal services (such as application assistance and legal representation), and assist in referrals for complex cases. In order to reach immigrants who have been most in need of free and confidential immigration legal services, ActionNYC initially relied on a robust outreach and marketing program (NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs 2016, 6). From City-supported community outreach groups canvassing neighborhoods and conducting community presentations, to transit ad campaigns, community and ethnic media roundtables, websites, and creative social media content (NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs 2016, 12-15), ActionNYC’s outreach has connected with New Yorkers in need of services in inventive ways.

ActionNYC’s navigation model is designed to bring immigrant voices to the forefront.  ActionNYC partners with immigrant advocacy groups across the city to conduct culturally competent advising in immigrant communities. Community navigators at these sites are reflective of their community and take the lead in connecting community members with legal help and other City services in the languages they speak. ActionNYC community navigators also receive training, ongoing supervision, and continued support to become accredited representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Access Programs. As accredited representatives, they can provide legal advice thereby increasing the city’s capacity to provide immigration legal services. This model has the additional benefit of focusing trained attorneys on complex cases that require representation. ActionNYC continues to find new ways to improve providing services to residents, including placing sites in locations New Yorkers already live, learn, work and play. In partnership with the NYC Department of Education, our ActionNYC in Schools initiative has held more than 80 immigration legal clinics at approximately 30 targeted schools. By using schools to host legal clinics and navigation sites, ActionNYC can partner with trusted institutions to provide convenient immigration legal services in places that New Yorkers already trust.

Alongside partnerships with City agencies, through ActionNYC, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs is committed to helping build capacity with trusted community partners with deep ties to the city’s newer immigrant populations, particularly from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. To that end, in summer 2017, ActionNYC is holding a fellowship program for 17 community-based organization partners to provide organizing and legal training, as well as technical assistance, to assist community-based organizations in their work with ActionNYC, and to build their internal capacity (NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs 2017). These programs highlight how seriously the city takes its mission to reach immigrant New Yorkers at every level through innovative partnerships with fellow City agencies and community organizations, and support those community partners in the important work they already do in their neighborhoods.

The need for immigration legal services spiked following the presidential election in 2016. In the first three months of the Trump administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 40 percent more immigrants nationwide than in the same period the previous year (Sacchetti 2017). From January to February 2017, calls to ActionNYC’s hotline increased by 140 percent compared to the same period the previous year. In response, in April 2017, Mayor de Blasio announced a major increase for New York City’s provisioning of immigration legal services. New York City has invested an additional 16.4 million dollars for immigration legal services (NYC Mayor’s Office 2017), bringing the Mayor’s investment to more than 31 million dollars for immigration legal services, an unprecedented investment at the local level. Our office is also dramatically expanding our work providing Know Your Rights Forums in immigrant communities. This investment is responsive to the fact that many immigrants lack access to attorneys -- particularly those with complex cases -- as people are not guaranteed access to representation in federal immigration court. From NYCitizenship, to ActionNYC and the additional funding for immigration legal services this year, New York City continues to seek innovative ways to address the need for access to justice for immigrant New Yorkers, particularly under the new federal administration.

Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Under the leadership of Mayor de Blasio, New York City was able to responsibly and compassionately welcome an unprecedented influx of unaccompanied migrant children. Migrant children crossing the border steadily increased in the early 2010s before reaching crisis levels in 2014 (Rosenblum 2015, 2). While New York City traditionally does not have a large refugee population (roughly 8,000 refugees were originally settled in New York City in the last 15 years) (American Community Survey, 2017), more than 2,000 migrant children were placed in New York City, the second highest placement in the country. Recognizing that addressing the needs, including placement, of this exceedingly vulnerable immigrant population would take a collaborative approach, the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs under Mayor de Blasio, Nisha Agarwal, led the city’s interagency task force to craft best practices for addressing the issue. One major task force recommendation was the unprecedented decision to place City representatives directly in Immigration Court in September 2014 (NYC Mayor’s Office 2014). As one example, representatives from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were stationed at the courts to help migrant children enroll in school and health insurance. Creative problem-solving and interagency partnerships, rather than an increase in the city’s budget, were key to figuring out how best to facilitate access to services. 

While the city provided the impetus to address the unaccompanied migrant crisis in New York through City agency collaboration and bringing services closer to migrant children, philanthropic groups played a critical role in providing migrant children with legal representation. The Robin Hood Foundation and the New York Community Trust, two New York City-based charitable organizations, collaborated with the City Council in creating the Immigrant Children Advocates’ Relief Effort (ICARE), an initiative to provide legal representation to migrant children (New York City Council 2016). In the 2017 fiscal year, the Council provided 1.5 million dollars to ICARE and the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York Community Trust contributed 1.1 million dollars. Through ICARE, more than 1,000 cases involving migrant children received representation, showing how government and philanthropy together can help protect children.

This kind of resourcefulness, along with close coordination with other City agencies and local organizations, demonstrates how cities can take an innovative approach to solve problems when they make the commitment to invest in immigrant communities and leverage partnerships with City agencies, philanthropy, and service providers.

Cities for Action

As the ultimate city of immigrants, NYC is an important leader in the national conversation around immigration policy. Local leaders have a unique perspective based on their on-the-ground work with immigrant families. Collaboration among mayors around the country has proven impactful in enabling American cities to advocate on a national level for their residents’ needs. In December 2014, in tandem with President Obama’s announcement of executive action, 20 mayors from across the country gathered in New York City to discuss how best to implement the President’s expansion of DACA and creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, or DAPA (NYC Mayor’s Office 2014). This meeting grew into Cities for Action, a national coalition of more than 150 mayors and municipal leaders from across the country working together to advocate for and support immigrants, through support for a humane federal immigration overhaul and measures to protect immigrant residents (Cities for Action 2017). The coalition worked together to file an amicus brief in support of the Obama administration’s actions to expand DACA and establish DAPA in U.S. v. Texas. In total, 118 mayors and county leaders signed on to the Cities for Action amicus brief, representing 55 million people (Cities for Action 2016). Cities for Action harnesses the power that cities have when working collectively to tackle one of the nation’s most intractable issues.

More recently, Cities for Action has taken several steps to support immigrant communities under the Trump administration. Cities for Action coordinated on five legal briefs in response to President Trump’s executive orders. Three amicus briefs were in support of plaintiffs challenging the Administration’s travel ban: Darweesh v. Trump in the Eastern District of New York, legal briefs submitted to the Fourth Circuit and Ninth Circuit, and two lawsuits challenging the Administration’s “sanctuary city” executive order in Santa Clara County v. Trump and City and County of San Francisco v. Trump. In addition, more than a dozen mayors and county leaders signed on to a Cities for Action letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of State calling for a full 18-month extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti, which impacts 50,000 Haitian nationals settled in the U.S. following the devastation of the 2010 earthquake (Walsh et al 2017). Shortly after, DHS Secretary Kelly announced a six-month extension of Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Haiti (DHS Office of the Press Secretary 2017). The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs will continue our work to advocate for a full extension of TPS through vocal advocacy with cities across the country as well as by actively working with the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, community partners, legal providers, and faith leaders to provide information to Haitian communities and connect them to legal services. Even in this challenging environment for immigration, Cities for Action is addressing real policy issues for immigrants across the country, and mayors and county leaders will continue to lead on smart immigration policy despite gridlock in Washington.


Many studies show that immigrants strengthen city economies and create jobs, and that is exactly what immigrants and the children of immigrants have done in New York City. As the biggest city in the country, and one that is deeply in touch with our immigrant heritage, the city of New York goes beyond thinking only about what immigrants can do for the city, but instead how we can shape the city to be more inclusive of immigrant communities. We do this by engaging with our residents and stakeholders in innovative ways to reach our vision: a city where immigrants are empowered as civic actors and deeply integrated in all facets of city life. With the largest Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in the nation, we use our position to come up with new ways to bring immigrant perspectives in city government to create world-class programming like IDNYC and ActionNYC to support and strengthen immigrant New Yorkers. Working together with our partners in other cities, we will continue to share what works in NYC, incorporate what works in other cities and strive to improve our cities as open and welcoming places for all.

Works Cited

American Community Survey. (Public Use Microdata Sample, 2010-2014 for New York City (as augmented by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity) and 2011-2015 for New York City). Link

American Community Survey. (Public Use Microdata Sample, 2011-2015 for New York City). Link.

American Community Survey. (Public Use Microdata Sample, January 1, 2002-July 13, 2017 for New York City). Link.

Agarwal, Nisha. November 17, 2016. Testimony of Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Before a hearing of the New York City Council Committee on Government Operations: “Oversight—Assessment of NYC’s Language Access Services.”

Banks, Steven, Nisha Agarwal and Emily W. Newman. June 30, 2017. “New York City Identity Card Program Quarterly Report.” Link

Bergman, Artis, Tamara C. Daley, Laurel Lunn, Jennifer Hamilton, and Donna Tapper. August 2016. IDNYC: A Tool of Empowerment: A Mixed-Methods Evaluation of the New York Municipal ID Program, i-ii. Link

Cities for Action. March 8, 2016. “Cities and Counties File Amicus Brief in United States v. Texas Urging U.S. Supreme Court to Permit President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration to Move Forward.” Link.

Cities for Action. 2017. Accessed July 21. Link

Cities for Action. 2017. “Mission.” Accessed July 21. Link

Department of Homeland Security Office of the Press Secretary. May 22, 2017. “Secretary Kelly's Statement on the Limited Extension of Haiti's Designation for Temporary Protected Status.” Link.

Enchautegui, María E. and Linda Giannarelli. December 2015. The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities (Washington, DC: Urban Institute), 10. Link.

González-Rivera, Christian and Kate Hamaji. April 2016. “A City of Immigrant Workers: Building a Workforce Strategy to Support All New Yorkers.” The Center for Popular Democracy and the Center for an Urban Future (New York, NY), 8. Link.

Goodman, J. David. “With Largest Staff Ever, New York City Reimagines How It Works,” New York Times (New York, NY), June 15, 2017. Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. March 20, 2014. “Mayor de Blasio Signs Paid Sick Leave Bill into Law in New York City.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. September 16, 2014. “Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal Announce Unprecedented City Educational and Health Support for Unaccompanied Migrant Children at the NYC Federal Immigration Court.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. Nov. 20, 2014. “Mayors of Many US Cities to Convene in New York City at Summit on Implementation of Executive Order on Immigration.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. Jan. 13, 2015. “De Blasio Administration Announces Activation of IDNYC Plan to Handle High Demand.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. December 14, 2015. “Mayor Bill de Blasio Announces Launch of ActionNYC.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. Feb. 22, 2016. “With Just Two Weeks Left to Apply Early, Mayor de Blasio Urges Parents to Sign-Up for Pre-K for All.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. April 1, 2016. “Two Years After Mayor de Blasio Expands Paid Sick Leave to One Million New Yorkers, City's Economy Stronger Than Ever.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. May 20, 2016. “Mayor de Blasio Appoints Lorelei Salas as Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. Oct. 6, 2016. “New York City Hosts 12 U.S. Cities for First Ever Pre-K for All Cities Learning Lab.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. March 21, 2017. “Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, Chancellor Fariña and Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Agarwal Announce Additional Immigration Guidance, Resources for Schools and Families.” Link

Office of the Mayor of New York. April 26, 2017. “Fact Sheet: Mayor de Blasio Releases Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2018.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. May 30, 2017. “Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito Announce That New York City Is The Largest City To End Abusive Scheduling Practices In The Fast Food And Retail Industries.” Link.

Office of the Mayor of New York. July 20, 2017. “CHIYB: De Blasio Administration Announces NYCitizenship Expansion to all Five Boroughs with $1.6 Million Funding in Second Year.” Link

New York City Council. August 12, 2016. “New York City Council Unaccompanied Minors Initiative Continues To Prevent Needless Deportations.” Link

NYC Department of City Planning, Population Division. March 2017. “Info Brief: NYC’s Foreign-born, 2000 to 2015.” Link.

NYC Department of City Planning, Population Division. n.d. “Total and Foreign-born Population, New York City, 1790 - 2000*.” Link.

NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. “Public Hearing on the State of Workers' Rights in NYC,” Facebook, April 25, 2017. Link.

NYC Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services, IDNYC. Accessed July 3, 2017. “Document Calculator.” Link

NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Dec. 7, 2016. “City and County Implementation of Community-Based Immigration Legal Services: ActionNYC, New York City’s Model,” 6, 12-15. Link.

NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. May 4, 2017. “City Announces Major Expansion Of ActionNYC Immigration Legal Services At NYC Health + Hospitals And Community Organizations.” Link.

NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. July 6, 2017. “Expanding Language Access at City Agencies.” Link.

Office of the New York City Comptroller. January 2017. Our Immigrant Population Helps Power NYC Economy, 10-11. Link.

Rosenblum, Marc R. April 2015. Unaccompanied Child Migration to the United States: The Tension between Protection and Prevention, (New York, NY: Migration Policy Institute) 2. Link.

Sacchetti, Maria. “Immigration arrests soar under Trump; sharpest spike seen for noncriminals,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), May 17, 2017. Link

Walsh, Martin J, et al. May 17, 2017. “Letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.” Cities for Action. Link.

Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites provide financial services and tax assistance to communities -- including low-income immigrants -- that are underserved by mainstream financial institutions. CDFIs and VITA sites not only provide assistance to individual members of these communities, they also play a vital role in promoting the overall economic development of the neighborhoods where immigrants work and live. CDFIs and VITA sites must collaborate more and strive to create asset-building opportunities for undocumented immigrant families despite the rise in deportations under the Presidency of Donald Trump. These community-based organizations can deliver crucial services to this vulnerable population by leveraging the social and working capital of undocumented immigrants, pooling resources, and utilizing volunteers.

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Removing all undocumented immigrants from the country would be a costly, laborious task, which would not only tear families apart but also disrupt the economy. The American Action Forum (AAF), a center-right public policy institute, estimated in 2015 that it would cost about $500,000 and take around 20 years to deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S. Although there was a sharp increase in deportations in the first one hundred days of President Trump's administration (37.6 percent over last year, according to the Washington Post), the reality is that undocumented immigrants continue to be a vital part of our communities. There are approximately 180,000 undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania, according to the Pew Research Center. Their economic power is such that if they were all removed from the state, we would lose 5.3 billion dollars in economic activity, 2.3 billion dollars in gross state product, and approximately 27,718 jobs, according to a report from the Perryman Group. Asset-building organizations must find ways to continue to serve undocumented immigrants not only because it is the right thing to do morally, but also because it is the smart thing to do to economically.

Ceiba, a VITA site, and FINANTA, a CDFI, have collaborated for more than 11 years to assist low-income Latinos connect with asset-building services in Philadelphia. The two organizations are recognized for their track record in maximizing the economic contributions of immigrants to the City's economy.

Ceiba is a coalition of four Latino community-based organizations in Philadelphia (Concilio, FINANTA, the Norris Square Community Alliance, and Nueva Esperanza). Ceiba enhances and coordinates the delivery of their asset-building services through a holistic approach that integrates counseling, financial literacy workshops, free tax preparation services, and structured savings programs. Ceiba’s approach to asset-building helps its member agencies serve low-income families by integrating various services for clients and fostering economies of scale for the service providers. 

Ceiba uses its free tax preparation services as a gateway to asset-building. Tax returns provide a comprehensive vista of a client's finances and show whether a family is eligible for income supports and programs that could strengthen their household. After preparing a tax return, Ceiba connects the client to financial counseling and other services.

Undocumented immigrants have a duty to file a tax return if they earned income in this country. The IRS created the Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) to allow undocumented immigrants to file tax returns. The IRS is precluded from sharing tax information with other federal agencies. At least half of the undocumented immigrants in the country are subject to payroll tax withholdings because they present a “made up” Social Security number to their employer. The IRS and the PA Department of Revenue allow the undocumented immigrants to apply the payroll taxes already withheld to their tax obligations when they present an ITIN tax return. In Pennsylvania, 34.2 million dollars was collected from undocumented immigrants in 2013 through this payroll tax withholding. Filing a tax return is the only way that a taxpayer can recoup any excess taxes withheld from their paychecks.

The advantages of filing a tax return with an ITIN are significant even for undocumented immigrants who are not subject to payroll tax withholding because they "work under the table." They include:

  • Tax returns are the ultimate proof of household income and are requested when U.S.-born children apply for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), college financial aid, etc. (47 percent of undocumented adults live with their children and 73 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens by birth according to the Pew Hispanic Center);
  • Financial institutions, utilities, and service companies open accounts with ITINs;
  • The opportunity to open a business; the City of Philadelphia accepts the ITIN as a Tax ID number for business licenses; and
  • Taxpayers can corroborate that they lived in the US; which may help them apply for legal residency in the future.

Ceiba is an IRS Certifying Acceptance Agent for ITINs. The designation authorizes Ceiba to review an ITIN applicant’s identification documents such as passports and birth certificates thereby exempting the applicant from sending their original documents to the IRS. It also enables Ceiba to communicate directly with the IRS' ITIN office regarding any follow up that an ITIN application may require. Ceiba is the only community-based nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania certified as an ITIN Acceptance Agent. 

Since 2007, Ceiba has helped undocumented immigrants: 

  • Apply for 848 ITINs;
  • File 1,727 ITIN related tax returns;
  • Collect 1.9 million dollars in federal and state tax refunds;
  • Save 518,100 dollars in ITIN application and tax prep fees; and
  • Pay 813,346 dollars in federal and state taxes. 

FINANTA serves unbanked and underbanked low-income, immigrant, and minority entrepreneurs, consumers, and first-time homebuyers in the Philadelphia region.

Since 1996, FINANTA has:

  • Lent more than fifty million dollars to small businesses, first-time homebuyers, consumer borrowers, and nonprofits;
  • Provided more than 1,300 loans ranging in size from $400 to 3.3 million dollars;
  • Delivered over forty thousand hours of technical assistance to unbanked and underbanked individuals; and
  • Generated more than 1,500 jobs in the Philadelphia region

FINANTA is a leader in micro lending. Microloans are small sums of money lent at low interest to an individual or a new business. Low-income borrowers like those served by FINANTA often do not qualify for traditional financing because they have insufficient credit files or credit scores below 600 with unsettled accounts and other challenges. This lack of qualifying credit and equity undermine their ability to borrow. Since 2011, FINANTA's micro lending program has closed over one thousand loans. Over that time, more than six million dollars has been lent out through its affinity group loan program. Borrowing groups start at $1,200 and can progress to grant group participants access to up to $25,000 or more after five borrowing cycles. All along, the groups receive financial coaching, entrepreneurial training, first-time homebuyer and consumer counseling.

The United States Small Business Administration has recognized FINANTA as one of the top five largest micro lenders in the nation, and the top micro lender in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. It also honored FINANTA with the “Mission Lender of the Year” award in 2016.

FINANTA created the affinity group loan program out of the lending circle concept. The affinity group loan program is a variation of the lending circle in that members of the group gain access to the capital at the beginning of the cycle. They do not have to wait "their turn." For example, in a lending circle, a group of 10 people decide that they each want to borrow $1,000. To accomplish that, each participant commits to making monthly payments of $100 for 10 months so that each participant gets a turn at borrowing $1,000 once during the 10-month cycle. FINANTA's affinity group loan program, lends $10,000 to the collective of 10 people thereby giving each participant access to $1,000. During the 10-month cycle, each participant pays $100, plus interest and fees, monthly. If any participant fails to make payments, the rest of the group is collectively responsible to make up the difference until the entire $10,000 group loan is paid off. 

FINANTA strengthens and improves informal lending circles by:

  • Granting the borrower access to the capital immediately;
  • Being a competent administrator instead of an unknown intermediary (some "street administrators" have been known to run away with the group's money); 
  • Reporting each loan payment to the credit bureaus; thus, improving payers' credit scores. This benefit also applies to ITIN holders as credit bureaus are tracking their credit and producing credit scores for them; and
  • Requiring participants to undergo hands-on/one-on-one credit counseling, and attend financial literacy workshops.

FINANTA also offers secured loans for the non-bankable. These loans are secured by borrower assets. In the case of people who do not have an asset to offer, their monthly loan payments become the collateral for the loan. These personal secured loans work in the following way: if someone anticipates that in 10 months they will need to use $1,000, they sign up for a secured loan of $1,000 today and make 10 monthly payments of $100. The timeliness of those monthly payments is reported to the credit bureaus as loan payments, even though no money has yet to be accessed by the "borrower." In 10 months, the "borrower" withdraws the $1,000. Over time, this process can improve a "borrower’s" credit enough to enable them to apply for conventional loans from FINANTA or from mainstream financial institutions.

Many banks offer secured loans. FINANTA's secured loans, however, are:

  • Readily available to people with poor or no credit;
  • Cheaper in terms of interest rates and fees;
  • More likely to build the financial literacy and credit strength of a client, as participants are required to undergo credit counseling and attend financial literacy workshops; and
  • Friendlier as FINANTA staff are more attuned to the needs of immigrants and limited English proficient (LEP) populations.

FINANTA and Ceiba not only do vital work in their own rights, they also collaborate with one another to better serve their communities. Due diligence requires FINANTA to review the most recent tax returns of an applicant before considering them for any loan. Undocumented immigrants without ITINs interested in applying for a loan from FINANTA are referred to Ceiba. In turn, Ceiba refers its ITIN clients to FINANTA if they are interested in securing a loan or in buying a home. FINANTA is the only financial institution based in Pennsylvania that offers mortgages to people with ITINs.

The experience of one client, “Mr. JVS,” exemplifies the successful collaboration between Ceiba and FINANTA. He and his family came to Ceiba for the first time in 2010 seeking help with their taxes and ITIN applications. In 2013, he participated in a Ceiba homeownership workshop for immigrants where he learned about the unique mortgage opportunities for undocumented immigrants at FINANTA. Mr. JVS joined the United Way Ceiba homeownership structured savings program and received housing counseling at the Norris Square Community Alliance for two years. In August 2015, he bought his home with a FINANTA ITIN mortgage.

In another example of such collaboration, last year a group of five undocumented immigrants approached FINANTA seeking assistance in securing an affinity group loan. FINANTA referred them to Ceiba to apply for their ITINs. Once they had ITINs, they returned to FINANTA to apply for their affinity group loan. 

Collaboration between a VITA site and a CDFI to connect clients to asset building opportunities is not a novel idea. Ceiba and FINANTA, however, are innovative in their commitment to providing these services to undocumented immigrants. This collaboration is sustainable and successful due to its ability to leverage undocumented immigrants’ social and working capital, pool resources, vary funding sources, and utilize volunteers.

FINANTA's ability to offer loan products to undocumented immigrants is sustained by the fact that the clients guarantee each other’s loans. In the case of affinity group loans, all are aware of their group members' financial position. All participants assume the risk if a member does not fulfill their obligation, no matter the reason. With the secured personal loans, the "borrower" only gains access to the aggregate of their "loan" payments at an agreed date in the future. The most at risk loan products that FINANTA offers to undocumented immigrants, however, are small business loans and mortgages. The underwriting of such products, nonetheless, is rarely free of collateral. In the case of a business loan, the collateral may be inventory, accounts receivable, or property. In the case of a mortgage, the collateral is the home. FINANTA's ITIN mortgage also requires a co-signer who has at least legal residency status in the U.S. The requirement of a co-signer minimizes the risk of leaving the property without someone who can fulfill legal transactions in case the homeowner is deported.

FINANTA's fostering of team building among its borrowers creates a sense of camaraderie and loyalty among its clients. This maximizes the strength of the borrower's working capital through the nurturing of their social capital. "That is the whole point," says Carolin Jimenez Reyes, Assistant Vice President of micro lending at FINANTA." As human beings, we are more faithful and loyal to a face than to an institution. If someone owes money to a bank it is not the same as if they owe money to a person." FINANTA's loan loss is only 1.2 percent; lower than traditional banking averages. 

To ensure that it serves a variety of clients, FINANTA pools the funding and capital that it receives from mainstream financial institutions. Banks are incentivized to support CDFIs; the loans and grants that they provide to CDFIs improve their Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) rating. The CRA also encourages banks to support VITA sites like Ceiba. Banks that support free tax preparation efforts receive favorable consideration in the investment test and/or service test under CRA regulations. A drastic change in CRA regulations or a lack of enforcement can affect what CDFIs and VITA sites receive from banks, but it will not completely dry the well. Banks recognize the important role that CDFIs and community-based organizations play for them in minority communities. This is good business for the banks as many FINANTA borrowers build-up their assets and borrowing capacity and move on to mainstream banking seeking additional financial services.

Ceiba ensures the viability of its VITA site by diversifying its funding sources. The IRS is supportive of VITA efforts. It provides funding, lends computers and tax software, and helps train the volunteers. There is no fee to become an ITIN Certified Acceptance Agent. Proposed cuts in the federal budget may eliminate funding for VITA sites, but those cuts will not be catastrophic for VITA sites like Ceiba who diversify their funding sources. Municipalities and foundations recognize the importance of free tax preparation towards helping low-income families secure the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Although ITIN taxpayers do not qualify for the EITC, municipalities and foundations who support VITA sites are generally receptive to their funding being used to support the preparation of ITIN applications and ITIN tax returns.

Volunteers are also vital in the delivery of free tax preparation to undocumented immigrants. On average, Ceiba relies on at least twenty-five volunteers a year for this work. The ITIN application is relatively easy to fill out, the hardest part in the application process is preparing the tax return. Undocumented immigrants are unfamiliar with the tax preparation process and it takes time to explain it to them and gather the necessary documents. The use of volunteers also pays social dividends in the form of promoting close interactions between undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens. There is nothing more financially intimate than one's taxes. Tax volunteers delve deep into a family's finances and develop a clearer understanding of the realities of undocumented immigrants in this country.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Today more than ever, asset-building organizations serving low-income families and immigrants must develop the capacity to ensure that their services are available to all, especially those who are most vulnerable. Low-income neighborhoods do not have the luxury to shrink from nurturing all parts of the economic catalyst that is the immigrant community. Close collaboration between VITA sites and CDFIs with micro lending programs ensures that undocumented immigrants gain access to credit and enhance their financial capacity to contribute economically to our country. The night is the darkest before dawn. In these challenging times, we must continue helping undocumented immigrants secure their financial footing with the hope that someday, someway, they get the status to stay in the U.S. and contribute even more to our nation's economy.

Works Cited

Pew Research Center, “Estimated illegal immigration population, by state, 2014,” Last Modified November 3, 2016. 

Gitis, Ben and Laura Collins, “The Budgetary And Economic Costs Of Addressing Unauthorized Immigrations: Alternative Strategies,” American Actions Forum, Last Modified March 6, 2015.

Sacchetti, Maria “Immigration Arrests Soar Under Trump; sharpest spike seen for noncriminals,” The Washington Post (Washington D.C.), May 17, 2017.

The Perryman Group, An Essential Resource: An Analysis of the Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers on Business Activity in the US with Estimated Effects by State and Industry, Texas: The Perryman Group, 2008.

Gee, Lisa C., Matthew Gardner, and Meg Wiehe, Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions, Washington D.C.: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 2016. 

Passel, Jeffery S. and D’Vera Cohn “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” Last Modified April 14, 2009.

Author Bios

Will Gonzalez

Will Gonzalez is the Executive Director of Ceiba, a coalition of Latino community based organizations in Philadelphia. His work focuses on the housing, economic development, and civil rights of low-to-moderate income communities including undocumented immigrants and limited English proficient populations.

He has 31 years of experience working in the Latino community. The Philadelphia Foundation's Williams Award for Organizational Excellence & The Community Change Award from the Bread & Roses Community Fund recognized his leadership of non-profits.

Mr. Gonzalez has received various community awards, among them a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Legal Intelligencer, PA's premier legal publication. He is licensed to practice law in NJ and PA. He is the Past President of the Hispanic Bar Association of PA and a member of the board of the PA Chapter of the ACLU. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, from Lehigh University and a Juris Doctor, from Rutgers University School of Law where he was awarded the Ralph Bunch Fellowship and the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council Fellowship. 

Luis Mora Rechnitz

Luis has been a pioneer in economic and housing development for more than 30 years. In 1996, Luis founded FINANTA, a $20+ million nonprofit mission-driven lender, facilitating access to capital for entrepreneurs, first-time homebuyers, and consumers in the Philadelphia region. FINANTA has a substantial track record in business, homeownership, and consumer counseling, as well as, a $51+ million history in micro/small business, mortgage, consumer, and nonprofit lending. Prior to founding FINANTA, Luis created and directed the CoreStates Community Development and Financing groups, a $66 million economic, housing, social, and cultural investment program of CoreStates Bank, NA. This program was unique and among the nation’s first non-profit community development arms of a commercial banking institution. A native of Costa Rica, Luis holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, Louisiana.

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