Meet the woman who turned her basement into an immigration center

A former attorney and community activist turned her basement into a center to help migrants seeking asylum complete their applications.
Posted at 9:22 PM, Mar 14, 2023

The sound of a printing machine that never seems to stop is a sound of relief for recently arrived migrants like Maria José Rodriguez.

"Now we are safe," she said in Spanish. "I am thankful to God that we are safe."

The 19-year-old, her mother and younger brother finally submitted their application for asylum thanks to the help provided by Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo.

"When this asylum crisis hit, we really have a way to actually help people," O'Doherty-Naranjo said. "There's a huge impact with a little bit of effort. We can really help families change their lives."

O'Doherty-Naranjo, a former Manhattan district attorney, converted her home basement into an immigrant center. She provides free services to newly arrived migrants from her house in Jackson Heights, Queens.

"We have a four-page handout on the very first steps — from getting your first phone to watch your kids in school to applying for health insurance, finding a place to live, and then, most importantly, applying for asylum," O'Doherty-Naranjo said.

The mayor's office says 50,000 migrants have arrived in New York city since last April.

Rodriguez and her family arrived in the United States six months ago, leaving Peru, she says, because of extortion. But now, the family has a sense of peace knowing their asylum application is moving forward.

"You need to file within your first year of arriving, so one year from the day you arrived, and with 50,000 families, it's going to take a long time to fill those out," O'Doherty-Naranjo said.

Starting the asylum process opens the door to a work authorization card.

"180 days after you file, you can actually receive work authorization," O'Doherty-Naranjo said. "The real question is whether this influx of immigrants, will the immigration authorities be able to actually keep up with it? And we don't know yet."

Rodriguez doesn't mind the wait after a dangerous trip through Mexico and spending three months in a U.S. Customs Enforcement detention center in Louisiana. She recalls the fear she and her family felt on a bus in Mexico.

"There was a Haitian man," she said. "He didn't speak Spanish. They just got him out of the bus and took him away. We heard nothing more from him. Outside the bus, they had guns."

Mexican cartels are known to capture, extort and torture migrants.

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Humberto Guamangate, an Indigenous migrant from Ecuador, is also seeking help after fleeing his country with his wife and three children.

"Right now, for example, the police and the military do not respect the indigenous people," Guamangate said.

Indigenous communities in Ecuador have been denouncing discrimination from the government.

Last year, peaceful protests against the government's economic policies turned violent, ending with police arresting the leader of the country's biggest Indigenous group. At least six people died, and about 500 were injured.

Guamangate participated in the demonstrations.

Now in America, Spanish is a second language for him. His wife only speaks Quechua, a language spoken by Indigenous people of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.

The language barrier is something O'Doherty-Naranjo tries to help migrants get past.

"They're handed these forms in English," O'Doherty-Naranjo said. "It has to be filled out in English, and they don't know what to do."

The good thing is: O'Doherty-Naranjo speaks Spanish. She learned it through her husband, an immigrant from Ecuador.

O'Doherty-Naranjo is grateful for the support she's received from her neighbors, members of local organizations, City University of New York students and even from migrants themselves.

So far, O'Doherty-Naranjo has helped more than 100 migrants. Her main concern now is to get funds to continue helping more migrants. Right now she's using her own money and help from her brother to buy things like paper and to send the applications in the mail.

She says she has asked the New York City mayor's office for help and is still waiting to hear back.

As for Rodriguez, she's now volunteering at the center, assisting fellow migrants. But she says the bad memories from her journey are still present.

"Going through so much danger, not knowing if we were going to get here alive — it was horrible," Rodriguez said.

Now her main wish is to obtain legal status so she can continue her nursing career — a dream she left behind in Peru.

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