Struggling Undocumented Seniors Find a Lifeline in City Programs

Cecilia Lezama has lunch every day for only $1 at an East Harlem senior center. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

At 78, Cecilia Lezama should be enjoying her golden years and a decent, stable retirement. However, the Mexican-born grandmother lives in poverty and in a state of great anxiety and depression.

Although she worked in this country all her life – as a housekeeper for more than 30 years – and filed her taxes every year as mandated by the law, Lezama was not able to contribute to social security because she does not have legal residence documents. This prevents her from receiving any kind of federal benefit or assistance to help her cope with old age more easily and in a dignified manner.

Instead of a monthly pension check, the Puebla native survives with the $15 or less that she is able to scrape together by collecting cans for long hours in the streets of Manhattan.

(…) Her undocumented status does not allow her to obtain any other type of assistance such as food stamps, Medicare or even help paying for housing. (At the moment, she lives with a distant relative who is planning to move out of the city, and Lezama worries that she will become homeless.)

(…) “I cannot return to Mexico because I left 30 years ago and I no longer have family there. They don’t exist. If I go there, it would be as if I arrived in an unknown country, because I have built all my life here,” said the senior, visibly worried.

Lezama’s torment began 30 years ago when she made the brave decision to leave everything behind to come to the United States to escape years of abuse.

“In my country, I endured much domestic violence, and I came here to flee that violence. I arrived here by walking across the border and stayed,” she says.

(…) While undocumented people are not eligible to receive any type of federal assistance – especially now, under the Trump administration – some states, including New York, decided long ago not to leave undocumented seniors behind.

(…) “All services in New York are available regardless of immigration status. Public hospitals have the ‘HHC Option,’ a sliding scale program that allows people to have health insurance and pay for health services according to their income,” said Carolina Hoyos, director of the Caregiver Resource Center of the NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA).

“New York’s public hospitals provide emergency Medicaid to anyone who does not have legal documents and has a medical emergency,” added Hoyos.

This has become a real lifesaver for immigrants like Lezama, who (…) has received psychotherapy at the Metropolitan Hospital Center in East Harlem to help her with mental health issues. The institution belongs to the network of 11 public hospitals of the NYC Health + Hospitals Corporation.

“Two years ago, I went to the [Metropolitan] hospital because I felt very ill. I had a terrible depression and was very sad. Thanks to the help of a social worker there, I feel much better and more calm,” said Lezama, who goes to therapy once a week.

(…) The septuagenarian makes use of the services and programs offered by the DFTA (…). One of its most crucial is the “congregate meals service,” a program offering low-cost or free breakfast and lunch. (…)

“They give me food here every day, and I get by with that meal (…). Also, even though I don’t have a green card, I can participate in the pantry program, which is very helpful to me because it is healthy food and I can take it home to save for later,” explained Lezama, who frequents the Carter Burden/Leonard Covello Senior Program, located at 312 East 109th St. in East Harlem.

“That has been of great help. I used to be very fat because I ate too much due to my anxiety, but went from 250 pounds to 190 because they taught me to change my diet, eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more water,” she added.

Lezama also attends the free workshops, classes and programs offered at the senior centers across the city. She said that she particularly enjoys group walks, exercise classes, Zumba, dancing, sewing, painting and singing.

“I am in a karaoke group. I love to sing and, when I do it, I feel that I let out all the stress and feelings of sadness I have inside,” she said.

(…) According to Hoyos, asking about a person’s immigration status is not required for a senior to participate in DFTA programs and services, but it is sometimes discussed to assess if the individual may have access to and benefit from government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid. Still, this information is never shared with federal authorities.

“I am stressed out and scared. I don’t want to be too far from my home because I feel like they are following me. That has made my anxiety and depression even worse (…).” That was Lezama’s categorical reply when asked how she feels as an undocumented immigrant in the “Trump era.” Although she admits that living in a sanctuary city such as New York makes her feel a bit safer, the Mexico native shared her fears over what she describes as an ongoing “wave of discrimination.”

“The other day, I went to a store and they asked me if I spoke English. I said no, and they screamed at me in English – which I understand but don’t speak: ‘If you’re in New York, you need to learn English because you are in America and you may not speak Spanish,’” recalled Lezama.


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