Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo teaches migrants about their rights as asylum seekers from her home in Jackson Heights.
Photo: Andy Zalkin
On a recent Wednesday morning, 56 asylum seekers from South America were packed into the Jackson Heights Immigrant Center waiting for Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo to appear. It didn’t take long for her to get there, since the center is in the basement of O’Doherty-Naranjo’s home. She has converted it twice in the past four years: first, in early 2020, when she and some neighbors made it the operations base for COVID Care Neighborhood Network, a mutual-aid society that provided food, diapers, cleaning supplies, and a host of services to people struggling to get through the pandemic; then, in 2023, when she and some COVID Care collaborators found themselves at the heart of the city’s migration crisis and decided to help.
Just after 10 a.m., the migrants, who’ve been sent here by service workers or other residents in their shelters, begin to look nervous. There’s upbeat music playing, but the mood is solemn. Everyone is seated on a folding chair, holding a clipboard, a pencil, and the federal immigration forms that the center’s volunteer staff have provided. A woman in the front row looks up to eye the long line of unlucky people standing in the corridor, pleading to get in.
O’Doherty-Naranjo, whom they refer to simply as la abogada, may not work miracles, they’ve been told, but her free legal clinic is open every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and has already helped more than 2,000 families apply for asylum, work authorization, a Social Security card, school admission, and other benefits. At 10:22, O’Doherty-Naranjo, who’s 55 and just under five feet tall with the energy of a hand grenade, descends from her kitchen, pushes through a plastic screen, and squeezes into the room. “She’s here!” exclaims a staff member, and everyone goes silent, eyes wide. “Good morning,” O’Doherty-Naranjo says in the slow, American-accented Spanish she’s cultivated in her long marriage to an Ecuadoran auto technician. “Good morning,” the migrants reply. “The first thing I want to say is ‘Welcome!’ You are all New Yorkers now. This is a city of immigrants. And you are one of us.”
For the next 90 minutes, O’Doherty-Naranjo delivers a rollicking monologue with advice on life in New York City as well as immigration policy. There are discrete parts to her presentation. On cultural integration: “You have to learn English or no one is going to hire you, so take intensive classes at the library and learn ten vocabulary words on your phone before each meal!” Asylum law: “If you’re Venezuelan, and you’re here fleeing persecution, you have a one-in-three shot of getting accepted, but if you’re from Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, you’re probably going to lose.” And community building: “When you were in Ecuador, you had your parents, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, your neighbors. You had everybody. New York City can be lonely, and the only way to have community is to build it yourself!” Not until noon, when she’s winding down, does O’Doherty-Naranjo ask everyone to pick up their pencils and start filling out the immigration forms, following her itemized advice. There’s more paperwork than they can finish before lunch, however, so the all-volunteer staff, a blend of Jackson Heights residents and newly arrived migrants who got help from O’Doherty-Naranjo’s program and wanted to give back, assigns each family a time to return to the center. “I try to go upstairs for dinner,” says O’Doherty-Naranjo, who gets no compensation from the project. “But sometimes I work 16 hours a day, and the volunteers don’t stop until 1 or 2 a.m.”
I first met O’Doherty-Naranjo during the pandemic, while reporting on how mutual-aid societies like the COVID Care Neighborhood Network were filling gaps in the social services provided by the city. It’s impossible to know exactly how many of these makeshift community organizations New Yorkers started in 2020, when the labor market crashed and so many families found themselves cash-strapped with little hope of getting adequate public assistance. It’s also impossible to say precisely how many families avoided starvation or radical isolation because of the help that their neighbors provided. What we do know, though, is that hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of New Yorkers, fared far better in the COVID crisis than they would have without the extraordinary rise and surprising resilience of mutual-aid societies.
Today, as the city faces a different kind of emergency, New Yorkers are adapting and reassembling the groups they formed in 2020. The pandemic left the city worse off in so many ways, but the creation of organizations like O’Doherty-Naranjo’s is one lasting change for the better. These groups get little recognition — and little, if any, public funding — for the services they offer. Without them, though, the city would hardly function.
Migrants line up outside O’Doherty-Naranjo’s apartment building early in the morning to secure a spot inside.
Photo: Andy Zalkin
Only 50 to 60 people can attend per session.
Photo: Andy Zalkin
O’Doherty-Naranjo, who grew up in a family of Irish immigrants in Indiana, moved to New York for high school, then to Queens to attend St. John’s School of Law three decades ago, and spent 23 years as a lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. She has long been a staple of Jackson Heights community projects. Gardening clubs. School boards. Parent groups. Whatever the neighborhood needed. After she retired from the DA’s office, in 2018, a group of neighbors persuaded O’Doherty-Naranjo to run for State Assembly, and when 2020 started, she converted her basement into her headquarters, with friends, brainstorming solutions for local problems. A few months later, when COVID arrived, her entire agenda changed.
From March to May 2020, when New York City became the global hot spot for the coronavirus, Jackson Heights was its fiery core. Along with the adjacent, similarly crowded immigrant neighborhoods of Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, and Corona, Jackson Heights was part of a cluster in central Queens that experienced more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths than any other part of the city.
O’Doherty-Naranjo started hearing about people who were bunkering in their apartments, avoiding grocery stores, pharmacies, and bodegas. Everyone in the neighborhood heard the sirens, saw the men in moon suits carrying away the dead. They couldn’t get masks and couldn’t even get sanitizer, paper towels, or soap. They were unsure how to protect themselves in public, uncertain how to get the basic things they needed to survive. O’Doherty-Naranjo realized that the neighborhood was likely full of people in this situation.
On March 13, O’Doherty-Naranjo reached out to the volunteers on her campaign team. “I said, ‘Put a Post-it note on your neighbors’ door. Give them my phone number.’ For me, it wasn’t a big thing. Like, The world has my phone number. I don’t care. I took a picture of a Post-it note with my number, and we made a flyer with it.” Soon, thousands of flyers with her phone number and the message “Call me if you need any help” were circulating in the neighborhood. O’Doherty-Naranjo’s goal was simple: She wanted everyone in Jackson Heights to be connected to someone who could support them: an ear, a voice, a hand. She hadn’t realized how much help people would need as the pandemic dragged on. But neither had she understood how much her neighbors would give.
It was extraordinary how many people wanted to participate. “Right away, I had about 100 people offer to volunteer,” O’Doherty-Naranjo told me. “That was the beginning of COVID Care. But we didn’t know what the problems were, what people needed.”
Neighbors called to ask if someone could pick up their laundry, get cleaning supplies, deliver groceries. They were small, stopgap measures, and they were easy to do. By the second week, though, the calls became scary. “One morning, someone called and asked for a hot meal. My daughter loves to cook and made something. We brought this meal and found an elderly woman sitting on a chair. She was waiting for us, propping open the door. She could barely stand. Her husband was worse. She called the next morning to say that her husband had died. We had made him his last meal.” Not long after, a woman whose husband died at home asked if someone could come and sanitize her apartment. Then O’Doherty-Naranjo fielded a call from a Nepalese woman, a mother with two young children at home. “Her husband had just gone to the hospital with COVID,” she recalled, “She was also really sick, and the EMTs wanted to take her too. She wouldn’t go because of the kids. No one else would go inside the apartment and help, so I personally went over. It was just the kind of thing you couldn’t ask anyone else to do.”
O’Doherty-Naranjo has a catalogue of stories from the “scary period,” each with its own particular horrors. In retrospect, she told me, this was still a relatively quiet time for the network. Dangerous. Stressful. But quiet. It wasn’t until the beginning of April that her phone started ringing constantly. “I call this the ‘crash stage,’” O’Doherty-Naranjo said. “The economic crash. It came after the shutdowns. People had enough food to get themselves through the first few weeks. But the restaurants were closed. The street vendors couldn’t operate. Not many calls for drivers. There were no more cleaning jobs. No more nannies working off the books. We had all these immigrant families living paycheck to paycheck. Now there’s no more paychecks. No stimulus coming. People were like, ‘What are we going to do?’”
“That’s when we started the food pantry in my garage,” O’Doherty-Naranjo recounted. “Food. Diapers. Formula. Those were the fundamentals. Rice. Oil. Beans. Spaghetti. Canned goods. We had gringo bags, Hispanic bags, and Indian bags. We’d do one emergency delivery per family and then try to set them up with city services so they could survive.” The demand seemed endless. “There were times when you couldn’t even walk in here we had so many boxes of diapers.”
COVID Cares set up a leadership team, people who could help with field calls, match volunteers with jobs, raise funds from donors, and apply for government grants. The ranks of volunteers kept growing. At first it was mainly women, but as the pandemic wore on more men showed up. “There were no jobs!” O’Doherty-Naranjo exclaimed. “They had nothing to do.” One family I met signed up for a weekly food delivery, which they did with their son in the back seat. Another, where the father had lost his job in a restaurant, made sandwiches for 100 unemployed day laborers every Monday.
Food is the heart of Jackson Heights culture, and when restaurants closed because of the virus, pantries popped up throughout the neighborhood. Churches. Community centers. Restaurants. It seemed like every week another organization jumped in to help. O’Doherty-Naranjo’s garage could no longer store perishables once the weather got warmer, but friends of hers who had been volunteering were close with the proprietors of a local restaurant, the Queensboro, who were looking for a way to contribute. Soon, they took over the operation, relieving O’Doherty-Naranjo’s family, at least temporarily. The diaper boxes kept coming, as did a daily stream of people looking for help or a visit with the woman who some members of the mutual-aid network were calling “the mayor” of Jackson Heights. O’Doherty-Naranjo rejected the label. “I’m not the mayor,” she told me. “I’m the bridge.”
O’Doherty-Naranjo in her basement classroom.
Photo: Andy Zalkin
In the afternoon, volunteers answer the migrants’ legal questions in small groups.
Photo: Andy Zalkin
In June 2020, O’Doherty-Naranjo lost her race for State Assembly. “I got trounced,” she recounted, rolling her eyes in self-mockery. “I never should have run.” But the mutual-aid society she established proved durable and effective. As the pandemic subsided, O’Doherty-Naranjo and her collaborators broadened their mission, providing legal advice to immigrants worried about housing, debt, and deportation and helping neighbors get access to vaccines. They formed a community coalition that successfully lobbied the city to transform a 1.3-mile corridor on 34th Avenue into a pedestrian-friendly “open street,” closed to street traffic from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. When it opened, Jackson Heights was still a “green desert,” but it suddenly had a public space where everyone, of every age and station, could walk, run, bike, play, and gather. Social life blossomed. The neighborhood felt transformed.
When Republican governors in Texas and Florida started busing undocumented immigrants to New York City, everyone in Jackson Heights knew that streams of them would soon arrive in central Queens. The question was how many, how quickly, and who would be there to help.
O’Doherty-Naranjo plunged into the effort. “Here’s how this started,” she told me. “Because of my husband, we know a lot of Ecuadorans, and in 2022, a good friend told us their good friends just arrived from there and wanted to file for asylum. They talked to a lawyer who said they wanted $11,000. The family actually signed a retainer. But then the lawyer said it was $11,000 per person — $33,000! — which was just impossible. Now, I didn’t know much about asylum law, but I said, ‘Well, I’ll just file the forms with you. You’re not going to win, but the government is so overwhelmed with applications they probably won’t get back to you for a while. The law says if they take more than 180 days, you can get your Social Security card. That’s huge. Because with that card, you can get a job and stay here a very long time.’”
The family was elated. Inevitably, they told other migrants how O’Doherty-Naranjo helped them, and — just as in 2020 — they passed along her phone number. “Two people called. Another two people called. And then it’s logarithmic,” she said. “Call after call. I decided to do a little forum, so I could tell these poor people not to pay a lawyer for an asylum case they’re not going to win unless they’re Venezuelan or Ukrainian, right? But the other message was that they have to file the application anyway because the process gets other benefits.” One of O’Doherty-Naranjo’s friends had access to a small gymnasium in the neighborhood; others, from COVID Care, volunteered to help. They printed asylum forms. Translated instructions. Set up tables. “Of course, more than 100 people showed up for the forum,” O’Doherty-Naranjo recalls. “We tried, but we didn’t have enough time to help everyone. So I gave some people my phone number and arranged a time to come to my basement. That’s when things went nuts.”
Now, it wasn’t just O’Doherty-Naranjo’s phone number that was circulating; it was her address. People were ringing her doorbell, asking for assistance, at all hours of the day and night. “It was crazy,” she explained. “Someone showed up at four in the morning. We had people sleeping on cardboard boxes outside the house. So that’s when I decided we needed to do a clinic. I cleaned out the basement. Painted it. Got the kids’ computers in there. I got some interns from John Jay, some volunteers. And we just started bringing people in.”
Demand for the Immigrant Center’s services has been steady since they started, with occasional spikes — like when someone posted clips of a Univision segment about O’Doherty-Naranjo on TikTok — and nary a slow day. The current challenge for her is figuring out how to raise money to sustain the effort so she can pay the volunteers (almost all of whom are young people who applied for asylum through the clinic) for the hours they spend underground. “My brother is a rich banker,” she joked, “and he’s given me $14,000 this year. Now, I hear there may be some city money that we can apply for. I have to look at the RFP, but it looks perfect. I just need to find the time.”
The problem, for O’Doherty-Naranjo and other New Yorkers who have thrown themselves into mutual-aid projects, is that time has become an increasingly scarce resource — particularly since January, when thousands of migrant families with children hit Mayor Adams’s 60-day limit on shelter stays and were booted from their temporary homes. (For migrants without children, the limit is 30 days.) More than 150,000 new migrants have arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022. Shelters are full. The cost of rent for rooms in multifamily apartments is soaring. In Jackson Heights, O’Doherty-Naranjo says, “it used to be $400 a month for a room here, then it went to $600, then $800. I’ve heard of people paying $1,200 now for a basement room with a shared bathroom!” She recognizes that New York doesn’t have bottomless pockets to pay for migrants’ hotel rooms, but something has to give. “There’s no plan here now,” she says, “so what are these families supposed to do?”
Adapted from 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed, by Eric Klinenberg (Knopf, February 13).