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NY lifts ban on immigrant advocacy group

A longtime immigrant advocacy group is struggling to stay open with volunteer staff amid financial strains and infighting that led to the resignation of several of its officers.

The Workplace Project, a 20-year-old Hempstead nonprofit, broke into factions in the past few months over management disagreements and deteriorating finances, leading to a series of staff and officer ousters and resignations, current and former members said.

The group received some welcome news Thursday when the state attorney general's office lifted a ban it had placed on the group's ability to raise funds. Workplace Project directors vowed to start a fundraising campaign quickly.

"It's the best thing that's happened to us in several weeks," said Samuel Chávez, a construction worker who took over as president on July 30. "We will be able to address our most urgent money problem and reconnect with our individual donors and foundations."

Unfiled tax returns

The group, founded in 1992, has become known for its defense of immigrant workers, particularly in addressing allegations of workplace discrimination or unpaid wages. It has been the main organizer of an annual May 1 rally for legislative reforms to help undocumented workers.

The Workplace Project had not filed federal tax returns on time since 2009 or state financial documents since 2008. Because of the delinquency, the state barred the nonprofit from raising funds.

In lifting the fundraising ban Thursday, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office gave the group until Nov. 15 to file overdue state reports, spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said.

The financial and management upheaval within the organization has hurt a community of workers, in many cases undocumented immigrants, who rely on its advocacy, said Irma Solís, fair housing and lending investigator with Long Island Housing Services in Bohemia.

Solís, who headed a Workplace Project center in Farmingville until it was closed in 2008, said the group needs to restructure and do a better job of self-governance.

"That's the tragedy of it all. Those workers that the organization served are being left without any recourse," Solís said. "The Latino community would lose the most if the organization can't keep going."

Growing tensions within the organization boiled over in May, when then-director Omar Angel Pérez fired longtime community organizer Carlos Canales, who then filed an age and gender discrimination complaint against the group. The complaint is pending with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

The group's membership then voted to dismantle the board of directors, which had opposed Canales' firing.

Internal clashes

Interim board members reviewed the group's financial records, confronted Pérez about the missing state and federal filings and sought a full review of finances.

Pérez, who resigned in July, would not comment beyond saying he left the Workplace Project because he had "new options in my professional life" at another immigrant-advocacy nonprofit.

Three of the interim board members also resigned in July when some group members balked at plans for an internal financial review.

"Everything was in disarray," said former vice president Luis Nicho, one of those who resigned. "We were ready to fix these problems, but we saw the membership had no true intention of addressing them."

The Workplace Project's tax filing for 2010 showed it had about $14,500 at the end of that year out of more than $333,000 in reported revenues. Current and former group officials say cash reserves are now down to just a few thousand dollars.

Chávez said that while the group has not been able to afford rent or staff salaries, volunteers are keeping the office open, assisting dozens of immigrant workers seeking unpaid wages and challenging alleged workplace abuses.

"We have to stay open for them," Chávez said.

Jennifer Gordon, a Fordham University School of Law professor who founded the Workplace Project and remains in contact with its directors, said the organization is regaining its footing under the new board.

"It seems to me that these are even harder times for immigrants on Long Island than . . . when I founded the group," she said. The mood of the country has shifted about immigration, Gordon said, at the same time that immigrants "are hard-hit by problems on the job."

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