Sep 20 2016
By Mel Policicchio
Topics Demography, Immigration
Source Woodrow Wilson School
In 2005, Maribel Hernández Rivera MPA/JD ’10 was a first-year master’s student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and spent much of her time outside the classroom organizing rallies and encouraging her peers to advocate for immigration reform.
Carrying this passion and dedication into her professional career, Hernández Rivera became the first executive director of legal initiatives at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Beginning her role in April 2015, Hernández Rivera was instrumental to the design of ActionNYC, a program she now oversees as executive director under the leadership of Commissioner Nisha Agarwal of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
ActionNYC offers free, confidential, community-based legal aid for immigrants who live in New York City. The program is a partnership between the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Human Resources Administration and the City University of New York.
Born in Mexico City, Hernández Rivera moved to the United States when she was 13 years old and spent a period of her life undocumented. After experiencing the difficulties of being an undocumented immigrant — and clerking for a federal judge and working in commericial litigation and civil rights — she resolved to become an immigration lawyer, simultaneously pursuing graduate degrees from the Wilson School and New York University School of Law.
Hernández Rivera nearly passed on what has quickly become her dream job. Happy in her previous role as an immigration lawyer for a nonprofit organization, she was hesitant to apply for the position in the Mayor’s Office, unsure of what it might entail. However, when she noticed the position hadn’t been filled after a month, she reconsidered.
“I asked myself, ‘Isn’t this exactly the type of job that I want to do?’ It offered the perfect combination of immigration law and policy and gave me the chance to have an impact at a large-scale level,” Hernández Rivera said.
The Wilson School community was a valuable resource throughout Hernández Rivera’s job application process. The School’s Office of Graduate Career Services and Alumni Relations provided mock interviews and connections to alumni working in the city. Meanwhile, the friends Hernández Rivera made at Princeton helped her polish application materials.
Hernández Rivera expected no less from the University, which granted her the scholarships that helped her immensely on her journey to aid immigrants in America.
“I would not be doing what I do if Princeton had not decided to take a chance on me,” Hernández Rivera said. “Someone decided to invest their money in my education and my success and I take that very seriously. I am deeply grateful to those who have given me this opportunity and opened doors for me.”
In December of 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the launch of ActionNYC. The first step was getting the word out, as many immigrants don’t know they qualify for aid or a change in status. ActionNYC offers free immigration “checkups,” which show an individual or families how ActionNYC can help them, based on their unique situation. The program then helps immigrants and their families navigate the process of obtaining aid or a change in status.
To maximize outreach to diverse immigrant populations across the city, ActionNYC providers are fluent in half a dozen foreign languages and offer telephonic interpretation for clients outside that language base.
Hernández Rivera pursued dual graduate degrees so she could help as many people as possible, studying law to help the individual and policy to help the population. With the knowledge and experience cultivated at the Wilson School, she has combined both degrees into one career.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I went to public policy school because I wanted to advocate for immigration reform, even though it seemed like a longshot. There are so many people involved in policy reform and to be successful, you need to convince a lot of people to buy into the process. At some point, I started thinking, ‘Can I really make a difference?’ And now, at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, I see that I can.”
The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Commissioner Agarwal also work on such projects as IDNYC, New York City’s municipal ID program, which grants photo IDs to all city residents. This program has become the largest of its kind in the nation, helping more than 850,000 people obtain necessary identification.
“It’s incredibly satisfying to hear people’s stories of how they were told that they qualified for a change in immigration status and now they have a document,” she said. “I had hoped to do this for my dad, but he passed away before gaining documentation. I can’t do it for him, but I can do it for so many other people.”