“I believe that slavery is not abolished. Slavery has been transferred to my people,” said Democratic candidate for mayor Rev. Erick Salgado about undocumented Latinos at a debate on August 21. “Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King fought for his people. I want to be remembered… [as] the Latino guy who spoke with an accent that stand[s] for his people as well.”
Immigration reform has become a unifying force in the Latino community. A 2013 poll from Latino Decisions shows that immigration ranks as the community’s top issue at 58 percent. Employment and the economy trail in second place at 38 percent. But with 625,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010, immigration reform has also become a top issue for other
immigrant communities in New York.
“Republican, Democrat, or whatever party, will have to recognize that the immigrant vote is real,” said Razeen Zaman, the campaign organizer for New York State Youth Leadership Council, a volunteer organization led by undocumented youth. “Most undocumented families are mixed status families. Which means that many undocumented folks have citizens in their families who are closely paying attention to what each party will do.”
Many New Yorkers have cousins, uncles, parents and grandparents who emigrated recently. In 2011, 22.2 percent of the city’s population was foreign-born. And as a result, immigration activists emphasize that political candidates should be thinking about policies that defend both documented and undocumented residents.
On the radar screen
Immigration has already made it into the election narrative for the 2013 mayoral race. In another debate on September 3, just one week before Primary Day, Democratic candidates were asked, “In the face of inaction in Washington, what should the city do in regards to undocumented immigrants?”
Four out of five candidates on stage at the WNBC studio pledged to pass a municipal ID card. Anthony Weiner argued that New York needs to tackle immigration reform by breaking down “walls of discrimination wherever we find them.” Bill Thompson defended his Big Apple-Big Dreams proposal, which would offer TAP grants to undocumented students. Bill de Blasio advocated for state driver’s licenses for eligible undocumented immigrants. Christine Quinn called for federal and state level DREAM Acts, as well as driver’s licenses and greater access to education. And John Liu upheld New York’s right to reject federal intervention on immigration and become more of a “safe city” for immigrants.
In this sense, Democratic candidates and immigration activists agree that New York politicians have to step up and lead the state in immigration reform. “Politicians need to have an agenda that proactively advances citizen rights,” says Zaman. “They need to talk about state level citizenship, voting access for long-term immigrant residents and other proposals that make New York safer, more democratic.”
Potential for local reform
Immigration activists like Zaman insist that New York City can become a platform for advancing state and national legislation. Local policies like municipal IDs and tuition assistance for undocumented residents can position the city at the forefront of immigration reform, and send a positive message that pro-immigrant policies address community needs, specifically at a time when the federal government is stalling on immigration reform.
“It is really easy for localities to point to the federal government and say there is nothing that we can do until they act,” says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. “But that’s just not true. A message can be sent either good or bad. Ordinances have been passed that create barriers for undocumented immigrants … and laws can also be passed to promote due process and inclusivity.”
Das emphasized that local leaders could push forward pro-immigrant policies that end unfair detentions. Currently, “someone who is stopped for a minor violation and booked in jail, can also be detained and deported,” she said. “Stronger policies against detainers protect immigrant rights.”
A 2012 report from the Immigrant Rights Clinic explains that immigrants who get legal representation and are not extradited by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to other states succeed at staying in the United States 74 percent of the time. Unrepresented immigrants who are detained by immigration authorities and transferred to other state facilities have only a 3 percent success rate.
Both activists and politicians cite Executive Order 41 as an example of city policy that can defend immigrant rights. The order classifies all information gathered by city agencies about immigration status as confidential. And it limits immigration status inquiries by law enforcement officials to cases where it might be relevant to “investigating illegal activity other than the mere status of an undocumented alien.”
A role in the larger conversation
Beyond the ability to change municipal policy, the local discussion about immigration rights can have a broader effect on politics. For one thing, putting a human face on undocumented immigrants can simply remind politicians that those without papers—who also have strong interests in school, health, transit and public safety policies—are constituents.
“Whether you are a registered voter or citizen, green card holder or undocumented immigrant, you can still engage in the [political] process, still hold elected officials accountable and meet with them, talk to them about your concerns and make sure they are responsive to that,” says Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization that brings together grassroots community groups, labor unions, religious institutions and social service agencies to defend immigrant rights.
Choi explained that civic engagement is essential to get the immigrant message across, and emphasized that more people from immigrant communities need to register and vote so that politicians can become aware that immigrants are a potent political force.
Immigrants can also be a compelling counterbalance for out-of-touch politicians. Many activists point out that before they became political advocates, they were and are un/documented immigrants themselves. Being outside of the law forces immigrants to defend their rights out of necessity, become aware of the law’s limitations and when challenged, rise up as a voice of their communities.
This can make immigrants and their children uniquely aware of the larger struggle for social justice. Both Zaman, a Bangladeshi undocumented immigrant law student, and Das, the daughter of Indian immigrants, are motivated to fight for immigrant rights because of their backgrounds. And this immigrant perspective also facilitates self-criticism by the immigration reform movement. For instance, Dominique Hernández, an undocumented Ecuadorian student, and a field organizer for the New York State Youth Leadership Council, says she has come to believe the term DREAMer unintentionally prioritized one group of undocumented immigrants above others.
¨We pushed the DREAMer narrative to build a community,” Hernández says. “But right now we are seeing the fallout of how we are leaving our parents behind reflected in a reform bill that gives DREAMers a shorter path to citizenship… We should shift the narrative to focus on our parents because they are the original DREAMers who came for their families… They see our success as their success.”
Candidates amplify immigrant messages
As the city gets closer to Primary Day on September 10, pro immigrant messages have intensified. Reshma Saujani, a Democratic candidate for Public Advocate, has made her family’s immigrant background a major focus. A campaign flyer reminds voters that “As the daughter of immigrant refugees, she understands why so many come to New York for the opportunity for a better life.” Quinn mailed a four-page, double-sided flyer in English and Spanish emphasizing that “She led the fight to stop them from deporting hardworking immigrants—and breaking up our families.”
Other mayoral candidates emphasize their proximity to New York immigrant communities by highlighting their own immigration stories. Democratic candidate Sal Albanese reminds constituents that he was born in Calabria, Italy and moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn when he was 8 years old. Independent candidate Jack Hidary explains that “His great-grandparents came to Ellis Island as immigrants and made a home in the tenements of the Lower East Side.”
Republicans, who traditionally hold a more conservative position on immigration reform, are also stressing their immigrant backgrounds. Mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis describes on his campaign website how he was born on the Greek island of Nisyros, how his family settled on 135 Street in Harlem and how he was raised by a hardworking busboy father and a stay-at-home mom. He also reaffirmed his immigrant background at the September 8 Republican mayoral debate on WNBC. “I am an immigrant. I feel those people’s pain because they should feel… like they’re part of our society.” Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota similarly defended pro immigrant policies. Like Catsimatidis, he supports municipal IDs.
Lhota also pledged to renew Executive Order 41 on his first day of office to defend “certain rights” for immigrants, as well as make sure that the children of immigrants get a “proper education” and have access to healthcare. “It’s outrageous that we are a country of immigrants and we don’t have an immigration policy,” he said during the debate urging the House of Representatives to pass the immigration reform bill.
Another Republican mayoral candidate, George McDonald, who was excluded from the WNBC debate, makes no direct reference to immigration in his mayoral plan summary. However, an interview that is posted on the campaign site says that McDonald values “Latino immigrant’s hard work ethic” because it has transformed them into “successful entrepreneurs.”
The reverend’s hope
Salgado is one of two Latino mayoral candidates; Carrión is the other. Salgado’s social policies are extensions of his faith and working-class Puerto Rican origin. The Reverend opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and wants to raise minimum wage, create more vocational schools and community college programs for students who work full-time, incentivize New York-based manufacturing and advocate in favor of immigration reform.
Salgado, who along with Albanese and Randy Credico, was excluded from the September 3 Democratic mayoral debate, hopes that his social platform will make him stand out above all other candidates, reminding voters that he is a grassroots community leader, an ordinary citizen.
“I’m not a politician, I’m just a New Yorker who came to challenge these career politicians,” he said at the Democratic mayoral debate on August 21. And it is this community perspective that Salgado believes can awaken both documented and undocumented residents to serve their communities, cities and government.