Office of the Governor

Gov. Cuomo at a recent event with the Clintons. The governor's free-tuition plan, while limited, does represent one way Democrats can create a substantive counter to Trump administration policies: by offering more popular ones.

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During President Trump’s first 100 days, the national conversation turned on big ideas: whether it was right to bar refugees, whether Obamacare was worth keeping, and more. Over the next several weeks, City Limits will explore less recognized ways in which the Trump administration and its supporters might affect life in New York.
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“This is a time when it’s really important to think about federalism,” says Margaret Groarke, professor of government at Manhattan College.

In her classroom, Groarke says many of her students think states’ rights are strictly a Republican cause and Democrats support a stronger federal government.

“That’s a somewhat narrow way to look at it,” she says. “When you don’t think that the federal government is going in the right direction, the fact that states and cities have the right to do things independently is an important lesson to learn again.”

That’s certainly a lesson local Democrats are learning since President Donald Trump was elected in January. What can a local official do if they disagree with federal policies that they feel negatively impact the lives of their constituents?

Advocates, activists and political science professors told City Limits that there are a lot of opportunities for city and state officials to combat Trump, but so far the lofty anti-Trump rhetoric has been followed by little action. They wonder if now, while Trump controls the White House and Republicans control Congress, is the perfect time to enact major policy changes at the local level to prove just how anti-Trump New York is.

“Now is the time that as a state or a city, you can say, we want to do X, Y and Z,” Groarke says. “Maybe this is a good opportunity if the nation is going to go one way, we go the other way.”

Broken Windows, DREAM Act, Liberty Act

Local elected officials cannot stop ICE agents from arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants in New York.

“ICE has the jurisdiction to go and arrest people,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of Migration Policy Institute’s office at NYU School of Law. “De Blasio cannot stop ICE from performing their functions, nor can the City Council.”

Chishti said de Blasio can use his bully pulpit to inform people about what their rights are when ICE shows up at their door, but he can’t prevent them from coming.

“And that’s kind of a very odd sort of paradox here—that where the pain is felt the most, local lawmakers have almost no power,” said Chishti.

There have, however, been small victories for immigration-reform advocates.

“Both city and state budgets really showed us that folks are really trying, but we need them to try harder and get things done,” says Murad Awawdeh, director of political engagement for the New York Immigration Coalition.

In response to Trump’s deportation policies, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed themselves defenders of immigrants. Budgets at the state and local level included funding that immigrant advocates demanded. The state budget included $10 million for immigrant legal aid. The city’s budget earmarks $26 million for the legal defense of immigrants in deportation proceedings, regardless of whether they have criminal histories or not — something that de Blasio did not support, a position for which advocates like Awawdeh criticized the mayor. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito pushed for the funding to be included in the budget and it was eventually added.

These programs have gotten a lot of attention despite being relatively tiny pieces of multi-billion dollar budgets.

Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration has created a real fear for many communities around New York, and local elected officials have responded with an equally fierce pro-immigrant rhetoric. While immigrant advocates said that rhetoric is comforting to New Yorkers who are living in fear of being deported, there’s no shortage of opportunities for actually improving the lives of New York’s immigrant communities.

When it comes to resisting federal immigration policies, the most power is related to criminal justice.

Chishti said since the late 90s the main funnel for removing undocumented people from this country is local criminal justice systems. New York City has for many years limited cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE. Chishti said de Blasio’s position that immigrants who were convicted of crimes not get taxpayer-funded attorneys in deportation cases is reasonable, but he did say he’d like to see de Blasio and Cuomo do more on the issue of legalization.

Since local convictions for low-level crimes are getting people deported, Awawdeh said the city should reform the NYPD.

“Communities that have been targeted by the NYPD have historically been black and brown and we haven’t really put the status lens on that,” Awawdeh says.

“One simple way of taking action in New York City is if people are getting picked up because of low-level offenses, maybe we should stop broken windows policing. That’s a great way to take action.”

At the state level, he said a serious reaction to the Trump agenda would be passing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 34 to apply for conditional permanent citizenship upon acceptance to college or the military, and the New York Liberty Act, which advocates say would turn the state into a “sanctuary state” because it would limit the information sharing between state law enforcement agencies and ICE. Both those bills passed the Assembly in February and have been introduced in the Senate. Then there’s Assembly Bill A4050, which would allow the state DMV to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.

“A simple driving without a license infraction is a pathway to deportation,” says Awawdeh.

‘Missed opportunities’

“For some elected officials, this is a new situation, ‘How do I stand up to this? How do I use my political authority to limit the bad things that Trump is doing? Or encourage him to do things that I think would be positive for my community,” says Groarke.

“For many of them it’s about looking at the scope of their authority. New York is thinking about doing single payer. If the national government’s going in the other direction, we do have the authority to do some positive things about health care.”

Dr. Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, says she thinks there was a mentality among lawmakers at first that Trump might not be so harsh on New York because it’s his home state. But that hasn’t been the case.

“I think a lot of people were hoping, ‘Well he’s not just going to just let New York die on the vine,’ but yeah he will,” Greer says. “He saw the numbers. We didn’t vote for him so he will. He doesn’t care.”

Greer says she’s seen a lot of missed opportunities since Trump was elected, especially in Albany. She says Cuomo has chosen to play it safe.

After Trump withdrew from the Paris accord, Cuomo joined with other governors and agreed to follow the accord, calling Trump’s decision “a tremendous mistake.” That decision got a lot of national attention, but Oswego’s WRVO pointed out that a lot of what Cuomo was pledging to do in New York was already underway.

“Cuomo is playing the middle and keeping his mouth shut … so he can get re-elected with no drama,” says Greer.

“Yeah, you can say Trump doesn’t share our values, but you’re our governor. What are you looking at in the budget to help finance things that you know for a fact Trump is going to take away?”

Cuomo has inserted himself into the national discussion of abortion and rising cost of college. In January he said if Roe v. Wade were overturned at the Supreme Court, he’d push for women to have the right to later-term abortions in New York. He also spearheaded passage of a bill that will provide free tuition to state colleges — something Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton talked about doing nationally — though the plan has received some criticism for the limited number of students who qualify and a requirement that students live in New York for four years after graduating or pay the money back.

Follow the money

Local officials are finding new ways to act locally in the face of national problems. Recently, Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that the city’s pension system fully divested from private prison companies following a critical audit of a private prison company. The city sold $48 million in stocks and bonds from three private prison companies.

“It is time we put our money where our morals are,” Public Advocate Letitia James, a New York City Employees’ Retirement System trustee who voted for the divestment, told the Daily News.

Perhaps the biggest impact that Trump can have on New York City residents is cutting off federal dollars from programs that residents depend on, but could local officials fight back with dollars as well? Stringer announced in February that the trustees of the New York City Pension Funds would conduct a survey of its portfolio to determine its carbon footprint and find out if they could better invest to help the environment. Environmental advocates have pushed the state to do the same and state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblyman Felix Ortiz re-introduced a bill that’s been floating around Albany for years, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act. The bill is currently in committee.

“While the President and his Administration call climate change a hoax, New York can set the example for changing climate change policy. The first step should be to divest public pension funds from fossil fuel companies,” reads a statement from Ortiz.