Welcome to the eighth edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter! I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and our goal is to bring you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
New York is globally recognized as a city of immigrants and this image is not at all just a throwback to any earlier era: to this day, a full 40 percent of city residents are foreign-born, a designation that includes undocumented immigrants, temporary visa holders, permanent residents, and naturalized citizens (whom we focused on for our first edition). As a result, almost any political issue can be looked at as an immigration issue, though immigrants as a whole — as varied a group as they are in this city — also have a distinct set of concerns that apply only to them.
That’s particularly true for the undocumented, who despite living in one of the country’s more welcoming jurisdictions still have a variety of unique challenges. They find themselves in the bizarre position of having distinct political needs, but no official political voice; they can’t run for office or even vote in local elections.
Instead, they organize to push issues that matter to them to the forefront and raise awareness among their voting neighbors, who over the years have voted in leaders who’ve implemented a number of pro-immigrant city measures, such as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provides free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation; the IDNYC program to provide municipal ID cards regardless of immigration status; the NYC Care initiative, which creates a managed-care program somewhat similar to insurance for immigrants who can’t otherwise get public insurance options; and the city’s (still imperfect) sanctuary measures, which block local officials from cooperating with immigration enforcement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio holds an IDNYC card after the program’s introduction. It allows undocumented immigrants to obtain an official identification card.
In the aftermath of both the Trump presidency and the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately affected immigrant populations, the needs have only sharpened. The next mayor and city council will have a slate of decisions to make regarding how to help the large, multinational, and mult-ethnic immigrant population deal with the economic and health fallout of Covid-19, and more broadly how to ensure that immigrants in the city are protected and assisted in remaining full and vital participants in civic and economic life.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
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Bitta Mostofi, who until earlier this month was the longtime commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, told us that the larger issue is how to make any immigrant-facing municipal programs truly usable and accessible to the communities they’re supposed to serve. The existence of these initiatives alone is pointless unless there is an intentional effort to ensure language access and have straightforward and easily navigable applications.
“That there’s been such consistent exclusion, through myriad efforts across all levels of government, to ensure full inclusivity,” she said. For example, for funds supposedly dedicated to helping small businesses, including the federal Paycheck Protection Program, suffered from “a deep failure to design programming that was reachable or attainable by the very small businesses,” instead being “structured in ways that incentivize people who have a little more privilege or a little more access or support.”
In her estimation, one of the principal ways the city can be more responsive to the needs of immigrant New Yorkers is language access, a kind of catch-all term that includes literally having city forms and materials available in multiple languages, but also culturally competent intake at places like hospitals and schools, as well as efforts to get the huge portion of New Yorkers who describe themselves as having limited English proficiency comfortable with the language. “It’s such a vast and critical area that the pandemic really exposed how vital ensuring effective language access is to the health and safety of New Yorkers.”
A big push on language access is also on the agenda for Ángela Fernández, the former executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights who is now running for the city council’s 10th district, encompassing Washington Heights and Inwood, among other neighborhoods. She said that the municipal budget for city programs should “accommodate and incorporate ways in which to do true peer-to-peer communication,” which is to say, have trusted community leaders push programs like NYC Care as opposed to city agencies with flyers or dedicated websites. “Even in English, some of this government-speak is really hard to understand,” she said.
As far as specific policy geared toward immigrants, Mostofi emphasized worker development and jobs through efforts like supporting apprenticeship and training programs, as well as being prepared to offer legal services not only in cases of deportation defense. She pointed to bills that are currently being deliberated in Congress, like the U.S. Citizenship Act first proposed by President Biden, which could pave the path for almost 11 million undocumented immigrants, including hundreds of thousands in New York City alone, to apply for residency and eventual citizenship. “There’s been like a 400-plus percent increase in [city] investments in immigration legal services, but that won’t be enough to hit the ground running on these applications” if that bill were to be passed, she said. The benefits of having a larger share of the population naturalized goes beyond protections against deportation; studies have shown that in the long term, it comes with better economic prospects.
Fernández raised the issue of the city’s sanctuary policies, which, while pretty robust, still have notable blind spots like the NYPD’s gang database, which has often been shown to rely on flawed methodologies to brand young people of color as gang-affiliated with little to no evidence. The sanctuary policies also don’t really take into account how contact with the criminal justice system can set immigrants on a path to deportation, which she believes should cause the city to reevaluate enforcement of activities like street vending. “I’m friends with someone who sells tamales and fresh juice on a corner here in the Heights,” she said, adding that the person had recently been threatened by an inspector with the city’s Division of Consumer Affairs with having his goods confiscated if he didn’t get proper licenses starting in June. “That kind of approach, which is very intimidating and very harassing, to one of our most vulnerable members of our community, coming from the city, paid for by our taxes, to me is unconscionable,” she said.
Tony Alarcón, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient and longtime immigrant organizer, said that rights for street vendors was a particularly salient issue that was easy to overlook, but had become all the more important post-Covid. “During the pandemic, more and more people saw that as a way to make revenue, especially in areas where folks were most impacted. If you go to Corona, Jackson Heights, you will see more and more vendors, mainly undocumented folks.” A recent bill to increase the cap on vendor permits was a good start, but not enough, he said. He also emphasized the need to speed up the somewhat halting rollout of the city’s universal 3-K program for children aged 3 years old, a necessity for parents who would have to be returning to work as some pandemic restrictions are lifted.
There is also one idea that has been percolating for years that would allow many immigrants a more direct say in shaping policies: permitting noncitizens with some type of legal status to vote in local elections. The latest efforts have been spearheaded by term-limited council member Ydanis Rodríguez, who currently represents the district in which Fernández is running. The general gist is that people such as green card holders and international students at city universities would be able to vote for candidates running for positions like the city council and the mayor. “We allow someone from California, all they need to do is have lived here for 30 days, and then they can register to vote. It’s so interesting that that person has more of a political voice than an immigrant, who’s not a US citizen, who’s been living in New York City and shaping New York City for 20 years,” said Fernández.
The pandemic dramatically dropped immigration levels across the board, and the administration of former President Donald Trump engaged multiple avenues to both block legal and undocumented immigration, as well as generally discourage people from even trying. Still, evidence shows that Trump’s policies will in the long term have a limited impact, and people from around the world will still seek to come to New York for economic, cultural, social, and humanitarian reasons. The legacy of the city as a haven for immigrants is hard-fought and hard-won, and the next stable of city leaders will be tasked with not only leading our communities out of the worst economic crisis in decades or even a century, but ensuring that it remains a benchmark for livability and safety even for those with a limited political voice. For voters who care about their immigrant neighbors, Mostofi advised keeping an eye not only on their policies, but their record of engagement with the many community and ethnic organizations on the ground throughout the city. “The task of governing is not easy. To understand the various sorts of tools that you have, and mechanisms that you have to implement a vision is equally important to the vision,” she said. “In the space of immigration, I’d say that’s also a person that can recognize and understand the role that community-based providers and others play in the delivery of the services.”
What we’re reading:
Immigrant Parents Press DOE for Culturally Responsive Curriculum in Schools
Support for Gig Worker Union Bill in New York Collapsing After Scrutiny
ITIN Delays Are Keeping Undocumented Workers From Relief Funds
The Haitian Times
Promises, but no plans, for progress in Brooklyn’s Little Haiti
This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media.