Nice But Not Easy

From Gotham Gazette

By Bryan Pu-Folkes

I was in the middle of moving to Jackson Heights in 1999, drawn by the diversity of the neighborhood, when I heard of the anti-immigrant billboard that a group called Project U.S.A. had just put up nearby. It said: "Tired of sitting in traffic? Every day Congress lets in another 6,000 immigrants. Every day!"

I was deeply offended. The bigotry was blatant, and the implication was simply inaccurate. Immigration has a net benefit. Immigrants strengthen our country, invigorate our economy and contribute culturally. And they do this while navigating a new system, learning a new language and juggling several jobs.

I know this first-hand, because I am a son of immigrants. My mother came from Burma, my father from Jamaica. They came to the Unites States in 1959 and had to overcome many forms of discrimination. One issue was their interracial marriage, which at the time was not common.

I grew up in a household where racism was not tolerated, and where I was taught that people of diverse backgrounds were more alike than different, and that it is entirely possible that groups work together - and it's important that they do so.


So when Craig Nelson, the founder of Project USA, put up the anti-immigrant billboard, I wanted the immigrant community to denounce the message, to respond intelligently, collectively and publicly. That is when I started a campaign to mobilize immigrant business-owners, community leaders, activists and volunteers. To my delight, everyone responded positively. We contracted to put up posters on the subway platform in the stations along the No.7 line to send a public message that we are not going to stay quiet.

Our posters were factual and to the point. One read: "You should know… the immigrant community pays $90 billion in annual taxes - yet many are not entitled to several of the critical services those taxes pay for!"

Encouraged by the success of the poster campaign, I believed there was a need for a grass roots immigrant-based movement to provide a vehicle for immigrant communities to speak out against anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hence, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, NICE, was born.

NICE strives to be an advocacy group that gives new immigrants a voice. Our philosophy is that if you are here as a resident, then you need and deserve access to critical services, such as housing, health care, education and business opportunities.

However, it is not a one-way street. We also explain to new immigrants that they have a responsibility to be involved in the civic process, to understand the way the government structure works and how they can become engaged in the political process in a meaningful way.

In order to help bridge the gap between elected officials and immigrants, we conducted a series of surveys in 2000. The result clearly showed a disconnection between politicians and their constituents, especially in immigrant communities.

Of the 257 residents surveyed, both immigrants and non-immigrants, only seven percent of them could name their City Council member. In addition, we found that immigrants showed a fear and distrust of the American political system.


In my years of working with government (I was on the staff of a state legislator), I have heard a number of elected officials say that they are going to ignore constituencies that are unorganized (typically immigrant communities, communities of color, poor communities) until they get their act together. I found this remark disheartening.

NICE wants to make sure that our representatives are not taking their immigrant constituency for granted. As a result, The Government Access and Accountability Campaign was formed. The campaign asks new City Council representatives to increase accessibility, and the equitable allocation of services and resources to their constituents, bycomplying with three suggestions.

  1. City Council members must hold town hall meetings twice a year and provide interpreters when a significant portion of the district is made up of English language learners. This will not only keep people up-to-date on issues in their district but lessen the distrust of government among immigrants.
  2. Council members are asked to do a survey on the needs of their district and to make it available in the dominant languages of sizable communities within their district. Comprehensive data must come directly from the community, not information extracted from federal, state and local agencies.
  3. The last request is that council members make an Annual Constituent Service Report available, upon request, to the community. Accountability reports are required of public and private companies, non-profits, and others, and yet, there is no similar measure in the City Council. This report will help us to gauge what our representatives are doing for the year.

As of today, 26 City Council members have already joined this campaign, including those who hold influential leadership posts, including Speaker Gifford Miller, the chair of the Finance Committee David Weprin, and of the Land Use Committee, Melinda Katz. We expect the model provided by the Government Access & Accountability Campaign to be a successful formula of political participation.


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