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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Delivering Better Pay


 

Students protest outside of Saigon Grill on University Place, May 4, 2007.

Republic, a popular restaurant that serves Asian noodle by Union Square, is not your typical Asian restaurant with fluorescent lighting and $2 hot and sour soup. The chic lounge-like restaurant features a full bar where a lychee martini can cost $10, and the average wait on a Friday night is 30 to 40 minutes.

However, under the trendy façade, the restaurant owners treat their deliverymen differs basically the same way as the proprietors of many Chinatown restaurants where employees work for little pay under harsh conditions, according to some deliverymen who worked at Republic. They said they often work as many as six days a week, and more than 65 hours a week, for wages as low as $175 per week and without overtime pay. In other words, they make less than $2.70 per hour.

Eight deliverymen decided to take actions against the restaurant, which is a part of restaurateur Jonathan Morr's restaurant empire, the Jonathan Morr Group. The company owns several trendy restaurants in New York, including Bond Street, Indochine, Kittichai and Town.

In May 2007, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a New York law firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell, filed suit on the men's on their behalf by. After the filing of the complaint, the restaurant retaliated by cutting the worker's hours, fining them for minor infractions and serving rotten food for their free meals, the men told the New York Post.

This was the latest in a round of lawsuits involving restaurant deliveries brought in a city where many residents reply heavily on take-out food, the lawsuit attracted widespread attention. In a previous case, Saigon Grill restaurants had to pay some of its former deliverymen a total of $4.6 million for back pay and compensation.

"It's really about dignity. End the retaliation, and respect the workers for asking what they are entitled to," said Mika Nagasaki, an organizer for Justice Will Be Served! Campaign, which held a protest outside Republic last month.

"The mistreatment of delivery workers is a widespread problem throughout New York City," said Ken Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Restaurants make millions of dollars from the take-out and delivery of meals, yet they often pay less than the minimum wage and rarely pay overtime to the workers who provide these services."

The Saigon Grill Case

The Saigon Grill case, a landmark case in New York City's recent labor movement, could set the precedent for deliverymen in the city. It also was organized by Justice Will Be Served, an umbrella group consisting of 318 Restaurant Workers Union, Chinese Staff and Workers Association and National Mobilization Against Sweatshops.

According to papers filed on behalf of 36 deliverymen in 2007, Saigon Grill, a popular chain with restaurants in Upper West Side and Greenwich Village, paid only $520 a month to many deliverymen who worked more than 260 hours each month. This averaged out to under $2 an hour, far less than the legal minimum wage.

On Oct, 20, Judge Michael Dolinger of U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled against Saigon Grill and its owners, Simon and Michelle Nget, saying, "At a minimum, Simon Nget and Michelle Nget showed no regard whatsoever for legal requirements in connection with their wage policies."

He also found that the company had illegally retaliated against 23 delivery workers by firing them after they filed the complaint, but he has not rendered a judgment on that issue.

"I believe in united power. All of the workers need to come together, " said Jerry Weng, a worker at Ollie's, a popular noodle shop chain which was sued by its employees in 2007. He told Gothamist that the Saigon Grill victory is inspiring him and his coworkers to demand just pay.

Josephine Lee of Justice Will Be Served told the New York Times that as a result of the Saigon Grill case. "Many restaurants have already started to pay their deliverymen much better," she said, adding that seven of the workers have been rehired.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 2, Saigon Grill owners, Simon Nget and Michelle Nget were arrested on more than 400 criminal charges, including violating minimum-wage laws, falsifying business records and defrauding the state's unemployment insurance system.

According to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo those charges arose from allegedly fake payroll records that the Ngets submitted to the State Department of Labor during an investigation. Cuomo's office said the couple had tried to reduce their unemployment insurance taxes by not reporting the employment of more than 65 people. The Ngets face charges that might lead to up to four years in prison.

Pay for Immigrants

While the courts appear to be siding with the deliverymen, the Saigon Grill and Republic cases have generated heated debate over compensation for the restaurant workers. Some bloggers said these deliverymen are undocumented immigrants and should be rounded by the authorities.

"They come here illegally, make money to send back to their countries so it's not even going back into the economy, pay no taxes yet use our services," wrote Lisa L. in a post on the New York Post's website.

"These are clearly illegal immigrants…It is their presence in this country that allows an employer to get away with those kinds of wages. Legal immigrants and citizens would never stand for it," wrote Michael F. in a post on nytimes.com.

But Naomi, also on nytimes.com, argued that immigration status should not be the issue. "I believe the point is that minimum wage is law in the U.S., and thus, it should be enforced, judgments on the legality of the immigrants' status not an issue in this case - rather that the employers are breaking the law," she wrote.

Changingfaces on Washingtonpost.com shared Naomi's opinion: "I think all immigrants should have the right to protest unfair labor conditions. Teach those businesses a lesson: people aren't slaves and just because they come from a different country and are trying to make a better life for themselves, doesn't mean you can take advantage of them."

Meanwhile, some bloggers said the restaurant has to exploit their workers in order to keep the prices low.

"If they pay the workers a fair wage, then Republic will have no choice but to charge 50 bucks for noodles!" wrote Babyhitler on Gothamist.com.

"So the result of the strikes would probably be higher prices for the consumer. …And they keep telling us that illegal immigrants keep our prices down. I say raise the wages where Americans workers will work at them, then you wouldn't have half the illegal immigrants that we do now," wrote Ednafreeman1 on Washingtonpost.com.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.

The Citizen


 

Left Photo (cc) Richard Rodriguez, Right photo (cc) achang999

New York's immigrant communities greeted the election of Sen. Barack Obama as president with a mix of elation, anticipation and curiosity. The foreign language and ethnic newspapers speculated about what an Obama administration would mean for their readers -- and their native countries.

El Diario /La Prensa, for example, tried to gauge what an Obama presidency would mean for U.S. relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries. The overall reaction there has been positive, the paper said, although "sectors of the extreme left ... remain skeptical" about Obama. Elsewhere in the region, the Colombian government has concerns about whether Obama will continue to oppose the free trade agreement with the U.S. that that nation wants.

In an article written before last month's terrorist attack in Mumbai, the Indian Express said the Indian government will look at how Obama handles three key issues: the contested area of Kashmir, nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. The New York Carib News spoke with experts who predicted that an Obama administration will cultivate friendlier relationships with West Indian nations, including possible trade concessions and development. And among Turkish businesses people, Obama's election was "met with [an] optimistic reaction" and a belief that trade between the U.S. and Turkey will now increase, according to Zaman USA.

While the United States will have its first black president in Obama, the Irish Voice noted another milestone: "Joe Biden is also the first Catholic vice president. And early exit polling suggests the Obama-Biden ticket won about 54 percent of the Catholic vote."

Many see Obama's election as a sign of a new day -- and fading of bigotry -- in the United States, but last month also saw a sign of the persistence of prejudice. Some 50 miles from New York City, in Patchogue, N.Y., Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant was stabbed to death allegedly by a group of local teenagers. Following the murder, prosecutors said the young men charged in the case often got together to hunt down, attack and injure Hispanic men in the Suffolk county community.

Immigrant advocates have "described the attack as a reflection of widespread anti-Latino sentiment and racial intolerance in Suffolk County," the New York Times reported, some of it apparently fueled by anger at illegal immigrants and day laborers.

Meanwhile, immigrants and others are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. In a grim post-election commentary, Nowy Dziennik / Polish Daily News said, "Obama will take over the leadership in the worst moment from the financial point of view .... A couple of months from today we will be able to see clearly the consequences of the rapidly worsening macroeconomic indicators -- the decrease of sales and production, deterioration of consumers' attitude and mass layoffs conducted by big corporations."

In Chinatown, the hard times have forced some to scrounge for food, as Bangladeshis cut back on the celebration of Eid-ul Azha, an important religious festival, and groups helping low-income Asians worry about budget cuts. These and other stories from the Spanish, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Korean and Polish language press, via our partner, Voices that Must Be Heard.

Hard Times in Chinatown, World Journal
In Manhattan's Chinatown, the ranks of the impoverished have grown. Families unable to pay the grocery bills survive by cutting costs however possible and even picking through trash bins outside supermarkets.

Slumping Economy Dims Celebration, Weekly Thikana
Feeling the effects of the recession, Bangladeshi immigrants in New York have cut back on the amount of money they send home and have spent less this year to celebrate Eid-ul Azha, a major Muslim religious festival.

Rising Rents Threaten Bodegas, El Diario / La Prensa
With close to 80,000 of the city's Latino businesses threatened by higher rents and abusive practices by real estate speculators, small business owners are supporting a proposal by City Councilmember Robert Jackson, which would spell out the rights of small businesses in commercial rental contracts.

The State Senate's Latino Rebellion, El Diario / La Prensa
When two Latino Democratic state senators threatened to not vote for Malcolm Smith for majority leader, Latinos called for more power sharing in Albany.

School Crowding Worries Bronx Parents, El Diario / La Prensa
Concerned about too many students cramming local schools, parents in parts of the Bronx oppose the Department of Education's plan to scale back school construction.

Immigrants Protest Budget Cuts, Korea Daily News
Asian non-profit organizations charge that proposed cuts in the city budget will affect many low-income families. The Asian groups are especially concerned about cuts in English-language classes for immigrants.

Chinese-American Support for Obama Not a Landslide, World Journal
While Barack Obama won New York by a huge margin, many in the Chinese community had doubts about both him and his opponent, John McCain. In at least one Chinatown polling station, McCain trounced Obama.

Day Laborers Arrested in Queens, El Diario / La Prensa
The arrested of these workers represents a change in city policy. What does it mean?

Rezoning Aims to Protect Greenpoint's Character, Nowy Dziennik
In an effort to curb excessive development of Brooklyn's Polish neighborhoods, the city planning department has proposed height limits for new construction and efforts to provide more low-income homes.

Why She Drives, El Diario / La Prensa
One of New York's very few woman cab drivers talks about the risks and rewards in her line of work.

Helpline Aids City's Irish Seniors, Irish Voice
Copying an idea launched in Ireland 10 years ago, older Irish people living in New York City will be able to dial a number to speak with a fellow senior about fears, worries and life in general.

 

Advancing Rights


With the election of Barack Obama as president and increased Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, civil liberties groups are chomping at the bit to restore constitutional rights compromised or eliminated by the Bush administration. The American Civil Liberties Union already has issued a very long list of "Actions for Restoring America" that it says will "begin repairing the damage" it contends Bush did to constitutional rights.

New York has its own African American liberal executive in Gov. David Paterson, and (like Congress) both houses of the state legislature are in Democratic hands -- if not Democratic control given the machinations of three Democrat Senator holdouts. This has civil rights groups here eager (for the most part) to enact their agendas.

Much has been said about the Democratic takeover of the New York State Senate and whether or not the new majority will take up a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry here. State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, one of three Democrats who refuses to commit to voting for Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith as majority leader, has said he will not vote for a leader who will not pledge to block any marriage equality bill.

Beyond same sex marriage, a whole slew of civil rights legislation that has been passed by the Democrat-led Assembly may well pass in a newly Democratic Senate. And some of those concerned about victims' rights and the unborn worry that the new Senate will be less sympathetic to their issues.

Same-Sex Marriage

The marriage issue remains the most contentious of these, even though same-sex marriages have been recognized in New York State since 2003 when gay couples from New York started going to Ontario to marry legally. (All of Canada opened marriage to same-sex couples by act of parliament in 2005.)

While New York State itself does not grant licenses for same-sex marriages, it does recognize legal ones from elsewhere as it does all marriages that are not "abhorrent" to public policy. Former Comptroller Alan Hevesi ruled that the state pension system had to recognize same-sex spouses in 2004. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer made sure that the state and any municipality participating in its benefit plans covered these spouses. And earlier this year Paterson issued a directive ordering all departments of state government to make sure that their policies recognized these spouses or tell him why they should be exempt from this requirement.

The tax department, however, has been stonewalling requests for its position. The department has said that legally married same-sex couples cannot file as married in New York because state tax law mandates anyone filing here

use their federal income-tax filing status, and federal law does indeed bar recognition of same-sex marriages under the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act.

Just this past week, upstate Monroe County abandoned its appeal of a decision in a case —Martinez v. Monroe County brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union — that ordered it to recognize a married lesbian couple as married for purposes of extending benefits to the spouse of one of the county's employees. In February, five judges – all appointed by Republicans – in an upstate appeals court unanimously upheld the trial court's decision in favor of the couple, who had married in Canada in 2004.

The state insurance superintendent just ordered all insurance companies in New York to treat legally married gay couples as married in accordance with Martinez.

So even though New York gay couples lost a case in the Court of Appeals seeking the right to marry here in 2006, as of Nov. 12, they only have to hop a Metro North train to the marriage bureau in Connecticut to obtain a license and tie the knot. They then will be as married as they would have been had they been allowed to marry here. All that opponents of same-sex marriage here are doing is driving the lucrative wedding business out of the state at a time when the economy is reeling.

Diaz said he wants a referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage here, similar to Proposition 8, which California voters approved on Election Day. There is virtually no way, though, that that would happen given the difficulty of getting measures on the ballot, the rigors of the state constitutional amendment process and the resistance of the legislature to such a measure.

New York currently is one of only five states that do not ban same-sex marriage by law or constitutional amendment. For a decade some state legislators here have promoted a bill that would change that and make "marriage absolutely void if contracted by two persons of the same sex." Even the Republican Senate did not pass this state Defense of Marriage Act. Now its prospect appears even dimmer. The bill's chief sponsors were Queens Republican Sen. Serphin Maltese, who just lost re-election bid, and Assemblymember Anthony Seminerio, a Queens Democrat who was indicted for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Despite that, Seminario, who was running unopposed, won re-election with the endorsements of the Democratic, Republican, Independence and Conservative parties—all of whom had decided to back him before his Sept. 10 arrest.

What did pass the State Assembly in 2007, though, was a bill introduced by Spitzer and shepherded through by Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell, a Westside Democrat, to let same-six couple marry in New York. The Senate Republican majorty blocked the bill from coming to a vote in the Senate.

The balance of power in the Senate has shifted since then, as has the political climate. The vote in California -– where, by a 52 to 48 percent margin, people voted to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry -- has triggered protests in all 50 states and internationally, including two demonstrations attracting 10,000 each in New York City. It's a revival of street activism not seen here since the murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1997 or the days of ACT UP's AIDS demonstrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With the passage of the state constitutional amendment in California, the 18,000 marriages of same-sex couples, including many from New York, who were wed there, are in a kind of legal limbo to be determined by the state's high court no sooner than March 2009. At that time, the court there will also decide whether the constitutional amendment itself was constitutionally valid. In the meantime, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has opined that marriages cannot themselves be undone by the vote on the amendment.

At a town hall meeting on the marriage issue at the LGBT Community Center in New York on Nov. 24, State Sen. Tom Duane, who is gay, predicted that Malcolm Smith would indeed be elected majority leader on January 9 and that the marriage equality bill would pass the Senate. But the national opponents of opening marriage have announced that, fresh from their victory in California, they are bringing their fight to New York and New Jersey.

The New York Times tried to stir the pot on Nov. 28 by asserting that Senate Democrats are so divided on whether to allow gay couples to marry in New York that many wanted to delay the issue until after the “2009 legislative session.” The reporter seemed not to understand that the legislative session is 2009-'10 and that Paterson has no interest whatsoever in letting this issue fester until after his run for election in 2010 since he has been as forthright as any politician in the nation in his support of access to marriage for gay couples. What’s more, far from being one who "avoids questions on the topic," as the Times wrote, Smith has reiterated his support for same-sex marriage at public forums since the election, while acknowledging the need to focus on the economy first.

The Times article also tried to paint the Empire State Pride Agenda as “quiet” on the issue, when in fact the group’s executive director was laying out strategy for passage of the Senate bill at a packed public forum on Nov. 24. (I reported on this for the Gay City News.)

In an interview after the Times story appeared, Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Pride Agenda, said the article failed to mention that many gay married couples already are recognized by New York State as married and that all Assembly members who voted for the bill last year were re-elected in November. In a release, he said, “There are no shortcuts and there is no one waiting to give this bill to our community.” The group is focusing on both sides of the aisle and on building labor, religious and especially constituent support for the measure.

"It’s going to happen before David Paterson runs for election,” said Sen. Tom Duane, the chief sponsor of the marriage equality bill in his house. “It’s 50-50 whether it happens this year or next. I’d be disappointed if New Jersey [which already has full civil union rights for gay couples] does it before us.” But were that to occur it would put valid marriage licenses for gay couples in New York City as close as a PATH ride, making the Senate's resistance New York's marriage bureaus to these couples more and more absurd.

Reproductive Rights

The Catholic Conference, representing Roman Catholic bishops in Albany, and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights plan to be one group working to prevent the state from opening marriage to gay couples.

The group's concerns go beyond that, however. William Donahue, executive director of the Catholic League, worries that the new Democratic majority in the Senate will also repeal all of the state's abortion restrictions and that "partial birth" or late-term abortion will have fewer restrictions. He, and the Catholic Conference, are opposing the "Reproductive Health and Privacy Act" to codify abortion rights under the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court. And he warns that "Catholic hospitals and doctors could be required to perform abortion," a charge vigorously contested by pro-choice advocates.

New York legalized abortion in 1970 when both houses of the legislature were in Republican hands, by the way, albeit Republicans of a more moderate and liberal stripe. The abortion rights advocates want to ensure that, even if a future Supreme Court restricts access to abortion, abortion would remain available in New York.

Other parts of the conference's agenda, which were not moving in the current legislature, now looks even less likely to pass with Democratic majorities in both houses. They include the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would "prohibit the assault or homicide of an unborn child during the commission of a crime against the mother," and a ban on "post-viability abortions." The conference also opposes legislation to allow physician-assisted suicide in New York.

One civil rights issue, though, the Catholic Conference may find common ground with most liberal groups: abolishing the death penalty once and for all in the state. The Court of Appeals struck down the death penalty law in New York in 2004, but the conference wants this state to follow New Jersey's lead in abolishing it in a statute.

Rights and Crimes

For decades, civil rights advocates and others have tried to change or eliminate the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. In a recent article on the new landscape in Washington and Albany, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman expressed hope for repeal or at least modification of the "cruel and inhumane Rockefeller Drug Laws, which have sent thousands of our neighbors to prison for non-violent drug offenses." Gov. Paterson is a historic opponent of the laws.

The civil liberties union also is organizing to block implementation of the federal Real ID Act. It wants New York to join other states that have formally rejected this national identification card system that, according to Lieberman, poses "an enormous threat to privacy" and "imposes a massive financial burden on the states."

Another threat, in the eyes of some civil libertarians, comes from the state's DNA databank. Bob Perry, legislative director of the NYCLU, wrote that his group's lawyers "are all but alone in making the case that the rapid expansion of the … databank poses grave risks to rights of privacy and due process." He expressed particular concern over a proposal from the state Commission on Forensic Science to "permit law enforcement to obtain a DNA sample from a family member of an individual whose DNA is a ‘partial match' with DNA evidence from a crime scene."

The Senate is also likely to take up a bill passed by the Assembly to add the category of "gender identity and expression" to the state human rights law, protecting transgenders, and to pass the Assembly's anti-bullying bill, instituting comprehensive anti-bullying programs in all schools in the state.

While the budget negotiations and wrangling over the economic crisis will dominate most of the debate in Albany for several months, the changed power balance in the Senate is sure to lead to discussions and implementation of civil rights legislation long supported by just one house, the Assembly. That could lead to big changes on a number of key issues.

 

Immigrants Confront the Recession


Photo (cc) Joel Mann

Fong Oi Kan wishes that she only worked five days a week. But in the midst of the worst economy in decades, she said she has to work six days a week in order to keep her head above water.

"The business has gone down a lot in the last few weeks," said Kan, a native of Malaysia, who works as a hair stylist in a salon in Chinatown. "It started in the summer, but it just got worse and worse."

Kan is among the many immigrants whose livelihood is in the service industry – hair salon, restaurant, housekeeping and so on – and who feel the pain brought by the economic downturn. They might not have a 401K retirement plan or investment in the stock market, but many of their customers do, making the effects on people such as Kan harsh and evident. As people feel the economic pain, they may cut back on going to a salon to have their hair done, a luxury in a tough time like these.

"Fewer people are getting perms, curls or coloring," said Kan. "When you don’t have any chemicals involved, the profit margin is very small. A haircut is only about $20 to $30 in Chinatown. And you have to split it with the salon owner."

In the restaurant industry, immigrant workers make up the majority of the back-of-the-house position – cooks, dishwashers, kitchen helpers and so on. A banquet manager at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, requesting anonymity to protect his job, said the business has suffered as some regular customers – several major financial and insurance corporations - have canceled bookings for holiday parties.

"We are currently underbooked, which is very unusual for this time of the year since the holiday season is so close," said the manager, who is from the Dominican Republic. "The kitchen staff are laid off more frequently, for two weeks here and there."

"Even though I still have my job, my income is reduced because a part of it comes from gratuity," said the manager, adding that the entire company got a 10 percent salary cut.

S. L. Tang, a waitress in an upscale Japanese restaurant in the West Village, said her employer has asked the wait staff to take turn to take one extra day off every week. She said on a recent night the restaurant had only 14 reservations, and everyone finished their work an hour earlier than usual.

"I have some regular customers who never used to ask about the prices when they ordered specials, " said Tang. "Now they do and they also tend to order less food and drinks." She added that the once popular $65 set meal is now a hard sell, replaced by a la carte orders and shared entrees.

"I lose about $150 to $200 every week," said Tang. "This winter is going to be very tough."

The Hardest Hit

The economic downturn has taken a far greater toll on immigrants who are not citizens than it has on the U.S. population as a whole, according to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center. The median annual income of non-citizen immigrant households, which account for 7 percent of all U.S. households and 52 percent of all immigrant households, dropped 7.3 percent from 2006 to 2007. In contrast, the median annual income of all U.S. households increased by 1.3 percent during the same period.

Rakesh Kochhar, the author of the report, noted that many non-citizens are employed in blue-collar production, construction or lower-ranked occupations in the service sector. Demand for these jobs increases rapidly in economic expansions but falls just as suddenly during economic slowdowns, the report said.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that half of all Latinos say that the situation for Latinos in this country is worse now than it was a year ago. Family remittances from the U.S. to Mexico were down by 12 percent in August compared to the previous year, according to the Bank of Mexico, the largest drop on record since the bank started tracking remittances in 1996. The percentage translated into about $300 million, affecting Mexico’s second biggest source of foreign income after the revenue from its oil exports.

American Dreams Fade

Demand for day laborers in the New York area has declined, according to the New York Times, prompting many immigrant workers to wonder whether the notion of America as a land of opportunity is still valid.

"The American dream isn’t an American dream," said Jairo Mancillas, an immigrant from El Salvador. He used to send as much as $600 home a week but now he can barely afford to send any money in bad weeks.

Many laborers said they are lucky if they can work two days a week, a drastic change from two years ago when the housing boom in New York kept them busy at least five days a week.

As a result of the falloff in work, some immigrants also face the possibility of losing their houses, Nancy Foner, a sociologist at Hunter College, told AFP, the French news agency. "They are vulnerable because they often make do by pooling incomes in their families," she said. "If one loses a job, it may be very hard for them to meet mortgage payments."

Looking for Help

As many immigrant workers got the pink slips, they turn to community-based organizations for assistance in job placement and training.

"A lot of people are looking for jobs because of the economic downturn in addition to the large influx of immigrants in the city," said Pearl Chin, executive director of Chinatown Manpower Project, a non-profit agency that provide social services and career training to Chinese immigrants in New York City. "We have been seeing a lot more people lately," she said, adding that the increase in demand for the agency's services began in the summer.

A Slowdown in Immigration

Some immigrants may caution their relatives to stay home. Data released in September by the Census Bureau showed that overall immigration slowed dramatically in 2007, though the bureau does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.

"The decline in job prospects in construction, service and other low-skilled jobs are communicated through extended networks of would-be movers from Mexico and Latin America," William Frey, a demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told the Daily News. "It also may propel more return migration," he added.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that supports tighter controls on immigration, has estimated that the number of undocumented immigrants in the country has declined by 11 percent, or 1.3 million, since August 2007. As of May, the estimated illegal immigrant population in the United States was 11.2 million.

This decline, according to the report, is at least seven times larger than the number of undocumented workers the government removed in the last 10 months. In light of that, the center attributes most of the decline to people leaving the country on their own because of rising unemployment rate and increased immigration enforcement.

Sharing the Pain

The effects of the downturn, though, extend beyond low-wage immigrant workers to all immigrants, just as it reaches most native-born Americans, because immigrants are well represented in every profession.

"Although there is often a presumption that immigrants are concentrated at the bottom of the economy, we actually see immigrants robustly represented in every part of the economy -- from top to bottom," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow at the www.fiscalpolicy.org Fiscal Policy Institute. "I would expect the economic downturn would have broadly similar affect for immigrants and for others."

However, he noted that many immigrants work in areas that could weather a recession, such as health care, the public sector and higher education.

James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, shares Kallick’s view. "We are headed for a fairly sharp job loss that is likely to occur across the spectrum of industries and occupations," said Parrott. "I don't see any disproportionate impact on immigrants, but they will be hit along with everyone else."

"On the other hand, during a downturn, we may see heightened pressures to work off the books, a development that will further drive down wages and working conditions for recent immigrant workers," he added, noting that the estimated inflation-adjusted median wage in New York City dropped by 4 percent for the 12 months through June 2008 compared to the prior year.

But for Fong Oi Kan, the hair stylist in Chinatown, going to work means there is still a chance to make some money.

"Even if a lot of time I am just sitting there," said Kan, "it still beats staying at home making nothing at all."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues. 

The Citizen


 

Is this the year the sleeping giant awakes?

The giant in question is the nation's growing Latino vote. At a forum at the New School last week participants discussed what role Latinos, Asians and other immigrants and their children might play in this year's election and in elections to come.

Overall, Latinos account for about 7.9 percent of U.S. voters and 9.3 percent in New York State. While New York tends to be largely ignored in presidential elections -- both parties see it as a Democratic stronghold -- Latinos could make a big difference in more hotly contested states, such as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, according to statistics compiled by Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Like other Americans, Latinos will go to the polls in November concerned about the economy, health care and an array of other issues, but last week's speakers agreed that the immigration debate will play a major role as well.

"Immigration is a very personal matter," said Pilar Morrera of La OpiniĂłn, a leading Spanish-language daily, an issue that immediately affects Latinos and their families.

Latinos do not vote in the same numbers as other Americans, but concerns about immigration have motivated more who are naturalized citizens to register, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. These people are voting "out of anger and out of fear and a feeling that if they register to vote, it's an act of self defense," Vargas said. He predicted Latino participation would continue to increase. "You now have a new generation of Latino youth who are coming of age at a very politicized time," he said.

Asian Americans, who represent a far smaller percentage of the population than Latinos, are more likely to be overlooked in campaigns, said Glenn Magpantay, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. However, he said they can still make a difference and may have played a key role in Virginia Democrat James Webb's defeat of Republican George Allen in the 2006 Senate race -- after Allen was captured on video calling an Indian American man a "macaca."

Whatever happens this year, immigrants stand to have increasing influence in American politics, said reporter Aswini Anburajan. "It will build election cycle after election cycle," she said. Many immigrants maybe disappointed if Barack Obama does not win this year, she continued, "but they're not going to stop voting.... You're building a new political class ... and that's going to make a difference in the future."

This months' Citizen assesses the role immigration issues have played -- or more accurately, not played - in the campaign so far and looks at the race for the White House from the perspectives of several immigrant groups. Getting away from politics, we examine the plight of homeless Mexican immigrants, take a view at being Sikh in Queens and describe efforts to help the elderly in Brighton Beach. These and other stories from the Spanish, Russian, Polish, Chinese and Korean language press via our partner, Voices That Must Be Heard.

CAMPAIGN 2008

collage of election materials
Gotham Gazette

GOP Convention Stays Silent on Immigration
from Nowy Dziennik / Polish Daily News
John McCain has said that immigrants are "God's children," but the convention that nominated him offered no real discussion on immigrants or immigration reform.

Nothing Known About Palin's Views on Immigration
from El Diario/La Prensa
The Alaska governor and Republican candidate for vice president seems never to have said anything regarding the controversial issue, and neither she nor Sen. John McCain's campaign office responded to questions for information about what her positions might be.

The Republican Convention Through Muslim Eyes
from Iran Times
The rhetoric at the GOP gathering in St. Paul, with its repeated references to Islamic terrorism and radical Islam, demonized millions of law-abiding Muslim Americans, writes award-winning journalist Shahed Amanullah.

An Arab-American View of the Democratic Convention
from Aramaica
With 40 Arab Americans participating as members of convention standing committees or as delegates, Arab Americans hope to play a role in this year's presidential campaign.

American Muslims in Denver
from Bangla Patrika
This year's Democratic Convention in Denver drew a record number of Muslim delegates - 45 - and attracted many Islamic organizations

The View from St. Paul
from Vecherniy New York
A Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union visits the Republican National Convention where he watches political demonstrations and interviews Russian senior citizens about who they plan to vote for in November.

African Immigrants Worry About a McCain Administration
from African Abroad
Africans in New York City fear that, as president, Sen. John McCain might involve the U.S. in other wars and divert economic resources needed to fix problems here.

Increasing the Korean Vote
from Korea Times New York
Involvement by Korean voters in this year's presidential campaign is at an all-time-high this year, but many more Koreans need to register and exercise their right to vote.

A Shift in Flushing
from Sing Tao Daily
In local politics, Grace Meng's defeat of incumbent State Assemblymember Ellen Young in the Democratic primary could spell a change in John Liu's domination of Flushing politics.

Other Stories:

Sikh Students Face Harassment, Bullying in Schools
from Indian Express
A recent report has found that more than 60 percent of the 400 Sikh students surveyed suffered harassment or violence in city schools. Several students and their parents talk about their experiences.

Willets Point Workers Fight for their Businesses
from El Correo de Queens
People who work or own businesses in this area of Queens slated for massive redevelopment are coming together to protect their economic well-being and resist being pushed out of the district.

Homelessness Increases Among Mexican Immigrants
from Diario de Mexico
Unable to find work, some undocumented Mexicans immigrants recently arrived in New York City are sleeping in the streets and struggling to find food.

City's Bodegas Struggle to Survive
from Hoy
The high costs of goods and produce, along with increasing rent and fuel bills, creates difficulties for New York's small neighborhood stores.

Williamsburg Sees Sharp Rise in Gang Activity
from Super Express
With Latino gang activity on the rise, the 90th precinct, which covers the neighborhood, has recorded the highest increase in criminal activity in the city.

Program Aids Elderly in Brighton Beach
from Novoye Russkoye Slovo
As some of the older people in the Brooklyn neighborhood struggle to pay higher prices on a fixed income, the Shorefront Jewish Community Council helps more than 1,000 people a month.

A New Push to Let Non-Citizens Vote


Photo of protesters wearing 'Voiceless' masks.
Photo Jean Marc Grambert / ivotenyc.org.

Earlier this month, dozens of protesters, many wearing facemasks emblazoned with the word "Voiceless," gathered on the steps of City Hall. Organized by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, they demanded that non-citizens who are legal residents be allowed to vote in municipal elections. They said they deserve political representation because they are law-abiding New Yorkers.

This is hardly a new subject in the New York City public debate. For many years, pro-immigrant groups here have called for allowing non-citizens to vote but to no avail. Now, with candidates prepared for the 2009 mayoral and City Council elections, the campaign for non-citizen voting right has gotten a new burst of energy and is making a comeback. This time, the advocates are hopeful.

"There are going to be big elections in New York City in 2009, so we are latching on this big event to bring more attention to this issue," said David Andersson, the rally's main organizer. "It is a fantastic time for us." He added that many City Council members will have to leave office at the end of next year, and if non-=citizen voting is not a reality by then, he hopes to garner more support from the new members.

Abut half a dozen candidates running for City Council, have expressed support for the bill, including Julissa Ferreras of District 21 in Queens, Mark Levine of District 7 in Manhattan, Brad Lander of District 39 in Brooklyn, Ydanis Rodriguez of District 10 in Manhattan and Daniel Dromm of District 25 in Queens.

"I believe anyone who pays taxes should be able to vote," said Dromm, a Democrat. "That's the principal our country was founded on. It's a basic civil right. Voter participation is the basis for our democracy."

Taxation without Representation

According to the coalition, New York City is now home to more than 1.3 million immigrants of voting age who are not yet citizens. The organizers said these city residents have no political representation but remain subject to all the laws that citizens must observe, pay taxes and make substantial contributions to New York's economic and cultural life.

The coalition also cited the old "No taxation without representation" rationale. "Why should immigrants pay taxes when they have no say in how their hard-earned money is spent?" read one of the signs held by protestors. According to a 2007 report by Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants are responsible for $229 billion in economic output in New York State and account for 22.4 percent of the state's gross domestic product, a share slightly larger than their percentage of the population.

Similar bills that would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections have been introduced in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Many states, including California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado, also are reviewing legislation that would allow long-term residents to vote.

Passing a Bill

The subject was officially brought into the public debate in 2005 when Brooklyn City Councilmember Charles Barron and nine other members introduced a bill to allow all legal residents who have lived in New York City for at least six months to vote in local and municipal elections. The bill, the Voting Rights Restoration Act or Intro 628, fell through at the end of that year.

In 2006, Barron, along with 13 other City Council members reintroduced the bill, also known as Intro 245. It is still pending in the Committee of Governmental Operations.

"They used to have legal residents who are non-citizens voting many years ago when immigrants were predominantly white," said Barron, an outspoken advocate for the African American community. "And when the complexions of the immigrants change, the policy change."

Noting legal residents can fight and die in wars for the country but cannot vote in local elections, Barron added, "I think it is racist that they can't vote. I think it is unjust that they can give up their life and they can pay taxes, but they cannot have a say in major quality-of-life issues."

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she does not support allowing non-citizens to vote.

Barron said this will make it hard to get the bill through City Council. "It is very difficult when the speaker doesn't support something," said Barron. "She would tell her chair that she appoints to not even have a hearing on it. And then she can kill it in the committee by getting that committee to not vote on it or vote favorably for it. .... So we got a little struggle ahead of us, but we are used to that kind of struggle."

An Old Idea

Until Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismantled the Board of Education in 2003, non-citizens were allowed to vote in community school board elections for more than three decades. Barron said even some parents who were undocumented immigrants voted in those elections.

In fact, non-citizens voted in local and national elections in many states and territories from the founding of the country until 1926. Currently, resident non-citizens can vote in several townships in Maryland and in Chicago school board elections. Globally, more than 40 countries allow their legal residents to vote in local and/or national elections, including many countries in the European Union and some in Latin America.

The Debate

Allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections could lead to greater immigrant integration and participation, according to Ron Hayduk, a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and a co-director of the Immigrant Voting Project, said non-citizen participation.

He cited the story of Guillermo Linares, the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Linares first gained a spot as a parent representative on the school board in Washington Heights before he became a citizen. He went on to become the first Dominican elected to the City Council in 1991 and was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to lead the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

"Our policy process and outcomes would be more representative if non-citizens have access to the ballot," said Hayduk. "Elected officials would be attuned to making sure they are aware of all of their constituents' needs, and be more responsive to those and be more representative of them."

Bloomberg disagrees. He has repeatedly stated his view on this issue, saying that only citizens should be able to vote. In an e-mail message from his spokesman, Stu Loeser, the mayor affirmed his pro-immigration stance but at the same time insisted that the "right to vote is a privilege and responsibility for citizens only."

Meanwhile, a report released this month by Dr. Stanley Renshon for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports immigration control, cites statistics that it say show that, even when non-citizens can register and vote, they don't. The report also emphasizes the importance of the process of naturalization because its standard five-year wait allows the immigrants to immerse themselves in the language and culture, and develop attachment to the country.

"Each of the five elements of the naturalization process -- residency, good character, language facility, civics knowledge, and affirmation - are essential elements," wrote Renshon. "Naturalization as a requirement of citizenship and voting is not so much a series of hurdles to surmount, but an essential part of becoming American."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.

 

The Citizen


photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/redxdress/
Photo (c) redxdress
A bakery in Brigton Beach, home to a large Russian community.

New York's immigrant community can now expect city agencies to speak their language.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has signed Executive Order 120, requiring city agencies to offer translation and interpretation services in the top six most spoken languages in New York, including Korean, French Creole and Russian.

This isn't the first attempt at beefing up language services by the Bloomberg administration, but is the broadest. In 2004, he signed an executive order to bring translation services to crime hotlines. Now, all city agencies must offer language support to those who need it. The timeline for compliance and implementation, however, has not been as explicit as the order itself.

The order would benefit the over 1.8 million New Yorkers whose primary language is not English. The New York Immigrant Coalition's executive director Chung-Wha Hong applauded Bloomberg in a press release and added that "all city residents are called on to cooperate with the city in responding to emergencies, fighting crime, and complying with myriad laws, rules, and procedures. This new policy will make this two-way communication dramatically more effective."

Elsewhere in the immigrant and ethnic press this month, we look at the crisis in vending cart licenses, Islam in the subways and undocumented workers affected by 9/11. This and more from the Polish, Spanish and Chinese-language press via our partner, Voices That Must Be Heard.

Selected Stories

Homeowners Hang on in Greenpoint
(Super Express)
While foreclosure rates climb throughout the city, Greenpoint property owners, along with those in Williamsburg, Ridgewood and Maspeth, remain relatively stable. Overall, New York City foreclosure rates, at 2,216 so far this year, are still lower than those in other urban areas such as Miami or Los Angeles.

Chronicle of Smuggling over Five Continents
(World Journal)
A Chinese man has a harrowing journey from southern China to Paris, to Cuba and Guatemala, before landing in New York. He's now ambivalent about the journey and finds it difficult to get asylum or find work.

Congressman Opposes Subway Islamic-understanding Ads
(Iran Times)
The Islamic Circle of North America is sponsoring a series of ads designed to inform subway passengers about Islam. Some 1,000 cars will carry ads that try to demystify "hot words or keywords that get thrown around a lot, but are not necessarily defined in the most proper context," says NYU's Imam Khalid Latif. Republican representative Peter King is calling for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to stop the month-long campaign, scheduled to run during Ramadan this September.

Latina Dayworkers Hurt by Economy
(El Diario)
It's getting harder for many women day laborers to find work in Manhattan's informal garment district economy. For years, the corner of 37th Street and 8th Avenue was a hub for those looking for work as clothing pressers, in warehouses and nearby factories. "The situation has gotten worse. It was easier to get hired before," one woman says.

Street Vendors Get a Little Support
(Norwood News)
A new Fordam-based group, VAMOS Unidos, is helping street vendors negotiate permits. It's tough to get a food vending permit and licenses. Food vending permits are capped at 4,100, and it's estimated that thousands - potentially even 15,000 - food vendors operate without one. VAMOS is trying to increase the number of legal permits in the city.

A Thriving Black Market for Food Vendor Licenses (El Diario)
Summer brings street food to New York City. And food vendors are fighting - and paying - to deliver it. Most vendors don't own their own permits, and often rent them illegally for two year terms at $4,000 to $6,000. "The guy who's behind the cart, who pays taxes and has a vendor's license, he's the one who should have the permit, not just get a 40 percent cut," lamented one Ecuadorean vendor.

Latinos Effected by 9/11 Not Receiving Adequate Care
(Latin Week)
Thousands of New York Latinos worked in the lower Manhattan region and participated in Ground Zero cleanup. Many are now voicing complaints about receiving inadequate equipment and protection. Many are undocumented, and find it difficult to access services.

Budget Cuts to Senior Centers Hard for Older Latinos
(Latin Week)
Senior centers, such as Casita Maria in East Harlem, serve as both community hubs and social service networks for the Latino community. With budget cuts of over $1 million, centers are cutting back on caseworkers and hot lunches. By replacing hot lunches with home-delivered frozen meals, Casita Maria's Program Director Maria Rivera is afraid that they are cutting off important emotional and social support for the seniors. "It's more than about giving them services. It's to love and understand them," she said.

 

English Learners Left Behind


photo by Ann
Photo (c) Pictures by Ann

In a city where more than 170 languages are spoken and over a third of residents are foreign-born, scores of New York public school students struggle to learn English. They are known as English-language learners (ELLs), students who speak a language other than English at home and score below a state-designated level of proficiency in English upon entering the New York City schools.

These students are far less likely to complete high school than English speaking students. At a press conference in early August, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in a celebratory tone that the city's four-year high school graduation has risen to 55.8 percent, while the dropout rate has decreased to 14.7 percent (This was the first time the numbers included students who graduated after summer school).

But the number for the ELLs did not even come close to that. The graduation rate for ELLs is 23.5 percent, rising by 3.1 points from 2006. It is much lower than the rate for two other underperforming groups: Hispanics have a graduation rate of 43 percent, while blacks have a rate of 47.2 percent.

By failing to help so many students graduate, the city, say critics, is "betraying a whole generation of immigrant kids who are struggling to succeed."

"The ELL graduation rates announced today are absolutely deplorable," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "With less than a quarter of ELLs graduating after four years, it is clear that Chancellor Joel Klein and the Department of Education must work much, much harder if they are serious about ending the ELL drop-out crisis. At this point, the city needs to act by initiating large scale interventions across the system to help ELL children succeed."

ELL Programs

According to the 2006-2007 statistics from the Department of Education, 139,842 children are designated as ELLs -- about 13.4 percent of the entire public school population. Once a student is determined to be an English-language learner, the city offers the following options supervised by the Department of Education's Office ofEnglish Language Learners:

  • Transitional Bilingual Education programs include language arts and subject matter instruction in students' native languages and English as well as intensive instruction in English as a second language. As a student develops English proficiency, instruction in English increases and native language instruction decreases.
  • Dual Language programs provide half of the instruction in English and half in another language, often the native language of the majority of ELLs.
  • Freestanding English as a Second Language programs provide classes in English.

Challenges Facing Students

Among the ELLs in New York City, nearly one in five is Asian. According to a recent report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, these students are often forced into certificate or GED programs, allowed to drop out with little or no intervention, or expelled. The report offers a number of possible explanations for the low graduation rate.

It criticizes the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on performance and pressures schools to strive for high test scores. "Since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted, we have not seen significant improvements in the quality of public education," said Margaret Fung, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund's executive director, in a press release. "Instead, Asian Americans — especially immigrant, poor and non-English speaking students—have been left behind to fend for themselves in securing basic educational services."

Teaching Shortages

Another problem is the lack of qualified teachers. According to the report, New York had one certified English as a second language teacher for every 116 ELL students. That lags behind other areas, such as Washington state and Massachusetts, where there is one certified ESL teacher for every 76 and 66 English learner respectively.

Asian Pacific American staff, faculty and administrators in New York City public schools are underrepresented in New York City schools, Zeyen Wu, education policy coordinator of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, said in testimony to the New York City Council Education Committee. This deprives students of teachers who could "serve as role models in schools and are familiar with the problems facing" Asian youth," Wu added. "They may be able to better identify potential problems before they escalate into larger issues."

Wu also called for the expansion of the Bilingual Pupil Services, a program that prepares paraprofessionals to become certified teachers in bilingual education, bilingual special education and English as a second language. The program pays for nine credits per semester at any of the participating senior colleges for an accredited program leading to a bachelor's degree and New York State certification, and is open to English speakers who are also fluent in Spanish, Chinese and Haitian-Creole.

In New York City, 66 dual language schools teach curriculum in both English and another language for the benefit of both ELLs and non-ELLs. However, there are only three Chinese language schools and one Korean language school although Chinese and Korean speaking students make up more than 12 percent of the city's English language learners.

Meanwhile, out of the 363 Transitional Bilingual Education programs, which aim to help ELLs quickly transition into English-only classrooms by teaching them subjects such as math and science in their native languages, only 34 are taught in Chinese, and two are taught in Korean. There are no other Asian-language Transitional Bilingual Education Programs.

In its effort to improve secondary education in the city, the Bloomberg administration has shut down many large high schools and opened a number of small high schools. When these schools first opened, some were allowed to exclude English language learners, as well as special education students. Recent figuresshow students learning English now account for about 12 percent of students at the small schools.

Additional Help

Things might be getting a little better. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn recently announced a $7 million fund that will be available to schools with a large number of high-need ELL students. Elementary, middle and high schools will all have an opportunity to apply for the funding, but will be required to provide a two-to-one match for their chosen programs.

In addition, a number of programs exist to help ELL students who find traditional high school setting too intimidating get a GED. These options are open to non-ELL students as well.

  • Young Adult Borough Centers have evening academic programs designed to meet the needs of high school students who might be considering dropping out because they are behind academically or because they have adult responsibilities that make attending school in the daytime difficult. The average graduation rate is 44 percent.
  • Learning to Work makes school more relevant for struggling students by supplementing academic instruction with paid internship and career counseling. In 2007, 9,809 students participated in the program citywide.
  • Transfer schools are small, academically rigorous, diploma-granting high schools designed to reengage students who have dropped out or fallen behind.

 

 

 

The State of Civil Liberties


photo by Catherine Coleman
The 2006 Save Darfur Rally in Central Park drew over 30,000 people.

Central Park holds a special place in the history of civil liberties and protest in New York. The Great Lawn saw many demonstrations until 2004 when the Bloomberg administration would not allow a protest against the Republican National Convention there. Mass political rallies have not been permitted on the Great Lawn since. The city, though, did encourage a Bon Jovi concert on the lawn earlier this month.

"Civil liberties are in trouble in New York," civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel said early in July. "Jon Bon Jovi is going to perform in Central Park [which he did on July 12], but when the Republican Convention was here, we were told we'd damage the grass. That's wrong. That's unconstitutional."

Protests and the Park

In 2005, the city agreed to permit to six "limited gatherings" of up to 50,000 people each year and said that during a "study period" it would allow gatherings of up to 75,000 to see how the turf fared. The city limited the Bon Jovi crowd to less than 50,000. "The settlement doesn't mean we have to have 75,000 for an event. It means that's the limit, " Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Times

But Mara Verheyden Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, one of the groups that challenged the ban on demonstrations in the park, told the paper that it has been the gathering by over half a million people and that the city has "provided no basis to show why it should be so heavily restricted."

In a footnote to this controversy, a former parks administrator told Jim Dwyer of the Times that the city had arbitrarily inflated crowd estimates for past park gatherings. Doug Blonsky, now president of the Central Park Conservancy said, "You would get in a room with a producer, with a police official and a person from park, and someone would say, 'What does it look like to you?' The producer would say, 'I need it to be higher that the last one.' That's the kind of science that went into it."

The conservancy has fought hard to keep demonstrators from using the Great Lawn, but Dwyer did not question the validity of Blonsky's supposed revelation.

The Origins of Our Liberties

The controversy over Central Park served as a backdrop to an Independence Day observance in Central Park's Strawberry Fields, featuring readings of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The group of fifty to a hundred people gathered where John Lennon is more celebrated than the Spirit of '76 to reflect on the state of civil liberties in the nation and the city.

Led by Siegel, who is running for public advocate, the left-leaning crowd commiserated about the diminution of civil rights and civil liberties but also thrilled as the familiar phrases of our founding documents were proclaimed aloud. Many in the crowd-most of whom were from groups protesting America's current war, president and Supreme Court-recited along from memory.

"We hold these truths to be self evident," Siegel read, "that all men ["and women," he added] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

"The declaration is a bold statement of freedom, equality and justice," Siegel said on the 232nd birthday of the United States. But, he added, "It has serious flaws. African Americans were only counted as three fifths of a person. Native Americans did not count at all. It took until 1920 for women to be able to vote and 1972 for 18-year olds. We're able to remedy injustices and correct them."

Tory Town

New York has always been somewhat ambivalent toward the American Revolution. When the Continental Congress decided to break from Britain in June 1776, the New York delegation abstained because it did not feel it had clear instructions from the colony's legislature. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted and then read in public in New York City by George Washington himself on July 6, 1776, a mob did pull down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green and melted it down to make bullets. But the early battles went so badly in this Tory stronghold that the British chased the rebels into New Jersey and occupied New York City until 1783.

New York did have the distinction of being the first capital of the United States and George Washington was inaugurated as the first President at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. We are the home of the Statue of Liberty, and for many years New Yorkers marked Independence Day in a quasi-religious way with public readings of the Declaration and stirring patriotic oratory.

232 Years Later

With the reading in Central Park, Siegel and his allies were trying to get back to these roots. I asked the people there how they felt their civil rights and liberties were faring in New York today.

"Dreadfully," said Susan Nickerson, an artist involved with Peace Action, a grassroots anti-war group, "but we're always fostering freedom of speech. We're trying to highlight the Constitution, which is being ignored by our president."

"A bit threatened," said Dr. Herbert Cohen, a former board member of SAGE, a group serving and advocating for older gays and lesbians. Cohen, who has been together with his partner, Daniel Cook, a retired librarian, for almost 47 years, said, "I have to write my will peculiarly because we can't get married in New York." He said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who successfully appealed a court order that would have let gay couples obtain marriage licenses "has not been helpful with that, though I like other things he's done."

Actor Curzon Dobell of Brooklyn expressed qualified support for Bloomberg. I haven't sensed civil liberties challenged on a daily basis," Dobell said. "At a local level, I'm more comfortable with Bloomberg in charge that I was with Giuliani when I felt infringed upon by his obsession with managing the most minute details like hot dog vendors. I felt my personal space threatened."

Calling the Constitution "a living guide to how we should run our government," State Senator Bill Perkins, Democrat of Harlem, cited a number of civil rights concerns from Columbia University's threatened use of eminent domain in West Harlem to the plight of the undocumented immigrants. "We need an active citizenry so we don't let 'them' do what they do in our name," he said.

Joe Friendly, who does the "Truth for a Change" cable show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, applauded his freedom here. "It's amazing that I've been left alone by the government," he said.

Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) of the Church of Stop Shopping a fixture at civil rights demonstrations, said he is not left alone. He said he has been arrested 50 or 60 times for preaching his anti-materialist message inside big box stores such as Wall-Mart. At a recent rally in Union Square, he had his bullhorn confiscated "even though it has one-tenth the decibels of the average screech of a garbage truck," he said.

"These laws [restricting demonstrations] are not passed by the City Council or the courts," Reverend Billy said. "They're written by the police and they should be challenged." He is trying to set up a defense fund for people whose civil liberties are violated.

For the record, Siegel and the other readers used Reverend Billy's bullhorn at Central Park. Even though they did not have a permit, their transgression did not attract the attention of the police, who were not visible at the gathering, or objections from passersby.

The definition of civil liberties constantly evolves. Norris Moore, is a trained alcohol and substance abuse counselor who expressed concern for "those who are 'civilly disabled' by prison records." "They have no voice and become the forgotten people. I've counseled kids in this category and they get records before they know how to make good judgments for themselves," he said a few days after the Central Park gathering. "Then they're not allowed to get back in the mainstream," Moore said citing bans that keep people with drug convictions from doing things "most of us take for granted."

"When you're trying to help people with their problems and can't meet their basic needs like housing and a job," he said, "what can you do to alleviate the situation?"

Reflecting on the Central Park reading, Siegel concluded, "Every year new words jump off the page. This year, it was the Fourteenth Amendment," about not depriving people of "life, liberty or property without due process of law," a precept he applied in decrying both city cuts in AIDS funding and the possible use of use of eminent domain by Columbia University.

"The Bloomberg administration deals with these issues differently from Giuliani," Siegel said, "but some of the results are similar in restricting our civil liberties. We have to speak out."

CIVIL RIGHTS ON BROADWAY

On the Stage

Lawrence Fishburne is winding up his one-man portrayal on Broadway of Thurgood Marshall "Thurgood," by George Stevens, Jr. It is an entertaining, enlightening and ennobling evening of storytelling as one of our leading actors interprets the great civil rights leaders who did most of his advocacy in courtrooms. Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, ending the constitutionality of "separate but equal," and served on the United States Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.

Fishburne himself has acknowledged not knowing much more about Marshall than the fact that he was the first African American Supreme Court Justice, but with what he has learned the actor takes us on a journey through almost the entire 20th century marking the trials and triumphs of a man, a movement and a nation.

It's at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, through August 17.

And in the Community

New York Civil Liberties Union's "Broadway Stands Up for Freedom" benefit at New York University on July 21 provided another good place to take the temperature of how New Yorkers are feeling about their civil rights and liberties these days.

The event consisted mostly of the group's staunch supporters in the theatre community from Cheyenne Jackson of "Xanadu" to the cast of the upcoming revival of "Godspell" -- accompanied by composer Stephen Schwartz -- singing their best stuff.

Donna Lieberman, the longtime executive director of the group, first said, "New York is a great town for civil liberties," but then called that "a civil liberties joke because New York is anything but." Lieberman cited the police presence in city public schools -- "the fifth largest police force in the country" -- the woman left to die on the floor of King's County Hospital, the inability of gay couples to marry in this state, and the massive increase in arrests for marijuana possession that fall disproportionately on young men of color.

The good news, Lieberman said, was that the Bush administration had only 182 days left, but she then took a swipe at the Democrats, saying, "We can't trust any political party to do our thinking for us."

Actress Kathleen Chalfant read an epistle from playwright Tony Kushner. In it, he said, the affinity that show people have for civil liberties "has to do with a shared understanding of the tireless work it takes to make both art and a decent world, which is itself a work of art; ... it has to do with a common capacity for going forth into the world with joy rather than fear."

'Hair' in Central Park

The Public Theater production of "Hair" in Central Park's Delacorte Theater is a trip 41 years down memory lane to when its counter-cultural anti-war and sexual liberation messages were revolutionary. The fine cast gathered for this revival is in good voice and high (literally and figuratively) spirits, led by Jonathan Groff of "Spring Awakening" fame as Claude, the hippie from Queens who gets drafted during the Vietnam War.

But despite some brief nudity in low lighting-as opposed to the exuberant stripping that marked the original-and a few four-letter words, there is an innocence to this production. It evokes nostalgia more than anger at a nation waging unprovoked wars and sacrificing its youth, even though it inevitably calls to mind the current Iraq conflict.

The burning of draft cards, the simulated sex and the attacks on religion and government did not get a rise out of the audience-in fact the largely white, middle class and older crowd virtually all rose to applaud the show wildly at the end. Of course, nothing as risky as burning an American flag was attempted. It made me wonder what it would take to upset an audience these days.

It also made me long for the Public to take on the American crises of today the way they did with "Hair" four decades ago, only now it might have to deal with a crumbling economy and the indifference most Americans show the loss of civil liberties, not to mention the lack of theatrical imagination that leaves us entertained with revivals instead of challenged with new work.

You can see "Hair" through August 31 by getting on line outside the Delacorte early in the morning for free tickets that are distributed at 1 p.m. or going on line to enter a daily lottery for free tickets. For more information, click here.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

Language Barrier Begins to Fall at City Hospitals


photo by anuarsalleh
Photo (cc) anuarsalleh
By and large, hospital communication services have improved for patients who speak languages other than English.

A trip to the hospital poses challenges for everyone -- stressful conditions, baffling paperwork, unfamiliar terms and frightening circumstances. People with limited English proficiency often find the situation even more daunting. For years, New Yorkers who did not speak English well often had to enlist family members or friends as interpreters, sometimes requiring them to miss a day of school or work.

Now, though, that may be starting to change, according to a recent study. Since the New York State Department of Health adopted new regulations on language access and patient rights more than a year ago, hospitals have improved their communications with patients who speak limited or no English, particularly those who speak Spanish.

For the study, Make the Road New York, the New York Immigration Coalition and Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York monitored 10 private and public hospitals in New York City in late 2007 and early 2008. They focused on Spanish and Korean-speaking patients. The study found that there is significant progress with Spanish-speaking patients but communications with Korean-speaking patients remain a problem.

"It's impossible to provide quality health care unless patients can communicate their symptoms clearly, understand their diagnosis and knowingly consent to medical procedures," said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a citywide civil rights organization, in a press release. "We are impressed by the improvements at these hospitals for Spanish speakers, and we applaud them."

Researchers found that 79 percent of the patients interviewed in four hospitals had received assistance in their language from a bilingual doctor, nurse, other staff member, interpreter or telephonic interpreting service. It was a significant improvement from two years ago when only 29 percent of the patients received assistance in their native languages.

About 31 percent of all patients reported knowing they had the right to language assistance services, although that figure reached 76 percent among Spanish speakers at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center. Half of the patients at Flushing Hospital Medical Center also reported being told about the availability of free language assistance.

Services for Spanish Speakers...

The study found many language assistance services for the Spanish-speaking community. At Woodhull and Wyckoff Heights hospitals in Brooklyn, nearly nine of out 10 Spanish-speaking patients said that they were helped by Spanish-speaking staff.

At Queens Hospital Center, 84 percent of Spanish-speaking patients said they saw signs about free language assistance services. More than 50 percent reported receiving translated written materials at Elmhurst Hospital Center, while at Woodhull, 45 percent received telephonic interpretation, a service to meet the need for spontaneous, unscheduled access to an interpreter over the phone.

...But Not Koreans

The findings were not so positive for the Korean speakers. In Queens, where Koreans make up about 3 percent of the population, the two monitored hospitals -- Flushing Hospital Medical Center and Queens Hospital Center -- failed to provide sufficient language assistance. Only 25 percent of the patients interviewed received some form of hospital-based interpretation, and none received general translated written materials.

As few as 35 percent of Korean-speaking patients said they understand hospital forms and many of them rely on family members and friends to translate for them. About a third of them bring their own interpreters to hospitals.

"We found some improvements at the hospitals compared to the past, but it's not nearly enough," said Grace Lee, health advocate for Korean Community Services. "There are 80,000 Korean speakers in the city, and hospitals need to be prepared to find an interpreter."

Dozens of Languages

The New York Health and Hospitals Corp., which administers all public hospitals in New York City including Queens, Elmhurst and Woodhull, provides many hospital forms and instructions printed in 12 languages, including Korean, Chinese, French, and Russian.

According to Stefanie Trice, HHC's senior director of the Office of Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services, all the corporation's employees have access to an online database providing those forms and are trained to use them.

"It meets 98 percent of our needs but we would translate any language that is needed by request," said Trice. "Last year we had requests for interpretation in 118 languages." She added that signs offering free language assistance are printed in 16 languages and are posted everywhere in all HHC hospitals.

Public vs. Private Hospitals

Among the 10 hospitals in the study, public hospitals appear to out-perform the private ones. While 31 percent of the patients said they are informed of the free language services in public hospitals, only 23 percent of private hospital patients said they had received this information. In addition, 53 percent of the patients reported seeing signs about free language service in public hospitals, but only 39 percent saw the signs in private hospitals. Patients in public hospitals also were less likely to say they had problems making appointments and understanding their medical bills than those at private hospitals.

Some private hospitals have established special programs to serve people from immigrant communities. Beth Israel Medical Center, which was surveyed in the study, established its Asian Services Program and Latino Health Institute to address the needs of those two groups. Flushing Hospital Medical Center's psychiatry department offers Asian and South Asian behavioral programs and a Spanish-speaking program.

Despite the positive findings, the study found persistent problems. Almost half -- 48 percent -- of patients surveyed said they wanted to ask questions but could not because of language barriers. In addition, 28 percent said they did not understand follow-up instructions, and 21 percent believe that their medical care was affected by the language they speak.

What the New Rules Are

The new regulations, adopted in September, 2006, require all hospitals to develop a language assistance program to ensure all patient have access to the hospital's services.

Under the rules, hospitals must:

* Provide ongoing education and training for administrative, clinical and other employees who have direct contact with patents on providing service with regard for cultural and language differences;

* Identify the language of preference and needs of each patient upon initial visit to the hospital;

* Post signs in public locations, including at entrances, informing visitors that free language assistance is available;

* Document patient's language of preference, language needs and the acceptance or refusal of language assistance.

The language assistance should be available to patients needing emergency services within 10 minutes of when they request it and to other patients within 20 minutes. The new regulations also forbid the use of family members or friends as interpreters, unless the patient agrees to it or refuses to use the free service offered by the hospital. Hospitals should also provide translations and transcriptions of important hospital forms and instructions in any language spoken by more than 1 percent of people in the medical center's service area.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues. 

The Quest for Childcare: Few Spaces, Little Information


Photo by Katia Strieck

Many parents in New York, particularly lower-income ones, struggle to find safe, affordable childcare. Although New York City offers low-cost or free childcare, there are not enough places for every child. And even when a program is available, many immigrant families do not know how to navigate the complicated system to receive this service.

A new study by the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families makes it clear that the needs of many immigrant children are not being met. According to the 2000 Census, more than 54 percent of children in New York City live in immigrant families. The study focused on six immigrant communities in the city: Bangladeshi, Chinese, Dominican, Haitian, Korean and Russian.

More than 345,500 children under age six from low-income families qualify for city childcare programs, but the city has space for less than 100,000 youngsters. This places a particular burden on families who cannot afford private childcare, which costs $180 per week for preschool and $267 for infant care, the Coalition for Asian American Children study found.

"We want to figure out what kind of political, policy or implementation barriers are keeping immigrant families from accessing these programs," Wayne Ho, executive director of the coalition. "We want to provide a voice for immigrant parents so that they can share what their perspectives, preferences and expectations are for early childhood education."

Faced with a shortage of places, many families resort to informal care, such as unlicensed family members or someone they know socially. However, many immigrants do not even have that option since they work irregular hours. So some immigrant families send their children back to their native countries to be raised by the grandparents. In the Fujianese community, this arrangement is so common that services are available to transport babies between the U.S. and China. Most Fujianese children, though, remain here.

"About 80 percent of our children are Fujianese," said Sandy Kwok Lo, assistant director of the Childhood Henry Street Settlement Day Care Center on the Lower East Side. "Many of their parents work out of state so they entrusted their kids to the grandparents or babysitters. Their communication skills are so low and they are not well versed in American culture. ... They simply have no time or skill to monitor the children."

"Many of these children have developmental, social, and emotional issues," added Lo. "So we are starting to notice the need to refer them to special services."

Lack of Affordable Childcare

Currently there are three types of early childhood education available in the city, including the Child Care and Head Start programs, administered by the New York City Administration for Children's Service. Child Care is a subsidized program that aims to support working families and is for children up to age 13. Head Start seeks to promote school readiness and child development and is free for children ages 3 to 5 from very low-income families.

The third program is the universal pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in the city. It is offered as a half-day or full day program in local elementary schools and community-based sites, and there is no eligibility requirement or fees. However, many parents complain that their children did not get into the school of their choice -- or even a school nearby -- and that there are not enough full-day programs.

Meanwhile, according to the coalition study, from 1995 to 2005, New York City has witnessed a major increase in the use of informal care, in which an unregulated caregiver watches up to two children at home. This accompanies a decrease in enrollment in daycare centers and in family and group childcare, where licensed care providers, with an assistant, can take care of up to 12 children at their residence.

To address this, the Administration for Children's Services is launching an ambitious plan called "Project Full Enrollment" to fills all the spaces in the city's childcare programs. The average cost per child including administrative expenses is $13,000 per year. According to this plan, childcare providers will be reimbursed for the actual number of children enrolled rather than the projected budget.

Training Providers

Once enrolled in daycare, an immigrant child may confront special issues. The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families study points to a growing need for bilingual teachers and for training to help providers reach and serve the diverse immigrant communities in New York City.

"The greatest need is to hire more bilingual staff," said one of the program directors interviewed. "We saw a dramatic increase in enrollment when bilingual staff was hired, material translated and staff represented the community."

In the Henry Street Settlement Day Care Center, which serves 97 children at full capacity, Lo said she makes sure that at least there is one Chinese-speaking staff in each classroom.

Many providers, though, complain that funding from the city is not adequate to provide the kind of staff and training to better respond to the needs of immigrant families -- particularly given the high cost of real estate in the five borough. Many of them said they need more money to offer translation services.

"The biggest challenge for my program is to ensure that the materials that the parents should be reviewing are available in Chinese," said Nina Piros, director of early childhood programs at the University Settlement on the Lower East Side, which serves 149 children, most of them Chinese. "It is not something that is budgeted in terms of cost for translation. Most programs don't have it covered."

Another problem, Piros pointed out, is finding qualified staff, other than paraprofessional and entry-level employees, who are bilingual Chinese speakers.

"We had openings for a daycare center director and social worker with a MSW (Master of Social Work) last year, and we were hoping to hire bilingual Chinese speakers to reflect our community," said Piros. "But we did not get even one applicant with that kind of background."

Families' Knowledge and Awareness

Many parents, the coalition's report found, experience difficulties obtaining services because of lack of knowledge and language skills. Literacy Assistance Center's Referral Hotline, funded by New York State and New York City, was recently terminated. Now parents have to call 311, the city's official information line. To better reach the immigrant communities, the coalition study calls for more direct outreach in ethnic media. It also advocates a partnership between higher education institutions and communities to research the needs of immigrant communities and provide training for childcare providers.

"I think the biggest challenge really comes down to outreach and education," said Ho, the coalition's executive director. "Immigrant families just don't know what resources are out there. The communications that they get about services are either incorrect regarding whether undocumented immigrants or legal permanent residents can access these programs. These communications are not translated, and if they are translated, the translations are often wrong or incorrect."

That leaves many parents unsure about what to do.

"It is crazy and hard," said a Haitian parent interviewed in the report. "It would be hard to access childcare as a new immigrant even if you speak the language. It is a difficult process anyway."

Many immigrants are reluctant to take advantage of the subsidized childcare because they believe it will hurt their chances for citizenship.

"I think I would prefer to use a private Korean childcare center because it is an easier process and I don't feel comfortable disclosing personal information," said a Korean parent. "If I use any public assistance it could jeopardize my citizenship."

Clearly, though, the demand for childcare remains huge.

"I have people coming from all boroughs to ask me to help them with their applications," said Lo. "Many parents call every week. I must have 10 or 15 pages of waiting list. I don't even know how to return their calls."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  



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