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Is New York's Women’s Equality Act Dead?


cuomo-womens-equality

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo was delivering his State of the State speech last year, moving efficiently through his PowerPoint presentation with a mix of one-liners in his boardroom style, when his tone started to change.

His voice took on more of the oratory tone his father was known for as governor before launching furiously into a passionate discussion of women’s rights before announcing he was making the passage of a 10-point women’s equality agenda his priority.

Nine of the measures would deal with income inequality, sexual harassment, pay inequity, human trafficking, pregnancy discrimination, family status discrimination, lending and credit discrimination, he said, in a rare, crowd-rousing moment, almost like he was spoiling for a fight, Then he announced the 10th point: strengthening the state’s laws regarding women’s reproductive rights and — he repeated himself, loudly: “Because it is her body, it is her choice! Because it's her body, it's her choice! Because it's her body, it's her choice!”

Not stopping there, his speech turned personal and invoked his three daughters. “Maybe it’s a man's world, but it is not a man's world in New York. Not anymore,” Cuomo’s voice thundered across the cacophonous, cold Empire State Plaza Convention Center’s main hall. “We are going to change the lives for my daughters and your daughters and your sisters and your nieces and your wife and your significant other and every person in this room… . And we’re going to do it this year.”

Cuomo’s announcement was met with applause. He was putting his liberal bona fides on display just as his commitment to liberal ideas were being questioned by the national media including Chris Hayes of MSNBC. But here was New York’s governor getting tough on an issue his base could really eat up. Women’s groups were charged up and most Democratic legislators were excited to have a cause to back the governor on after Cuomo had worked miracles in getting same-sex marriage passed.

Nearly a year after that momentous speech, the Women’s Equality Act has virtually disappeared from the conversation. And its opponents have declared it all but defeated — with the Catholic Conference of New York crowing in a fundraising letter of Dec. 13 that it had “defeated an insidious proposal pushed by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League designed to dramatically expand late-term abortion.”

AN ELECTION YEAR

Women’s advocacy groups and legislators are concerned that Cuomo has backed off his commitment to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda and will be focused in 2014 on election-year, bread-and-butter issues that appeal across political lines — things like tax cuts and education funding.

Some don’t even expect him to mention it in next year’s State of the State address on Jan. 8, 2014.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the forthcoming speech, continuing its pattern of keeping the media at arm’s length.

Cuomo’s reticence may have to do with the fact that advocates and legislators can’t agree on whether to compromise on the 10th point from the Women’s Equality Act.

“The governor doesn’t want to have this conversation during an election year,” said a source involved in negotiations surrounding the 10-point plan. The person requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks. “It’s complicated. Abortion is legal in New York so people will ask: ‘What does this one measure matter?’ and it takes explanation.”

But leading state Democrats say they are expecting the governor to show leadership on the issue, even in an election year.

“I hope the governor will continue to articulate his support for the Women’s Equality Agenda in his State of the State Address,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, adding: “If he fails to I am sure that the women who have worked so hard in advocating for this package over the last year will continue to press for its passage.”

{pullquote}The governor doesn’t want to have this conversation during an election year"{/pullquote}

“I would be very concerned if the governor does not address women’s reproductive rights in his [State of the State] speech,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, who carried a number of the points in Cuomo’s plan as her own legislation prior to his announcement of the Women’s Equality Act. However, Krueger also noted that Cuomo’s priorities aren’t always heralded in his State of the State. “People say that the governor’s State of the State sets his priorities and legislative goals for the session but I’m not so sure that is true for this governor.”

Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York said in no uncertain terms: “We are very hopeful that the Women’s Equality Agenda will be mentioned in the governor’s speech and we would be incredibly surprised and disappointed it it wasn’t.” Miller says that conversations with Cuomo’s office and legislators are ongoing.

The Women’s Equality Coalition, a large collection of women’s groups from across the state that formed to push Cuomo’s women’s agenda, has been gearing up for this session and is ready to capitalize on polls that show large public support for the measures and the fact that legislators are facing an election year.

Sonia Ossorio, president of The National Organization for Women NYC, said advocates were prepared to “push hard” for the package.

She said they had boosted their website, tried to do away with the “legalese” surrounding some of the 10 points and presented the personal stories of how women of all walks of life have been impacted by the issues addressed in the package. “Our jobs as advocates is to push hard for every single right we can as women. And it is the legislators' job to make it happen.  We shouldn’t have to wait year after year,” said Ossorio.

And she said she doesn’t discount Cuomo. “I think  governor Cuomo is committed to advancing women's rights or he wouldn’t have put himself out there,” Ossorio said, adding that with the election year she will “do everything in my power to inform women about how hard their elected officials worked on their behalf.”

Tracey Brooks of Family Planning Advocates of New York said that polls have shown that voters overwhelmingly support all aspects of the agenda. “We are moving into an election cycle where it is time for legislators to move all of the agenda. The Women’s Equality Coalition does not think partial passage is acceptable.”

Brooks said that legislators who “don’t support women’s reproductive rights” in New York have a bad record of reelection.

THE STICKING POINT

For some legislators, after Cuomo showcased women’s equality in his State of the State, it felt like a done deal.

Cuomo seemed incensed to act on the plan that includes equal pay measures, stops against sexual and pregnancy discrimination, strengthening of human trafficking and domestic violence laws and, perhaps most controversially, a measure that would take New York’s abortion code out of the penal law and put it into the health code.

But that last measure proved to be lynchpin that brought the rest of the act to a halt.  

The Catholic Diocese in New York mobilized against the legislation.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the New York Bishops wrote a public statement that was read aloud during mass on June 8 and 9 as the state Legislature was headed into its final days of session.

“We are profoundly distressed by the introduction of a bill in New York State today that would ease restrictions in state law on late-term abortion and runs the serious risk of broadly expanding abortion access at all stages of gestation,” Dolan and the Bishops said in their joint statement.

Dolan also criticized Cuomo’s legislation on an Albany radio show, making comments that seemed to question Cuomo’s standing as a good Catholic. Dolan later issued a statement to clarify that he did not mean to direct his criticism at the governor personally.

Despite having announced the 10-point plan in January of 2012, Cuomo didn’t unveil the actual bills and all their details until three weeks before the end of session. The vote didn’t come until the very end of session.

The Assembly passed all 10 measures as a package in an end-of-session flurry and the Republican-controlled Senate voted on each point separately — they passed all but the 10th.

It was clear to a number of legislators that Cuomo had not put his full force behind the measure. A group of 28 female Assembly Democrats met with Cuomo in late June and expressed their frustration in the way he had handled negotiations. They said they felt he negotiated too much with advocacy groups, left legislators in the dark, acted too late in the session and was quick to abandon the full package when negotiations got tough.

“That was one of the things we said to him. As a matter of fact, I pretty much asked, ‘Why all the advocates’ meetings?’ They have an opinion, and we don’t mind working with them, but we wanted to talk to him,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat told The Buffalo News.

The Cuomo administration tried to convince Assembly Democrats to stay one more day and pass the package of 9 bills minus the abortion measure but they refused.

The Independent Democratic conference in the Senate was roundly criticized at the end of the session for failing to put pressure on its allies in the Republican Party to move all 10 points of the women’s equality agenda. They countered at the time that not all Democrats supported the abortion measure — the most obvious being Bronx state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., an outspoken abortion opponent.

THE WOMEN’S AGENDA IN 2014

Earlier this month, the IDC’s leader, Jeff Klein, a state Senator from the Bronx, announced the conference’s agenda with only one measure focused on women’s equality: giving working parents six weeks of maternity and paternity leave.

The IDC’s Sen. Diane Savino said there could be movement on the women’s equality agenda, if advocates can accept some compromise in the upcoming session.

“I think it is pretty clear that there is overwhelming support in both houses for nine out of 10 bills,” Savino said. “The thing that keeps tripping us up is there aren’t the votes for the 10th measure in the Senate. Those votes just don’t exist. I think it would be a real tragedy and disservice to women if we don’t pass these nine.”

Savino said she supports the 10th measure but that the first nine points will help better women’s lives across the state.

“We aren’t in Texas or Alabama. Women aren’t having their right to an abortion denied,” she said. “Not to negate their concerns, but in New York what we don’t have are proper protections against human trafficking, guarantees for pay equity and family leave.”

Savino said she thinks it is up to women’s groups to discuss the matter with the Assembly and to get them to introduce the 10 bills separately so the first nine can be passed by both houses. “It really comes down to whether they are willing to have the same discussion with Sheldon Silver,” Savino said.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick couldn’t disagree more with Savino’s assertion that only nine of the measures should be passed. “I’ve seen members of the IDC continue to say there aren’t the votes for the entire agenda,” Glick said. “But they asked for the bill not as a package but as individual bills — that caused the problem. The governor sent down the bills individually.”

Glick insisted that there would have been enough votes because New York Senate Republicans are trying to distance themselves from national Republicans and, had they been forced to vote on all of the measures at once, some of them would have felt pressure to vote for all of them. “If it had been a package it would have had the votes,” she said.

Glick said the IDC is pressing for the passage of nine points of the measure to solidify their relationship with the Republicans.

But Savino disputed Glick's version of events, arguing that the bills were separated at the request of the Women's Equality Coalition. "We passed nine of the ten bills. When the abortion provision was put on the floor, it was voted down by a majority of senators, including two Democrats who are not members of the IDC," Savino said. "Assemblywoman Glick is entitled to her own opinion, but she cannot rewrite history."

Stewart-Cousins said the basic premise behind negotiating each point of the 10-point package and taking months to make sure legislators on both sides had input was to make sure they voted in the end.

“We have seen Albany come together on issues like this where there are sticking points in packages where there is something for everyone,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We passed the tax cap with the renewal of rent control and, like in that situation, this package was designed so that everyone got something they wanted. As such it should be voted on as a whole.”

Miller said that New York’s Senate Republicans will face a national backdrop for the fight over women’s reproductive rights, with the Supreme Court expected to hear two cases to do with women’s reproductive health — one case from Boston about protest outside of abortion clinics and the other from Oklahoma having to do with a state law that limits the right of women to access medicine to end their pregnancy.

Furthermore, Republicans across the country in conservative states are advancing laws that challenge access to abortion in what observers say is an attempt to use the issue in the 2016 elections.

“I certainly hope the Republican conference can see how advantageous it would be to listen to their constituents. I would hate to have to say that there are no Republican senators who are pro-choice,” Miller said. “I am in a position right now to say that there are no Republican senators who have demonstrated they are pro choice and this is all going to play out with the backdrop of a strong national conversation on women’s reproductive rights.”

Some Albany observers expect that Cuomo will have leverage on the issue this year because Republicans won’t want Senate Democrats to have it as an issue to hold over them come November. They have suggested that Cuomo may broker some sort of compromise and make it part of the budget deal in order to give Senate Republicans cover with their base.

Ossorio said there is a pressing need in New York for the women’s rights legislation.

“I talk people everyday who didn’t know we didn’t have these rights,” Ossorio said. “It is a great way to spark political activism and I know we did a really good job of making things clear for every single legislator — including Republicans — on the real-world consequences to women’s lives.”  

As far as Cuomo goes, Glick thinks that his support is still there. “I believe the governor recognizes and is committed to addressing gender inequality and I  believe he will find ways as the session proceeds to advance real reform — not just pieces of it.”

Krueger agrees with Glick and said that she believes that all 10 points would have passed the Senate if the governor had sent them to the Senate as a package. More importantly, she said the governor needs to put his political muscle behind it.

“We need the governor to commit to this to get this done,” Krueger said. “That doesn’t mean introducing the bills three weeks before the end of session, voting on them in a rush and then giving up on all 10 points at the last minute.”

Will Cuomo’s Push To Expand Women’s Equality Hit Glass Ceiling in Albany?


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ALBANY, N.Y. — “Because It’s her body, it’s her choice!” Gov. Andrew Cuomo shouted repeatedly to thunderous applause during his State of the State Address earlier this year. Cuomo was unveiling his Women’s Equality Act — a package of legislation designed to increase the rights of women in the state.

Like his gun control package, some of the measures that comprise what could become a set of landmark changes to state law have been circulating around Albany for a while but never quite made it through both houses of the state Legislature. It remains to be seen whether the governor will use the various tactics at his disposal to convince lawmakers to pass his Women’s Equality Act as well.

The mere announcement of the package has also reinvigorated anti-abortion groups that see it as a Trojan horse with the ultimate goal of further easing what they see as some of the most liberal laws on reproduction in the country.

Although it has not formally been introduced, Cuomo said during his address that the Women’s Equality Act would include measures to ensure women equal pay to men, tackle discrimination against women who are pregnant, strengthen laws against human trafficking and set a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace.

But what drew the greatest attention was Cuomo’s proposal to strengthen women’s rights to an abortion through the Reproductive Health Act. The bill, which has been sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins since 2007, would take a woman’s right to an abortion out of New York’s criminal code and make it part of health law, and also allow for late term abortions if a mother’s health is in danger.

Proponents say the measure would “codify” abortion in New York’s law and de-stigmatize it by removing it from criminal code. Opponents say the bill does much more than that.

“If we go ahead with this there will be no criminal penalty for forced abortion,” said Kathy Gallagher of the Catholic Conference of New York. “So if a man spikes his wife’s drink or drags her to an abortion clinic he won’t be punished. And we will be opening up state to late-term abortions for no reason. Other states are making it illegal but we will be putting up a banner saying to late termers: ‘You can get an abortion in New York!’”

Sen. Liz Krueger, who represents Manhattan and has sponsored bills dealing with at least five of the 10 points in Cuomo’s Act, said the measure dealing with women’s access to abortion is simply common sense. “I think if you really look at what we are proposing, there isn’t anything that is shocking here,” she said. “Will the Conservative Party oppose it? Sure, but count how many New Yorkers that actually amounts to and I don’t think you have many.”

But Gallagher said she thinks that the other bills are simply “packaging” to push the abortion measure through.

“The idea that women don’t have access in New York is absurd. New York has the highest abortion rate in the nation,” Gallagher said. “Abortion is the only option they are told they have. They get off the subway and see signs for it, it’s in their fashion magazines. We want better than abortion for women.”

She argued that the bill was just a “regifting” of an Eliot Spitzer bill from 2007 “that went nowhere. “The Reproductive Health Act has failed to come to a vote in both houses for six years. But now the governor is repackaging it,” she said.

Stewart-Cousins said the package isn’t about just one bill. “What is important is that the package identifies a number of challenges women face from the cradle to the grave that prevent equality,” she said. “We as Democrats have really tried to emphasize to our colleagues how important these issues are to women. Not every issue will impact every woman but most women have been impacted by the issues addressed in these bills.”

Krueger argues that polls show most New Yorkers support what she calls the “basic” tenants of the reproductive health legislation. “I am tired of hearing this is something Republicans oppose,” she said. “I represent a lot of Republicans and I haven’t spoken to any who oppose these measures.”

When contacted for comment on whether Senate Republicans would support the governor’s Women’s Equality Act, Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ spokeswoman Kelly Cummings issued this statement: "Senator Skelos believes that it's important to ensure every New Yorker has the same basic rights, the same opportunity to succeed and get ahead, and that all of our residents have access to the health care services they need and deserve. We look forward to reviewing the laws we currently have on the books and seeing how we can improve those laws."

It has become almost a ritual for bills dealing with abortion to be held up by Senate Republicans, and Democrats helped remind everyone of that this past week. On Thursday, the New York State Senate considered a slew of resolutions including honors for a Boy Scout becoming an Eagle Scout, a man turning 100 and a women's retirement after 16 years of work. But Senate Republicans refused to take up a resolution put forward by Krueger commemorating the anniversary of Roe v Wade. It was pulled from the active list by Senate Republicans because, they argued, Senate rules don’t allow resolutions on “policy positions.” Democrats argue Roe v. Wade is not a position but the law of the land.

And that is far from the only example of Senate Democrats introducing bills on women’s equality, equal pay and abortion rights only to see them buried by Senate Republicans. The Assembly has passed The Fair Pay Act 11 out of the last 12 years but the bill has not been considered in the Senate where Republicans have refused to bring it to a vote — even though Krueger, the bill’s sponsor and a polarizing figure among Republicans, has filed a number of motions to have the bill considered.

Legislation on sexual harassment, human trafficking, and strengthening order of protection laws have suffered similar fates. One part of Cuomo’s package — legislation attempting to combat pregnancy discrimination — was carried by Sen. Roy MacDonald in 2012 during his last term in the Senate. MacDonald was defeated by Kathy Marchione in a contest that was largely seen as a referendum on MacDonald’s vote for same-sex marriage.

Both sides in the debate over the reproductive health legislation acknowledge much has changed this year because of the alliance between the Independent Democratic Conference and the Senate Republicans, and especially because of the governor’s support for the measures.

But Sen. Jeff Klein, who heads the IDC and shares the senate presidency with Sen. Dean Skelos, has openly questioned whether Democrats have enough votes to pass the legislation.

Klein issued a statement challenging the Democratic conference about their ability to pass the legislation after Krueger tried to score political points after her resolution was stopped from coming to a vote. At the same time, he revealed where the IDC stands. “We need to face the facts: there are not 32 pro-choice Democrats in the New York State Senate,” he wrote. “This sad reality is directly attributable to the membership of the Senate Democratic Conference.”

He went on to say that “a real Democrat” must “defend a woman’s inherent right to choose.”

"Moving forward, I believe it is no longer acceptable for Democrats to support Senate candidates who want to call themselves Democrats — and pound their chests like Democrats — while actively undermining a woman’s right to choose,” he wrote.

It remains to be seen whether Cuomo will put as much backbone behind the push for the Women’s Equality Act as he did for gun control. As seen with the votes on gun control and same-sex marriage, Cuomo has the uncanny ability to make previously opposed senators reconsider their votes. And, so far, Cuomo has not issued a program bill with the full details of his 10-point plan. Cuomo’s office did not return requests for comment.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, deputy majority leader for the Senate Democrats, said it is the Democrats’ responsibility to make sure that any legislative deal that might be reached between Cuomo, the Senate Republicans and the IDC is “the progressive legislation New Yorkers support.”

“It feels great to know that the governor’s agenda is one the Senate Democrats have been talking about for two years,” he said.

Stewart-Cousins admitted she is unsure when Cuomo will unveil the entire program bill but said she knows what she wants the outcome to be.

“This is going to be people taking a look at the overall positive impact of this bill, and recognizing what it does to alleviate the unique obstacles that women face in gaining equality,” she said. “I am hoping there will be enough members of our house to make it law.”

 

Sikhs, With Ally Liu, Push For Change In NYPD Dress Code


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BELLEROSE, QUEENS — Navraj Deep has wanted to become a police officer since he was 10 years old, but as a member of the Sikh religion, he knows that he would have to give up his right to wear a turban if he wants to join the New York Police Department.

It is a compromise he is unwilling to make. “I really look forward to serving my community and being one of New York’s finest,” said the now-13-year-old teenager, on a recent Sunday at his temple, the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens. “But this country is supposed to be free, and if it’s not free, then what are we here for?”

For years, Sikh community advocates have been trying to get the NYPD to reform its dress code to allow officers to wear turbans and full beards, which they say would give an equal opportunity for more Sikhs to become members of the city’s police force. And now they have found a potent ally in their cause — city Comptroller John C. Liu, who is expected to run for mayor and has been shoring up his visibility in the Asian American community.  

“We get discriminated against by the way we look but people would get to know Sikhs in the NYPD,” said Gurdev Singh Kang, the president of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens. Kang commented that the few Sikhs in the police force of such a diverse city are not recognized because they are clean-shaven. “Until they wear their turban and beard then they will know we are Sikhs.”

The NYPD has defended their policy, saying they do allow certain Sikh articles of faith in their dress code.

“The NYPD makes reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, and already allows Sikh members of the service to wear turbans that fit under department headgear,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told The New York Post in an article published in August.

Browne also told the tabloid that officers are allowed to wear beards at a certain length, but added that in the case of an emergency officers may need to wear gas masks but “beards of a certain length will break the seal” allowing contaminated air to enter. 

There are approximately 19 Sikhs in the city’s police department, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

John-Liu-SikhsIn October, Liu visited the Sant Sagar Gurdwara to gather support for his online petition (which currently has 277 online signatures) requesting that Mayor Michael M. Bloomberg include more Sikhs in the city police department by changing the policy to allow officers to wear full beards and turbans. 

As Liu and members of his office entered the temple in orange Sikh bandannas, Babaji, the spiritual leader, welcomed his arrival and Liu began his speech with the Sikh greeting “Wahe-Guru!” — referencing the supreme teacher in Sikhism.

Liu said to the gathering of over one hundred Sikh devotees that he had “spoken to many young people who would love to serve the city and would love to be officers of the NYPD.” He pointed out that under the current policy Sikhs must choose between their faith and a job. He added, “That should not be a choice they have to make.”

Liu, who also visited the Baba Makhan Gurdwara in Richmond Hill in November, said the Sikh community deserves “a real change” to the city’s police dress code. He cited recent policy changes in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority that give employees the option of wearing turbans and growing beards.

Though the comptroller’s primary role is to review government contracts, Liu has sought to bridge the diverse New York Asian communities, which could play a role in any possible bid to be the city’s next mayor.

“Since the Asian American community in New York City is divided into nationality groups which are not necessarily natural allies, it makes sense for John Liu to reach out to the Indian American community by pursuing this anti-discrimination initiative for Sikhs in the Police Department in order to gain the support of the larger Indian-American community,” said Flora Davidson, a professor of urban studies and political science at Barnard College.

Harpreet Singh Toor, a leader of the Sikh Cultural Society, said the comptroller was taking a positive role for the Sikh community. “We are grateful, at least, someone is doing it,” he said about Liu. Toor mentioned that with Liu’s support, now Sikhs have a platform for an initiative the community has had on their agenda for years.

At the gurdwara, Liu explained that there are many issues that the Asian-American community faces, especially as immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life.

Amardeep Singh, the program director and attorney at the Sikh Coalition, said the group has been pushing police dress code reform for Sikhs for a decade now, starting with a lawsuit filed in 2003 for an NYPD traffic enforcement agent, Jasjit Singh Jaggi, who was told to remove his turban by the police department.

Jaggi said he resigned from the NYPD in 2002 after being pressured by his supervisor to remove his turban or risk losing his job. Jaggi later filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission and, two years later upon settling his lawsuit, was reinstated as a traffic enforcement agent with the right to wear his turban and beard. The case was the first in the country where a law enforcement agency was ordered to allow a Sikh employee to wear his turban and beard on the job.

However, only NYPD traffic enforcement agents are allowed to wear turbans and beards. The same religious accommodation has not applied to all Sikhs working as police officers.

Singh noted that since then pressure has been mounting on the NYPD to expand the policy for all Sikhs in the police department. He described the recent win of a $184,000 lawsuit in May on behalf of eight MTA current and former employees who were, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “denied religious accommodations” under the MTA’s requirement after September 11th for employees wearing turbans to have an MTA logo or be transferred to non-public positions.

But Singh said that, in a meeting in December of last year, the NYPD’s commissioner of equal employment “affirmed that they won’t allow full Sikh turbans … Only as long as it fits under a NYPD police hat.”The head covering currently permitted for Sikh police officers is called a patka, an article of faith most often worn by Sikh children who are growing their hair to fit in a turban.

“If we can’t get the NYPD to change, we will identify those who wear turbans and keep filing lawsuits,” he said.

Singh explained that the coalition is looking for a Sikh applicant who would like to join the police department but is unwilling to give up the right to wear a turban. Singh said he expects the department to make a decision when the department is exposed in a lawsuit after being forced to reject a turban-wearing applicant.

Though two of the applicants have not passed the coalition’s internal review process, Singh said he is hopeful they will find a Sikh applicant within the coming year. “The NYPD won’t move on an issue until there is a body to push the initiative,” he said.

Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin, whose district has been redrawn to include Richmond Hill — which holds the largest Sikh population in the city — said some of the police department’s claims regarding beards were just not true. “There is no reason why the NYPD police officers can’t wear a turban and beard and do their job,” he said, mentioning in particular that Sikhs’ beards do not prevent the use of gas masks is not true. “Sikhs can tie up their beards in a crop cut,” he said.

Weprin said the issue with wearing beards and turbans in the police department could force NYPD to accept people with different articles of faith. “They are not being as receptive to people that don’t look like them,” he said.

The NYPD said it hired 898 new police officers in January, 59 percent of whom were white, 24 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, and 6 percent Asian.

"In diversity, there's strength," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in a Daily News article published in 2009 after an influx of Hispanic police officers were found to make up one quarter of the police force. "It helps the department in all aspects of its work, from community relations and conventional crimefighting to counterterrorism," he said.

But after Jaggi was reinstated wearing his turban and beard in 2004, Kelly told CNN he believed there were benefits to uniformity of appearances of police officers. “I think that's going to be kind of a governing thought, you might say, as we go forward," the police commissioner said.

In conjunction with Liu’s petition, Weprin is sponsoring legislation that he says would allow all uniformed employees in New York, including the NYPD, to wear religious garments such as yarmulkes, head scarves, turbans and full beards.

The bill was originally introduced three years ago, but Weprin said it had gained momentum following the growing need of understanding of Sikhism after six people were killed and three wounded by a white supremacist at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in August, one of the heart-rending fatal mass shootings this year that have led to increasing calls for more gun control measures. Weprin said he will be pushing the bill during January’s legislative session.

Sikhs, meaning “disciples,” follow ten gurus or spiritual leaders, the first being the 15th century founder Guru Nanak Dev who originated from northwestern India. The Sikh scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikhs believe everyone regardless of caste, creed, race or gender has an equal opportunity in achieving liberation by becoming a part of God.

In 1699, the Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh called on Sikh men facing persecution under the Mughal Empire to come forth as warriors to defend their community with uncut hair, representing the sanctity of the body and wearing turbans as symbols of nobility.

The Sikh community in New York City has been described as a rapidly growing immigrant enclave in Queens and primarily based in Richmond Hill. Nearly 21,000 residents of Richmond Hill, Queens, identified themselves as “Asian Indian,” according to 2008-2010 American Community Survey data. A gurdwara under construction in the neighborhood will have close to 65,000 square feet.

Toor, the community advocate, said the turban is an essential part of the Sikh faith because “it signifies that you are a master of your own destiny. It is considered like a crown on your head … And that someone is above you.”

But he said policies restricting turbans and beards like the NYPD dress code limits the jobs that young Sikhs choose. “The kids are in different fields instead of the uniform fields,” he said.

Indervir Singh, 25, a resident of Elmhurst, Queens, who passed the entrance exam to become a city police officer, said he would not change his appearance to suit the current policy because 500 years ago his Indian ancestors fought and some gave up their lives for the right to practice their religion.

“It’s God’s gift. If God gives you a gift would you throw it away? No, you would take care of it and keep it with love,” he said of his turban and beard.

Singh, who  said he does not understand why the NYPD cannot permit Sikhs who pass the entrance test and are qualified to be police officers, to also wear their turbans. “The policy excludes people like us,” he said.

___

Image of Sikh parade in New York City courtesy of shinya, used under Creative Commons license. 

How Will a New State Law to Protect LGBT Students be Enforced?


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Teens participated in the Queens Gay Pride Parade in 2012. Photo by Elisabeth Ponsot. Courtesy MetroFocus.

For years, Sade Singh, a Brooklyn-born, self-proclaimed “activist” teenager who lives in Hollis, Queens, watched from afar as individuals around her who identified as gay, lesbian and transgender were harassed — by overt displays of bigotry in her community and occasional incidents of intolerance at her school, Queens Collegiate High School in Jamaica.

“I know for a fact that if you are a gay male, you are not safe in my neighborhood. You will be targeted and you will be picked on,” she said.

She recalled one incident in 2011, when she overheard several people at a corner bodega threaten a group of transgender women who had moved into her Southeast Queens neighborhood. Later on, one of the women was badly beaten.

“It wasn’t reported,” she said. “It’s not on the news unless someone is killed.”

The Road to Dignity

Harassment against gay, lesbian and transgender individuals has received considerable media coverage over the past few years, as a wave of suicides — including the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 — called into question what protective policies, if any, might stave off tragic outcomes.

Nowhere are these preventative measures more critical, activists argue, than in the classrooms, hallways and schoolyards where students spend around 1,000 hours each year.

In 2009, more than 7 million U.S. students ages 12-18 were bullied at school and more than 1.5 million students were subject to cyber bullying, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

MF logo 5 16 2011-01“In nearly every school, millions of students, gay and straight, suffer in isolation as victims of anti-[gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] bullying. Millions of other students wield anti-LGBT epithets without any understanding of their meaning or knowledge of their impact,” said a National Education Association report from the same year. “Nearly a quarter of [LGBT] students were physically assaulted—punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon—because of their sexual orientation.”

In response to these troubling trends, pioneering policymakers and school administrators grapple with a range of questions for which solid answers, to this day, remain elusive:

  • How do we address the unique struggle of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in schools without alienating or further stigmatizing these students?
  • How do we respond to parents who worry their children are too young to talk about sexual orientation?
  • How do we develop new programs to combat harassment as school budgets continue to deplete?
  • How do we deal with pushback from community members who believe these conversations don’t belong in classrooms?

The state of New York’s response, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), became law on July 1. This act goes further than any in the state’s history to specifically spell out what constitutes a “safe and supportive” learning environment.

The law deems students have the right to attend school free from bullying and harassment on the basis of an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Continue reading at MetroFocus....

Pride Politics Now


nycpride

New York City Gay Pride Parade 2009. Photo by Vincent J. Brown


NEW YORK – In a half century, New York LGBT activism burst from the shadows as a militant grassroots movement born at the Stonewall Rebellion in June 1969 – commemorated in the LGBT Pride March on Sunday – drifted into a progressive alliance with mostly Democratic politics, began to build community institutions, radicalized again in response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s and settled into growing its institutions and professionalizing its lobbying at the expense of grassroots control

Today, though almost all of their historic legislative goals have been accomplished, LGBT advocates still have a list of unfinished work in New York, though none of these issues is generating anywhere near the energy that opening marriage to gay couples did.

LGBT advocates are working for a state bill to end discrimination against people of transgender experience and crucial federal rights for gay married couples.

Some are focused on re-electing President Barack Obama, who Newsweek dubbed “the first gay President” -- and others are excited about getting Speaker Christine Quinn into Gracie Mansion as the first woman and first out lesbian or gay mayor of New York City.

But beyond that, the agenda is about worthy goals that do not often inspire mass rallies and demonstrations: increased funding for LGBT and AIDS services, implementation of existing laws such as those aimed at addressing bullying in schools and housing for homeless LGBT youth.

When the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state LGBT lobby, sent out its call to participate in Sunday's 43rd Pride march, it said: "Come celebrate one year of marriage!" – not focusing on what the community still needs to march for.

The parade organizers, Heritage of Pride, who do yeoman's volunteer work putting the massive event together every year, nevertheless continued their tradition of not very pointed themes with this year's "Share the Love!"

After Same-Sex Marriage

Much did change last year for the LGBT community. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a relative latecomer to supporting same-sex marriage, seized the reins of the campaign for same-sex marriage in 2011 and made the legislation happen, getting competing advocacy groups to work together, while winning over the handful of Democrats and four Republican Senators who had opposed it in 2009.

For his success, Cuomo was celebrated at the head of the LGBT Pride Parade last June in a deafening outburst of joy from the crowd. The marriage win in New York, the largest state where gay couples can marry (although California did it under a state high court order long enough for 18,000 same-sex couples to marry before voters stopped it in 2008), is credited with national polls that now show majority support for same-sex marriage and the president coming out with his "personal" endorsement of it.

"Marriage rights have been won in New York. Now what?" was the title of a forum at New York's LGBT Center on June 13, co-sponsored by Stonewall Democrats and Manhattan Young Democrats. The crowd of about 50 was evenly split between LGBT and non-gay people.

Melissa Sklarz, president of Stonewall and the first transgender person to hold that office, introduced the forum. "For me, the goal now is simple: re-elect President Obama," she said.

Whatever Obama has or has not delivered on the economy, few would dispute that he has advanced LGBT rights enormously with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; giving gay partners the right to visit each other in hospitals that take Medicare (i.e., virtually all of them); speaking out against anti-gay bullying; and putting the power of the State Department behind promoting LGBT rights in a world where homosexual sex is illegal in more than 70 countries (as it was in 13 states in the United States until 2003 when the Supreme Court struck those laws down) and punishable by death in places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The panelists at the forum also said the LGBT community needs to do more to solve the endemic problem of homeless youth.
Carl Siciliano, who runs the Ali Forney Center to house these young people, said that there are thousands of homeless youth here and "fewer than 100 beds."

"Last year was gut wrenching," Siciliano said, watching Cuomo become one of the "great gay heroes" for delivering on marriage equality "while he was cutting funding for homeless youth in half. If we valued these kids, we would have been loud and aggressive about these cuts."

Vaughn Taylor, deputy director of Gay Men of African Descent, talked about the problem of anti-gay bullying of young people in schools and elsewhere.

"We as adults are not doing enough for them," he said. "Kids abused in schools and by parents leave for street environments that we read about in Third World countries. We can walk down the aisle, but our kids are being left behind."

Changing the culture of schools to make them safe for LGBT youth and others, however, is a long-term process.

Just this  month, Queens fifth grader Kameron Slade was stopped by his principal from reading his essay supporting “same-gender marriage” in a school competition. You can listen to his speech here.

Out gay City Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens harshly criticized Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott for supporting the principal's censorship, calling it "a lesson in hate" that signals all teachers and students not to bring up gay issues in school.

And just this week, some students at Roy H. Mann JHS in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, had no inhibitions about bringing up gay issues – beating Kardin Ulysse, 14, senseless and blinding him in one eye, all the while pummeling him with anti-gay epithets. His family is suing the Department of Education for $16 million.

While New York City bans discrimination based on gender identity and expression to protect transgender people, state legislation to do that has been blocked by Senate Republicans.

Laverne Cox, a transgender activist and actress, said that while the same-sex marriage fight attracted a lot of money and resources, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act has not.

While the opposition comes from the "rightwing stoking fear about safety in bathrooms," she said that people in the LGBT community have to "address our internalized racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia … Some people even question transgender people being a part of the community."

Quinn As LGBT Mayoral Candidate

There is a big buzz in parts of the LGBT community about the potential of electing Speaker Quinn as mayor next year. While she is the frontrunner in the polls against a host of pro-gay rivals, part of what she may be up against are gay activists who look beyond LGBT issues in deciding who to support.

"You shouldn't vote for a person because she's a gay candidate," said Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-president of Marriage Equality USA. "She has to distinguish herself for all community to pay attention to their needs."

It is not yet the “post-gay” era that some have touted, though out gay legislators have been elected in Queens and Staten Island now, in addition to Manhattan where Assembly Member Deborah Glick broke the ice in 1990. Tom Duane, who was elected the first out gay Council member in 1991, has declined to run for re-election after 14 years in the state Senate.

Andrew Berman, a preservation activist and former Duane staffer who is himself gay and a likely candidate in a field of out gay hopefuls to replace Quinn in the Council, said: "Our top priority has to be our youth."

He added: "There's a progressive agenda that LGBT groups have to be a part of. We should be concerned about the lack of a vigorous Civilian Complaint Review Board – an issue not exclusive to LGBT people, but it affects us. It is important that we be out there with our progressive partners to push."

Veteran gay activist and civil libertarian Bill Dobbs said: "People need to rethink what is a front-and-center LGBT issue. We've ignored many larger things and seem unable to reckon with the concept of economic justice in the age of Occupy."

Indeed, big gay money is going to Republicans who voted for marriage equality but otherwise support a conservative agenda. 

Then again, "Gay, Inc.," as the mainstream, well-funded LGBT groups are known, did get involved in the big march against stop-and-frisk profiling on Father's Day, a sign that it may be embracing larger societal concerns.

Still More Work On Marriage Equality

The marriage movement isn't over either in New York, where advocates are focused on winning the court battles against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and convincing members of Congress here to support federal legislation to overturn it.

New Yorkers will also be aiding battles to defeat a referendum in Minnesota to ban same-sex marriage, stop ballot initiatives to overturn recently passed same-sex marriage laws in Washington State and Maryland and support an affirmative referendum in Maine to open marriage to gay couples.

Obama has long opposed DOMA, whose Section 3 denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages that are legal in six states and the District of Columbia. Last year, he also stopped defending the law in the courts, leaving it to House Republicans to hire counsel to do so.

But Democrat and Republican federal judges alike have handed down five decisions declaring the section unconstitutional, most recently in the case of New Yorker Edie Windsor, who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after the death of her wife and partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, in 2009 that she would not have had to pay if they were a heterosexual couple.

Judge Barbara Jones ruled that there is no rational basis for discriminating against legally married gay couples in this way.

A Massachusetts ruling in federal court striking down DOMA was just appealed to the US Supreme Court that, if they decide to take the case, could hear it in the fall term. Striking down DOMA won’t let gay couples marry in every state, but they could enjoy federal rights across the nation.

Quinn and Bloomberg just filed an amicus brief in Windsor’s case – a sign that the mayor has come a long way from his administration’s 2005 successful appeal of a court order to let same-sex marriages be performed in New York, citing Levitical prohibitions on homosexuality. Bloomberg subsequently presided over a same-sex wedding at Gracie Mansion and Quinn just married her longtime partner Kim Catullo.

What’s next for the LGBT movement could be less about individual unions of couples and more about returning to its roots uniting with other progressive movements in common cause. 

Jeff Campagna, who co-chaired the LGBT participation in the big Father's Day march against stop-and-frisk, said that building cross-issue coalitions will require some soul searching. "We have to connect all the issues – income inequality, affordable health care and more – and make them ours."

___

Andy Humm is the co-host of the weekly Gay USA cable TV show, a contributor to Gay City News, and a former city Human Rights commissioner.

Ballot redesign, voter registration overhaul sought by lawmakers


ballot lg


ALBANY, N.Y. – State lawmakers are considering an overhaul of voter registration and a redesign of ballots to include only two languages other than English as officials look to modernize and streamline elections ahead of state and national races.

A number of the laws being proposed in the state Legislature could be long-shots with only two weeks left in the legislative session, while others may be days away from being passed.

Streamlining Ballots

Ballots are likely to be redesigned to contain only two languages other than English and feature bigger type, clearer presentation of candidate’s names and better distinction of where voters should notate their choice of candidate.
 
"Clearly the biggest complaint about the voting process since the introduction of optical scan ballots has been about the difficulty of reading the ballot,” said Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The problem is the font size, poor design, unwieldy instructions and unnecessary clutter. We hope this will address the font size. We think this is great news for what will be an extraordinarily complex and crammed ballot full of different offices and candidates.”
 
The legislation, which is expected to pass by the end of the session, is being negotiated by the Cuomo administration and both legislative majorities.

Modernizing Registration

State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh is sponsoring several measures that would massively remake voter registration in the state. Last week, Kavanagh and Sen. Mike Gianaris, both Democrats introduced The Voter Empowerment Act – a bill full of changes to the voting registration process that is so comprehensive that it seems unlikely to move this session, if at all.
 
The Voter Empowerment Act would automatically register consenting adults, allow preregistration of teens aged 16 and 17, and update voter registration when people interact with certain government agencies and when they move. Currently, citizens most obtain forms and mail them in to register or register in person. The new legislation would allow online registration and make changes to addresses and party affiliation easier. Right now, voters who change their parties before an election are not officially registered in the party until the Tuesday following the election.
 
A recent George Mason University study found that New York ranks at the bottom of a list of states in voter turnout with only 35 percent choosing to cast ballots in the 2010 election. A recent report from the Center for American Progress showed that New York has over 500,000 eligible but unregistered Latino voters, and a million more who will be eligible when they naturalize.

Gianaris said the current system puts the burden on the citizen to register. “We have a 19th century system in 21st century world," he said.
 
Rosenstein agrees. He said a number of states including California, Arizona and Pennsylvania have online registration. “New York is clawing its way out of the industrial age on voter registration," he said. "Other states have shown that auto registration increases registration and makes the process more efficient.”
 
Rosenstein said most Western Democracies don’t have voter registration. They simply have checks to prevent fraud at the polls. “There is no reason in this day and age to preserve this archaic system,” he said.

A Partisan Divide?

Gianaris’ support of the bill has some Republican Senators opposed to it on principal, since Gianaris is the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Majority, declined to comment on the bill except to say it wasn’t “a priority.”
 
But Gianaris does not see the issue as partisan.
 
“Really the problem is incumbents vs. challengers. The battle lines are not partisan when it comes to reform," he said. "I think you will find a number of incumbent Democrats who are against changing the way people are elected. In a progressive state like New York we should not be third from the bottom in voter participation.”
 
Kavanagh said incumbents "have issues with this because they were elected under the current rules."

"Incumbents hear from voters all the time about how hard it is to register, to stay on the roles and to vote," he continued. But he said he planned to make sure the issue was nonpartisan.
 
“We are going to reach across the aisle. It's not like we are forcing everyone to register. There would be a box to check to opt out. But I think most officials think that if everyone was registered that their party would win because their ideas are better," he said.

Updating Election Night Reporting

Another bill being sponsored by Kavanagh would change how votes are tallied and reported on election night before the vote is certified. Currently, the process involves time-consuming hand counts of votes by election district. 

The New York City Council passed a resolution yesterday in support of the bill, which would have a major impact on elections in the city of 8 million people.

"The procedure for reporting unofficial election night results, with all its delay and inaccuracy, is undermining everyone's confidence in our ability to run fair, efficient elections," Kavanagh said in a statement read to the Council’s committee on governmental operations, which considered the resolution earlier this week.
 
Art Chang, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board's voter assistance advisory committee, explained that all the old steps are unnecessary with the use of electronic voting machines.
 
"There is no logical reason we should be using scissors, paper and pencils to compile and transmit a tally of votes that have been collected by electronic devices," Chang said. "We've made a massive investment into technology to improve the way we cast our votes. We somehow neglected to improve the way we count our votes."

The bill would allow the city Board of Elections to report results more quickly, with a portable memory device holding ballot scanner data replacing cut-and-pasted paper tapes. This practice has already been applied successfully in some New York counties, including Nassau County, according to Kavanagh. However, the Board of Elections in the City of New York has yet to give their support for this resolution.

Gale Brewer, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, said she expected a response from them by Tuesday.

Adrienne Kivelson, who represented the League of Women Voters as a witness at the hearing, explained that her organization also could not directly support Kavanagh's bill.

"As much as we recognize the urgency to address this issue… we find nothing in the bill that's going to speed up the process for poll workers who've already put in a 15-hour day," she said.

Kivelson emphasized the bill's flexibility as a weak point, saying that her organization wanted a more forceful change in canvassing methodology.

"The bill is very permissive and 'may' is used very often in the bill," Kivelson said. "That doesn't give us great confidence in the procedure changing."

She added: "We view 'may' rather than 'shall' in the language of the bill as unacceptable."
 
However, the consensus among all who spoke was that some sort of change should happen as soon as possible, considering upcoming local and national elections in the city.

"The perfect storm can result from this coming election day, in a nationally high-profile, hotly-contested election, where high turnout and long lines overwhelm election workers," explained Leonard Kohen, secretary of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council.

Brewer said she had personal experience with the complexity of the process. "There's no question that we're all trying to achieve the same goal, which is to have a streamlined but always accurate, always secure process," she said.

Fight Another Day

With the state Legislature’s session coming to a close on June 21 and legislators focused on their own election battles, much of Kavanagh’s legislation could be left undone.

Both Gianaris and Kavanagh acknowledged that a result was not imminent, but that they wanted to start a conversation.

And then, of course, in true Albany fashion, both legislators say they expect to be called back to session – perhaps after the November elections to address outstanding issues and legislative deals.

“It is too late in the year to make changes for this election season,” Gianaris said of the voter registration reform legislation. "I expect we will back and we plan to talk about this legislation next year but we have taken the first big step.”

__

Nina Goldman contributed to this report. 

Stop-and-frisk lawsuit gets class status


A federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit alleging the New York Police Department unlawfully targeted blacks and Hispanics with its stop-and-frisk crime reduction program.

U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in the decision filed today that the city had demonstrated “a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.”

The city’s Law Department said it disagreed with the judge’s decision and was reviewing its legal options.

Police released data Friday showing an increase in the number of stops on city streets between January and March of this year. The data showed there were 203,500 street stops, compared to183,326 in 2011.

Scheindlin wrote that over 2.8 million stops were made between 2004 and 2009.

At a forum held to discuss alternatives to stop-and-frisk moderated by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in Harlem later in the evening, the ethnically mixed crowd broke into applause when news of the judge’s decision was announced.

The group of about 150 people had gathered at a Touro College lecture hall to listen to a panel of experts. Many were activists, some wearing “STOP STOP-AND-FRISK” buttons.

Myrtho Gardiner, a member of the Association for Black Social Workers, said he was glad to hear about the judge’s decision.

“My concern is that the courts take too long,” said the 31-year-old, who claimed he had been stopped and frisked by police in Harlem. “The practice needs to end now.”

Sharita Pair, 21 and Samantha Waddell, 18, both with YouthBuild USA, didn’t want to see stop-and-frisk end completely.

“I see guys just walking around with guns,” Pair said. “But it should be cut down.”

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has strongly defended the practice and, during a City Council hearing last month, pugnaciously argued that the policy had successfully reduced violence among young men of color.

The lawsuit that was granted class-action status earlier today was filed by four black men who allege their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. They also claim they represent a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos stopped by officers under the NYPD's strategy. In addition, they have called for an injunction against the policy, the court papers said.

Scheindlin wrote that, if the NYPD is "engaging in a widespread practice of unlawful stops," then an injunction would be a "vindication of the Constitution and an exercise of the courts' most important function: protecting individual rights in the face of the government's malfeasance."

Richard Aborn, executive director of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, said the case demonstrates the need for independent and transparent oversight of the NYPD. "It is the only large department in the United States without independent oversight," he said.

The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy was previously litigated in a case resolved in 2003, with the city agreeing in a settlement to procedures aimed at reducing racial disparities in the numbers of people stopped by officers. The police department adopted a racial profiling policy, revamped how it documents stops and made other changes.

The current lawsuit was brought in 2008 after the settlement expired, according to the court papers.

Students Push For DREAM Act


 
dream
Photo provided by New York State Youth Leadership Council

Next Tuesday Marlen Fernandez and a handful of other undocumented students will arrive in Albany to petition state legislators to pass the New York State DREAM Act. The students from the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an advocacy group made up of undocumented youth like Fernandez, will have walked 150 miles from New York City over eight days to deliver their message in the state capital.

Fernandez, 19, is a sophomore at Lehman College studying to be a medical anthropologist. Like many undocumented youth, Fernandez was brought to this country by her parents when she was a small child. But her undocumented status prevents her from receiving state financial aid to pay for her education, so she has to work two jobs, as a cashier and hostess, while she’s in school to pay her tuition.

“I’m always working to save up for next semester. My parents try to help out but they can’t pay for my school and support a family of five,” Fernandez says. Her parents also both work two jobs.

The New York State DREAM Act would allow eligible undocumented students like Fernandez to receive state financial aid for their education through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Estimates vary but the New York State Youth Leadership Council says that at least 4,000 students in state and city public colleges would become eligible for state financial aid. Many more students at private institutions and who don’t attend school because they can’t afford it would also become eligible, the group says.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent economic think-tank that supports the DREAM Act, issued a report stating that the bill would cost the TAP program an extra $17 million. By those numbers, the report says, a taxpayer earning between $60,000 and $75,000 a year would pay $1.34 more in state taxes each year to cover the DREAM Act.

The bill’s supporters say that the cost is well worth the investment, since a college diploma would dramatically increase the earning potential of these students and thereby increase the amount they would pay in taxes back to the state. But opponents of the legislation say that it would provide an incentive for illegal immigration.

The DREAM Act has yet to receive support from Republicans in the State Senate and from Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor declined to add the DREAM Act to the state budget passed on April 1, frustrating many of the bill’s supporters.

The governor’s refusal to add the bill to the state budget prompted Fernandez and the other undocumented students from the New York State Youth Leadership Council to march all the way to Albany to gather support for the legislation.

Along the way, Fernandez says, the marchers have received a great deal support. They stop at colleges and give presentations about the DREAM Act and share their own stories with other students.

Drivers passing them on the road to Albany honk their support and sometimes pull over to ask the marchers about their cause. As the walkers head upstate into more conservative districts, Fernandez says they’ve been getting some thumbs down signs from drivers disapproving of their message.

“It’s kind of a challenge, but it inspires us more,” she says.

Once they reach Albany, Fernandez and the other marchers plan to meet individually with state lawmakers to ask for their support for the legislation.

If the DREAM Act is passed New York will be the fourth state, after California, New Mexico and Texas, to institute the legislation.

Although the New York State DREAM Act would grant tuition assistance to undocumented students, it would not grant them citizenship. Congress voted down the federal DREAM Act in 2010 that would have granted citizenship to students like Fernandez, despite poll numbers that showed that the majority of Americans favored the legislation.

Although undocumented students won’t get citizenship New York State should still pass its own DREAM Act, says Angy Rivera, another member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council.

“We want to push this positive legislation to send a message to the federal government, especially after some of the negative legislation that has been passed like SB 1070 in Arizona,” Rivera said.

But the DREAM Act’s opponents worry that the bill will encourage future illegal immigration to the state.

Dr. Stanley Renshon, a fellow at the Center for Immigrations Studies and political science professor at the City University of New York, points out that the bill has no cut-off date for when a student should have arrived in the U.S. to be eligible for financial aid.

The federal DREAM Act, for instance, said that only students who had been living in the country for five years before the date the bill was passed would be eligible. But without a cut-off date, future illegal immigrants would be able to benefit from the New York DREAM Act, Renshon says.

Senator Bill Perkins (D-30th), who sponsored the bill, contends that it won’t encourage future illegal immigration.

“There’s no evidence that the floodgates would be wide open like some might suggest,” he says.

Perkins calls Governor Cuomo the most important figure in determining if the bill gets passed, and recently wrote a letter to the governor urging his support. Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Renshon says that the governor has to consider the widespread public sympathy for DREAM Act kids, but also could be hurt politically if he’s seen as supporting legislation that would benefit future illegal immigrants.

“The governor has a gauntlet to walk,” he says. “But if he’s smart he’ll figure out a way to find common ground.”

DREAM Act supporters hope the governor will come around in support of the bill.

“This is consistent with everything he’s said about immigrants and education,” says Chung-Wha Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group that is petitioning for the legislation.

Hong points out that the state Education Department, the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees and the state Regent’s Board all support the legislation.

Supporters of the state DREAM Act hope to get it passed in Albany by June, when the current legislative session ends. If the bill isn’t passed this session then undocumented students in this year’s high school graduating classes across New York State will, like Marlen Fernandez, be ineligible for state financial aid.

Fernandez lives with the threat of deportation now that she has come out as undocumented to support the DREAM Act. But she says that she has accepted that risk because she feels its time to take a stand on this issue.

“If you have the ambition, whether you’re documented or undocumented, you should have the opportunity to get an education,” she says as she continues her march to Albany.



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