Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Document Jam Could Keep Immigrants from Voting

To many immigrants, the right to vote in the United States represents the full realization of their American dreams and a validation of many years of hard work and struggle. It means that they are active members of the American society and equal to native-born Americans -- at least in the eyes of the law.

This year, though, many immigrants who thought they would be able to vote in the November presidential election may not be eligible because of delays in processing their applications for citizenship. Because of a rapid rise in applications, the federal government has been taking an average of 16 to 18 months to review the applications, up from around seven months a year ago.

Even the Department of Homeland Security, which has responsibility for reviewing the applications, concedes that a problem exists. "There may be a significant number ... that have applied at this date that don't make it through" in time for the election Homeless Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a recent congressional hearing

In an effort to pressure the administration to clear the backlog of citizenship applications by legal immigrants, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) in New York filed a class-act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to demand that the immigration authorities to complete hundreds of thousands pending naturalization petitions in time for the new citizens to vote in November.

"It is insulting to the people who applied for citizenship," said Cesar Perales, PRLDEF's president and general counsel. "Especially after they learned English and passed the civics and history test to qualify for citizenship, they still have to wait. They should have all been ready to cast their vote as American citizens in November. ... It is very typical of the American government. They don't care about the immigrants. They don't want them to be a part of the American society."

In the lawsuit, PRLDEF demands that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, process all application filed before March 26 by September 22.This would give the new citizens time to register to vote and meet the Bush administration's own goal of processing all applications within six months.

Beating the Fee Increase

The backlog springs largely from a sharp increase in 2007 in citizenship applications. A total of 460,294 citizenship applications were filed in July 2007 alone, the Associated Press reported, an increase of about 650 percent increase from July 2006. And that was not an isolated event. Throughout the first half of 2007, the citizenship agency received far more applications than it had in the same month a year earlier.

The large influx of applications is widely believed to be a result of the drastic fee increase last summer. On July 30, 2007, the fee for naturalization applications rose 69 percent, to $675 from $400. All other immigration-related application fees went up as well. Immigration officials justify the increases by noting that Congress has required that federal immigration and naturalization services be self-supporting.

Critics of the large fee hikes argue that they will place U.S. citizenship out of reach for many legal immigrants. But proponents counter that immigrants should be willing to save and sacrifice if they want to enjoy the benefits of being citizens.

Regardless of the merits of the increase, critics of the immigration agency said officials should have anticipated its effects. ""The fee hike is no small increase," said Norman Eng, communications director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella advocacy group. "So the fact they didn't expect so many people would try to get their application before the deadline. ...They only have themselves to blame for their lack of foresight."

Too Late to Vote

The backlog has affected immigrants in New York and around the country. More than 90,000 legal immigrants in New York State have been waiting for up to three years for their naturalization applications to be processed, PRLDEF said in a statement. Currently, 1.1 million foreign-born New Yorkers are eligible for citizenship, according to the New York Coalition.

In their statement, PRLDEF officials were particularly critical of the effect this could have on the election.

"We've already witnessed unprecedented numbers of Latinos going to the polls during this election season. Hundreds of thousands more are being denied that same opportunity," said Perales.

"Thousands of immigrants will be wrongly denied the most wonderful opportunity our government offers us, the ability to participate in the democratic process," said Foster Maer, one of PRLDEF's attorneys. "When people follow the rules, so should the government."

Breaking the Logjam

Two weeks after the lawsuit, immigration services director Emilio Gonzalez announced that his agency had lowered its projections for how long it would take to process naturalization applications. Citing the sharp increase in applications last summer, Gonzalez said the individuals who filed for citizenship during the summer of 2007 can anticipate an average processing time of 13 to 15 months, a three-month improvement from the 16 to 18 months projected in January, though far from the Bush administration's six-month target.

The immigration agency blames the Federal Bureau of Investigation for some of the delay, noting the FBI has to check all names. To address the backlog there, Citizenship and Immigration Services and the FBI announced a joint plan. The bureau said it has already dealt with all name check cases pending more than four years and by May hopes to complete all name checks pending more than three years. By June 2009, the FBI hopes to process 98 percent of all name checks within 30 days and to spend no more than 90 days to clear cases that are deemed difficult.

To speed its own processing, the immigration agency has hired retired employees and encouraged workers to work overtime voluntarily. The agency scheduled naturalization interviews on Saturdays and Sundays as well as after traditional business hours. It also plans to add nearly 3,000 new employees, place workers in offices with the greatest backlogs, quadruple the funding for overtime and use Asylum Office facilities and staff to conduct naturalization interviews.

"By the end of the year, I expect USCIS will have finished 36 percent more naturalization cases than last year without compromising national security or the integrity of the naturalization process," said Gonzalez.

But PRLDEF's Perales is not satisfied. "The review of these applications is not going to be done in time for these legal immigrants," he said. "They can't keep answering the question with the vague notion of national security."

Eng said that the government needs to send a more welcoming message. "There needs to be a commitment to immigrants and to encouraging immigrants to get involved and to be part of our civic life," he said. "The message that this backlog debacle sends is that we don't care about you. That's not the right message. That's not what this country is founded on."

Meanwhile, Gonzalez plans to step down on April 18 after serving as the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services since January 2006.

In an editorial, the New York Times said Gonzalez will leave behind a gummed-up bureaucracy and perhaps a million empty promises. "Those who know the citizenship system say it is 'dumbfounding' that Gonzalez and his agency did not foresee the surge, not only because the fees went way up, but also because 2008 is a presidential election year - always a time when would-be citizens hurry to get their papers in," reads the editorial.

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

Taking a New Look at Discrimination in New York

Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Last month, New York City paid $21 million to settle a class action lawsuit for race-based employment practices in the city Department of Parks and Recreation. At the time of the lawsuit, more than nine in ten of the parks employees making less than $20,000 a year were black or Latino, while only 14 perent making $50,000 to $60,000 were black or Latino. When the Bloomberg administration agreed to the settlement, it nevertheless claimed it did not and does not discriminate.

Earlier this month, Senator Barack Obama called for open and honest action to address inequality, and in that spirit it is time for New York City's government to examine its own approach to practices. Instead of officials clamming up and insisting categorically that the city does not discriminate, what if policymakers, advocates and residents addressed the problem head on and agreed that policies that further racial and gender disparities -- intentionally or not -- are unacceptable?

This is the approach proposed by the Human Rights in Government Operations Audit Law (Human Rights GOAL) introduced earlier this month by Councilmembers Helen Foster and Darlene Mealy. This measure would put us one step closer to real equality for all New Yorkers.

To fend off inadvertent discrimination, Human Rights GOAL would do three things:

--Track how its policies affect different populations
--Remedy disparities as they emerge, rather than wait for a lawsuit to challenge them; and
--Include the affected, marginalized populations in implementing the law.

While New York City does have a stated policy of non-discrimination, it lacks the requisite tools to determine if that policy is being adhered to. No standard mechanism exists for knowing when or how government policies have disparate, negative impact on historically marginalized groups. And aside from the occasional audit by the Equal Employment Practices Commission, the only way discriminatory policies get fixed is when people undertake lengthy and costly lawsuits -- after the damage has been done.

The lawsuit settled by the parks department a few weeks ago, for example, might have been prevented if Human Right GOAL had been in effect. The lawsuit, dating back to 1999, was brought by over 3,000 black and Hispanic employees who charged that the department had passed them over for promotion in favor of white employees and paid them less.

After 14 months of negotiation, the Bloomberg administration agreed to pay more than $21 million and make "major changes in certain of its personnel practices." But the city staff and resources spent to defend the parks department in this lawsuit - and the anguish suffered by the victims of discrimination - is a much higher price than the stated settlement amount. And the open-ended promise to make changes and prevent something like this from happening again can only be fulfilled if it is accompanied by a concrete plan.

Explicit discrimination may be less common now than it once was, but, as Obama indicated in his speech, discrimination persists in seemingly neutral policies that create obstacles to equality.

The Precedent for Need

The discrimination documented in the park employees' suit was not an isolated incident. The City of New York has found itself in this position before.

--In 2005, the parks department settled a separate, federal discrimination lawsuit claiming that it routinely bypassed black and Hispanic employees for promotion.

--A year ago, a lawsuit by the U.S. attorney's office named the Department of Transportation for discriminating against women in its hiring practices. In the last 10 years, the lawsuit alleged, the department never hired a single female bridge painter despite the applications of a number of qualified women. The transportation department claimed to have a "gender neutral" hiring policy.

--Last year the federal Department of Justice sued the Fire Department of the City of New York charging that its written examinations discriminate against blacks and Hispanics applying to be entry-level firefighters.

Less documented but even more pervasive are the disparities reflected by the unequal application of municipal services. For example, while black and Latino youth are arrested more for use of illegal substances like marijuana, the city's own health department reports that white youth are more likely to use marijuana. In the child welfare system, black and Latino youth comprise an overwhelming 87 percent of the children in foster care. In 2006, 43 percent of black students and 41 percent of Latino students in New York City graduated on time, compared to 67 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students.

In one of the saddest facts, the infant mortality rate of children citywide is 5.9 per 1000 births, compared to 10.5 per 1000 for African American children.

It's not the official New York City policy to under-employ or under-serve certain groups, but as a result of seemingly benign policies and their implementation, men, women and youth wind up the repeated victims of de facto discrimination.

Setting a GOAL

Human Rights GOAL addresses disparities by drawing on two human rights treaties signed by the U.S.: the International Conventionon the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Notably, both treaties prohibit any policies and practices that are discriminatory in effect even if that is not in purpose. This definition of discrimination is broader than the definition in the existing civil rights law, which requires evidence of intent - and often a lawsuit - to determine the presence of discrimination.

Upon passage, Human Rights GOAL would mandate that all city agencies undergo an audit to determine what kind of data they already collect, what existing mechanisms are in place to address discriminatory practices, and to what extent agencies engage those most affected by their policies in evaluating and improving them. Based on the idea that the first step to remedy discriminatory practices is to identify and determine the extent of the problem, the bill requires all city agencies to collect and publish data on employment and service delivery, then use this data to analyze their programs to identify if they have a discriminatory effect.

While some agencies do track certain numbers -- hiring practices have gradually become better documented thanks to Equal Employment Opportunity policies -- it is notoriously difficult to know what kind of information the city tracks in other areas, and, if so, how one gets that information. Indeed, many advocates supporting Human Rights GOAL list getting access to data -- numbers on race, gender, immigration status, religion and more -- as the biggest obstacle they face in conducting research about the very communities they seek to help. These groups have filed Freedom of Information Act requests, only to be repeatedly ignored by the city.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York Times and several others filed a lawsuit against the police department for not sharing electronic data on police stops. The department has since released the data -- but sent it to a third party in another state. Meanwhile, in its annual firearms report, the police break down information on dogs that have been harmed by police gunfire by breed but neglects to do the same by race for people it has harmed.

Judging from departmental reports and the Mayor's Management Report, other agencies fare better. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, for one, collects disaggregated data and makes it available. This should be a practice for all departments -- parks, buildings, transportation, education, environmental protection, children's services and more.

With data in hand, these agencies would then publish a human rights analysis, and develop an action plan targeted at fixing trouble spots. The action plan might entail hiring more broadly, offering better housing or legal services to certain communities, or expanding access to good schools.

Finally, to oversee implementation, Human Rights GOAL would create a human rights taskforce of civilians and city representatives. The taskforce would do some of the heavy lifting to carry out the audits, the assessment of areas for improvement, and what an action plan should look like.

Freedom from discrimination is a basic human right, one New York City has a history of recognizing. But it should not rest on its laurels - a progressive city remains progressive only by constantly searching for ways to expand equality and hold itself accountable.

Across the country, San Francisco passed a version of Human Rights GOAL in light of unfair hiring and service practices. The city has now increased the number of women hired in non-traditional positions and even appointed the first woman to its airport commission.

For the sake of New York and its residents, it is time we employ policies that protect our basic human rights before agencies get slapped with hefty law suits. It is time to turn this human rights bill into law.

Ejim Dike is director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center.  

Ending Another Form of Discrimination

The City Council voted on March 26 to add another category of people to those already protected from discrimination in housing. Now, the Administrative Code will ban housing discrimination based on "source of income." Landlords will no longer be able to deny access to housing on the basis of type of income, provided the income is from a lawful source.

The intention of the bill and the immediate effect is to ban rejection of low-income tenants or potential tenants who possess Section 8 housing vouchers. Financial need will now join race, gender, marital status, sexual preference, ethnicity and age as factors that a property owner cannot consider in deciding whether or not to rent to an individual or a family, assuming the prospective tenant is otherwise eligible and has a documented lawful source of income.

The City Council ovverrode the mayor's veto by a vote of 44 to 7.

Until now, according to the Council's Report of the Governmental Affairs Division, Committee on General Welfare, it has been common for landlords to refuse to rent apartments to otherwise eligible apartment seekers who have the vouchers. The Section 8 program is meant to assure that a qualified tenant or family does not pay more than 30 percent of income for housing.

While focusing on New Yorkers in the Section 8 program, the new law would not allow a landlord to discriminate against people who receive Social Security, public assistance or other lawful sources of income. The legislation covers various types of housing provided there are six or more units, and it applies to incoming tenants and to those already in a home but whose economic circumstances may have changed after they moved in.

"This is a common sense law that will help more New Yorkers find housing that they can afford," said Councilmember Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, who introduced the measure.

California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin, as well as Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle have enacted similar legislation, as have other jurisdictions in New York State, including Nassau County and Buffalo.

After the City Council overwhelmingly passed the bill last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed it. The mayor apparently thought the measure was too restrictive of business. "The onus," he wrote when he vetoed the bill, "should be on government to make the program more attractive for private sector participation, not the other way around."

In an e-mail in February, a mayoral spokesperson called the City Council bill a "solution in search of a problem." It said the administration wants to reduce bureaucratic hurdles in the Section 8 program so landlords want to accept the vouchers, rather than create legislation that targets landlords.

De Blasio, the chairman of the Committee on General Welfare, criticized the veto. "It's unfortunate that at a time when New Yorkers are suffering the burdens of high rent and an economic downturn, that the mayor vetoed legislation designed to protect low-income families," he said.

The council's report found that protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their source of income would "benefit prospective tenants, landlords and housing authorities." Tenants, it said, would " have a greater chance of finding affordable housing and can seek redress from housing discrimination," while landlords would "gain tenants who have strong incentives to be model tenants." In addition, because the local housing authority guarantees timely payment of rent for Section 8 recipients, landlords know they will be paid.

Despite this change to the City's Human Rights Law, the Section 8 program still faces problems. Most seriously, the number of the vouchers is limited by the funds provided by the federal government. For the last 12 years, no vouchers have been available except for victims of domestic violence, homeless people and other priority candidates who need housing on an emergency basis. In fact, except for a small window that was open in 2007, federal funding cuts have closed the list to all non-emergency applicants. For this reason, the people actually protected by the new city law -- at least for now -- will be primarily those who already had vouchers, but were unable to use them because landlords would not accept them.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 


Same-Sex Marriages, Death and Taxes

"In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes," Benjamin Franklin famously said. But for committed same-sex couples in New York, these are two areas of law, along with many others, remain far from settled. Here's a rundown of some key recent developments.

What Happens in Canada Doesn't Stay in Canada

In a ruling that could prove pivotal, a state appeals court last month decided that legal same-sex marriages established elsewhere must be respected by all public and private entities here, even though New York State does not license the marriages of gay couples (unless one is a gay man and the other is a lesbian woman).

The mid-level Appellate Division's 4th Department, a relatively conservative court, ruled unanimously on February 1 that a New York lesbian couple married in Canada could not be denied marital benefits from Monroe County Community College where one of the women works. The decision "rests on a century's old law--the marriage recognition rule," said Matt Faiella, a staff attorney with the http://www.nyclu.org New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the women.

Even though the Court of Appeals, the state's highest, ruled in 2006 that the state did not have to grant same-sex couples the right to marry, the decision did not say that it could not do so. New York is one of a handful of states that has not passed a law forbidding recognition of gay marriages. And since same-sex marriage is not "abhorrent" to New York's public policy (as, say, a marriage between brother and sister would be), the upstate appellate court concluded that legal marriages of same-sex couples who wed in Canada must be given the same recognition as mixed gender Canadian marriages. It falls under the principle of "comity" whereby states and nations give effect to legal agreements from elsewhere.

While there are several other cases at the Appellate Court level involving recognition of same-sex marriages licensed elsewhere, the upstate decision applies to the entire state unless another division of the Appellate Court makes a contradictory ruling. And while Monroe County is trying to appeal the decision that they must recognize the marriage of two women, the state's high court does not have to hear its appeal and probably will not. (The New York Times did a good survey article on these cases and on a ruling that two women married in Canada but living here can dissolve their marriage only through divorce proceedings that one of the spouses is resisting.)

Thus, we have the somewhat wacky situation in New York in which a gay couple can go to Toronto to get married and come back to our state and be legally married under New York law, but they cannot go down to their local city hall and wed.

This is not the first time that New York has given legal recognition to out-of-state same-sex marriages. In 2004, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer unofficially opined, "Under state court precedent, same sex marriages and civil unions lawfully entered in other jurisdictions outside the state should be recognized in New York."

Also in 2004, then-State Comptroller Alan Hevesi began treating these couples as married under the State Retirement System. His move survived a lawsuit challenge by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.

After he became governor, Spitzer ordered the Civil Service Department to recognize legally married same-sex couples in 2007, compelling any municipality linked to the state benefits system to do so as well. None of this is likely to be undone by new Gov. David Paterson since he has a longer and stronger record on gay rights, including marriage equality, than the man he replaces.

Legal Misrepresentation

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Monroe County couple, but his office did not return calls on how his office will make sure all state departments comply with the court's decision. For now, at least, the state Department of Taxation and Finance is at odds with it.

In 2006, the department issued an advisory opinion in 2006 insisting that state law requires married couples to use the same filing status as they use on their federal tax forms. Since the federal government bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages under the Defense of Marriage Act, legally married same-sex couples -- even in Massachusetts, which license such marriages -- must file as single on their federal returns. On their state returns, gay married couples in Massachusetts must file as married. Since their state tax is based on the federal system, they then have to do two federal returns: one a "dummy" return to figure out what their state taxes would be as a married couple and the other, the real one for federal purposes, as single. New York is not allowing that.

Thomas Bergin, a spokesperson for the state tax department, said, "The law would have to be changed or revised" for gay married couples to be able to file as married in New York, but he conceded that their counsel had not reviewed how the Monroe County case might chnge that.

"We have asked the governor to take another look at that," Susan Sommer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal Defense, a gay advocacy group, said.

"State law requires allowing same-sex couples who are married to file as married," Sommer added. She would not go so far as to say that these couples should file as married in New York, but suggested they consult with their tax advisers and note on their state tax forms that they are married and are filing as single "under protest." "People should not have to swear under penalty of perjury that they are something that they're not," she said.

Mark Munroe, a certified public accountant in Manhattan who has many gay clients (including this reporter), said that he would advise people in same-sex marriages to file as unmarried per the official advisory opinion of the tax department. "If my clients felt strongly about it, I will file a joint return for them if they indemnify me for penalties," he said. As a practical matter, he said the only couples who would be significantly helped by filing jointly are those in which one of the spouses does not work.

New York City grants legal recognition to out-of-state same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships. The city Department of Finance was not immediately able to say whether the city's personal income tax takes these arrangements into consideration. Sam Miller, a spokesperson for the department, said that city income taxes are based entirely on state taxes, which, the state insists, are based on federal taxes.

'Til Death Do Us Part

The legal status of one's relationship plays a critical role in determining who gets to dispose of a person's remains and inherit their property. In a legal marriage, the spouse inherits the property tax free. If a married person dies without a will, his or her spouse automatically inherits the estate.

New York State does not marry gay couples, nor does it have registration for domestic partners or civil unions as New Jersey does. One of the only rights that domestic partners have from New York State is to control the remains of their dead partners. A bill establishing this slipped through with almost no objection in 2006.

Despite this law, death certificates in the state, including the city, do not list "domestic partner," under marital statuses that include "married, married but separated, widowed, divorced, never married and unknown." There is room for the name of a "surviving spouse," but not for a surviving domestic partner. Domestic partners in New York City -- same-sex and mixed sex -- have been able to register their partnerships since 1993 under an executive order by Mayor David Dinkins. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which issues death certificates, indicated that they are "aware of the issue" involving the partnerships and are "working to find a solution."

"We are working with them [the health department] on the fastest and most effective way for domestic partners to be listed on death certificates," said Anthony Hogrebe, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, herself an out lesbian

Brendan Fay, who married his husband, Thomas Moulton, in Toronto in 2003 and lives with him in Astoria, Queens, remembers the Canadian judge telling them that from that day forward, they were obligated to hold themselves out to the world as the married couple they are. They have -- even though the U.S. government won't recognize the marriage for immigration purposes (Fay is an Irish national.) Moulton has gotten marital benefits for Fay at his hospital job. Together, they help other same-sex couples travel to Canada to marry through their organization Civil Marriage Trail

"It's a pity gay couples have to go to all this expense to go to Canada to marry and be legally recognized in New York," Fay said. "I'm working for the day when they can marry right here in their home state and when the United States will give us marriage equality as well."

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.  

New Year's Show Sparks Controversy

Photo courtesy of Best Chinese Shows.

A Chinese New Year show at the Radio City Music Hall has stirred up some controversies after the New York Times ran a critical review of the show, saying the show's Falun Gong theme alienated some people in the audience.

The variety show, titled "Chinese New Year Splendor," included elaborate traditional Chinese music and dance productions featuring dozens of acrobatic dancers, drummers and a large screen that provided Chinese landscapes as backdrops. The first few numbers proved to be spectacular performances. But a third of the way into the show, Falun Gong references began to appear as three dancers on stage portraying Falun Gong practitioners were beaten up by prison guards. The backdrop of the piece had the Chinese writing "Falun Dafa is good" on it. Falun Gong, a spiritual movement strongly opposed by the Beijing government, is also known as Falun Dafa.

Meanwhile, between dance numbers, four vocalists performed songs that included lyrics to promote Falun Gong's teachings and denounce China's persecution of the group. In a number that resembles Falun Gong's street theater called "The Power of Awareness," communist police harassed a mother and her daughter practicing Falun Gong in the park. Eventually a group of bystanders chased the police away. At the end of the piece, the message became loud and clear as dozens of dancers performed Falun Gong movements in unison with its three principles - truthfulness, compassion and forbearance -- written in gigantic Chinese characters in the backdrop.

The Times article, written by reporter Eric Konigsberg, said dozens of people in the audience, perhaps a few hundred, left the show after the prison number and at intermission because they had realized that it "was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong." The reporter quoted audience members who were troubled by the Falun Gong material.

"I had no idea it was Falun Gong until now that it's too late, and it really bums me out," said Steven, a Chinese immigrant living in New Jersey who was among the first to leave the show and asked that his last name not be published.

"I don't feel comfortable here," said Elizabeth Levy, another audience member, as quoted in the article. "I had no idea when I came that this was about Falun Gong."

Eye on a Controversy

Falun Gong is a Tai Chi-like spiritual movement and breathing exercise that gained immense popularity in Mainland China in the early 1990s. It was banned in 1999 by the Chinese government, which declared it "an evil cult." Tens of thousands of practitioners are reported to have been tortured and sent to re-education camps. Since the crackdown, practitioners from around the world have started an international campaign to call attention to China's human rights violation. Many Chinese Falun Gong practitioners have gained permanent residency in the United States through political asylum. The founder of Falun Gong, Hongzhi Li, is believed to reside in New York City.

Inside China, however, media outlets and government offices often produce anti-Falun Gong propaganda campaigns, claiming that many practitioners troubled by health problems have died because they followed Li's teachings and refused medical treatment. They also contend that hundreds have committed self-mutilation or suicide because they wanted to attain "all-round fulfillment" -- a claim by its founder.

Meanwhile, Falun Gong remains a controversial subject in the Chinese immigrant community in New York and other U.S. cities as parties on both sides of the fence try to prove their legitimacy. For many years, Falun Gong groups were not permitted to march in the New Year parade in various Chinatowns because of pressure from the Chinese Embassy or the fear from organizers that they would be labeled as Falun Gong sympathizers. This year, Falun Gong practitioners participated in the parade in Flushing, Queens but were excluded in San Francisco.

The performance at the center of the current dispute is presented by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a New York-based independent, non-profit television station founded by a group of professionals and businessmen in 2001 who commonly practice Falun Gong. It is the station's fifth year running the New Year show. In addition to regular programming ranging from news and entertainment to sports, the station frequently highlights news about China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. The station prides itself for providing "truthful and uncensored" information about China.

The show, performed by the Divine Performing Arts of New York, is touring in 16 cities in Europe, 17 cities in the Asia-Pacific region and more than 30 cities in North America.

But while NTDTV claims to be independent, some Chinese people in New York disagree, calling it a "mouthpiece" of Falun Gong. The Chinese Culture Club and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at New York University started an online petition last year to stop NTDTV from using one of the university's performing arts centers for a dance contest. The website received more than 850 postings, and many petitioners said NTDTV is anti-China and echoed the Chinese government's official stance that Falun Gong is deceiving and evil.

Falun Gong Responds

The New York Times article, published on February 6, immediately drew angry reaction from the Falun Gong community. The Epoch Times, a New York-based newspaper critical of the Chinese government and a media sponsor of the show, has run dozens of articles denouncing the New York Times' coverage.

In one published on February 14 under the headline "The New York Times Parrots Communist Party Line," Carrie Hung, a spokesperson for the television station, objected to the impression the New York Times article gave the show's content. "The New York Times' quotes from the audience members make Splendor seem to be a show all about Falun Gong," she told the Epoch Times. "It is not. The show is about discovering and reviving authentic Chinese traditional culture and values. ... The performances incorporate elements from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Falun Gong, and from various ethnic traditions and different dynasties."

Meanwhile, NTDTV released a photo report on the last show that took place on February 9. Titled "Final 'Splendor' Show Packed After NY Times Article," it featured pictures that showed a capacity audience and a video that included testimonials from audience members who raved about the performance.

Taking It to the Blogosphere

The show and the Times article also generated a heated debated among bloggers.

"We were expecting a night of dance and music, but got this crappy propaganda piece with so-so dancing and the worst lyrics you've ever heard," wrote Angrygod101 on Gothamist, a popular blog about New York. "A good chunk of the show consisted of solo singers belting out FG propaganda songs accompanied by a pianist. I would have walked out too, if I could."

Another blogger, Makina, defended the show's artistic discretion. "If the artists must use their art to project a message, I'm all for it," wrote Makina. "It's been done before and the art is the language of the heart -- to express suffering is part of it."

Jordan Hoffman, a filmmaker and tour guide, said he felt deceived, as there was no mentioning of Falun Gong in the show's publicity. "What I thought would be an energetic, bright and musical show filled with dragons, drums and excitement turned out to be what I imagine a Carnival Cruise is like if controlled by the Falun Gong," he wrote in his blog.

"Truly I felt like I was tied down by the Falun Gong and made to watch this," commented Lisa Latimer on Hoffman's blog. "This was an obvious fundraiser and it should have been marketed as such. ... I don't like it when people get me to spend money under false pretenses."

But some people said they did not find fault with the show's content.

"The Chinese Splendor show mentioned truthfulness - compassion - tolerance," wrote Jean, a blogger and a mother of five. "Wouldn't this world be a much better place if we all tried to handle each other with compassion and tolerance? As for the performances that dealt with the abuses taking place in China against Falun Gong, it's now already a part of Chinese history, and is no more inappropriate a subject matter for the stage than, say, 'Fiddler On the Roof,' which dealt with the oppression of the Jews."

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Washington has repeatedly denounced the show. It released a statement before the show began its run in New York, calling on people to stay away from the "so-called Chinese New Year Gala." "Such 'galas,' with their pretentious mystification, were patchworks of programs with low artistic value and were full of implied preaching of cult doctrine and attacks on the Chinese Government," the statement reads. "They were an insult and distortion of the Chinese culture and a deception to the audience."

The New York Times has not made any public statement on the controversy. But it published a letter to the editor from Zhong Lee, president of NTDTV, on February 15.

"One of the basic freedoms central to the United States is freedom of expression," Lee wrote. "You should not find it so shocking that a Chinese culture show produced in the United States includes some reference to China's human rights issues."

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.



Trouble on the "Immigrant Express"

After three weekends of disrupted service between Woodside and Flushing because of installation of new signaling and track switches, the 7 train resumed local service in February, to the huge relief of commuters and immigrants getting ready for the Lunar New Year celebration. Express service remains suspended until March for the entire line.

Running along 19 miles from Times Square to Flushing, Queens, the 7 train serves 24 stations and nearly 400,000 riders a day. It is known as the "immigrant express" or "international express" because it goes through neighborhoods occupied by people representing more than 150 nations. While politicians and local merchants welcomed the return of the 7 train, many who depend on the subway fault the crowding and delays and think, even when it is running at full service, the train leaves a lot to be desired.

Back in Service

The return of service is particularly good news for residents in Flushing, a primarily Chinese and Korean enclave, as well as other immigrants who travel to specialty stores there to prepare for the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 7 this year. John Liu, the City Council member who represents Flushing, told the Daily News that the area's economy would have taken an even bigger hit if the 7 train had not run the first two weekends of February, the biggest shopping days of the year in the area. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's move was in response to requests from local politicians and.

"The MTA is understanding and cooperating with the businesses," Liu said.

"Our track department performed above and beyond our expectations," Steven Feil, senior vice president for subways at NYC Transit, said in a press release. The repair work, originally scheduled for five weekends, was completed ahead of schedule due to favorable weather.

During the first weekend with the 7 train back in service, Flushing was in chaos as many people rushed back to do their Lunar New Year shopping. According to the Chinese-language World Journal, a parking space was hard to find while the streets were filled with traffic and frustrated drivers. Some people did not know about the restored service and boarded the Long Island Rail Road without a ticket, thinking it was still free between New York Penn Station and Flushing.

The installation of the new equipment represents the second phase of a $76 million capital program to improve and upgrade the subway infrastructure along the Flushing line.

To provide alternative service when the 7 was not in service, the MTA ran shuttle buses between Woodside and Flushing. The Long Island Rail Road provided free rides between New York Penn Station and Flushing. The disruption confused many passengers, but most were able to find their way to the shuttle bus. Bilingual MTA workers were available to help riders who speak little English.

Chronic Pain

Even when it runs on weekends, a ride on the 7 train is never exactly smooth. Riders' blogs on the Straphangers website offer an array of complaints about the 7 train.

"At 6 p.m. today, I was at Grand Central station and there was hardly room to move on the platform," wrote Averie. "I don't mind the wait as much as I saw the safety hazard that prevailed on a crowded platform since both the Times Square-bound and Queens-bound trains both were not there to alleviate this human gridlock."

"One of the worst trains ever, and the only train out of Flushing forcing those of us that live there to take his horribly over crowded, smelly train," wrote Jen W. on Yelp, a review Web site on New York. "It's never on time. There are always delays. I don't care that you apologize for the delay, how about you apologize to my boss for me getting there late? Are you going to subsidize the pay my boss is going to dock from me? Probably not."

Some bloggers believe that the riders of the 7 train are underserved because they are mostly immigrants and working class.

"The subway system in New York City is unlike any other. It's a subway system in which people's livelihoods depend on - rich and poor," wrote a blogger named Cheeseburger 9000. "The subway was built for everyone, not simply for the rich folks living on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side that have to get to their important jobs in midtown and downtown."

"What is not recognized and valued is that thousands upon thousands of the city's workers come in from Queens," wrote Mariposa7 on the Straphangers blog. "This is not racism on the part of the MTA. This is classism, which unfortunately reeks of racism because the poorer class in this city is mostly made up of black and Latino citizens, immigrants included."

Service Improvements

In an effort to make things better, the MTA last December named a general manager for the 7 and the L trains. The move is part of an overall effort to decentralize the system by appointing managers who are responsible for virtually all elements of the day-to-day operations of the lines, overseeing everything from announcements to station cleanliness.

The MTA has also been asking riders to grade their subway lines. In the rider survey conducted last year, the 7 train received a C minus, with most riders citing severe crowding at rush hour. Among the 24 subway lines, only the C, E, W, G and the Rockaway Shuttle trains received a worse grade.

Lou Brusati, the line general manager for the 7 train and a veteran MTA supervisor, said he thought the 7's grade was fair but declined to give the train a grade himself. "New Yorkers are a tough crowd...in a good way," he said. "People have high expectations and they feel that we can do better."

Brusati added that he would focus on station cleanliness and the reliability of service. Starting next month, he will conduct a series of "meet and greets" at various stations and listen to the riders' concerns.

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

Race Matters in New York

Most New Yorkers think of racism as yesterday's news. They prefer to think we have moved beyond not just the city's dependence on slavery, its attempts to remain neutral in the Civil War so it could keep trading with the Confederacy, and Draft Riots that saw black people strung up from lampposts, but also the kind of contemporary blatant racial attacks that turn thousands of protesters out in the streets led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

When the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee is Harlem's own Charlie Rangel and Time Warner and Merrill Lynch -- not to mention the city itself -- have been led by black men (Richard Parsons, Stanley O'Neal, and David Dinkins respectively), most people think that overt racism is a thing of the past or, at worst, an isolated problem -- especially when an African American named Barack Obama could very well become the next president of the United States.

But evidence to the contrary persists. Just ask yourself who is homeless in New York, who the beggars are on the street and who does the lowest wage and hardest jobs from checking your groceries and emptying bedpans to cleaning your office.

The report from the Urban Justice Center's Human Rights Project goes beyond such anecdotal evidence. Presented at a forum in mid-December the study documents how even in multicultural New York, we have a long, long way to go before race no longer matters.

The report, "Race Realities in New York City," covers employment, health, criminal justice, immigration, education, voting rights, domestic violence, housing, and child welfare. The study by leaders of non-governmental organizations was prepared under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a human rights treaty that the United States has ratified. Under the terms of that agreement, the Bush administration issued a report earlier this year on how it is dealing with racial disparities in the United States, but the Urban Justice Center cited the thinness of that official report, especially for failing to note "the government's disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina" or the issue of police brutality. "Moreover," the center report says, "despite persistent racial discrimination that affects thousands of New Yorkers, the U.S. report contains very little New York City-specific information."

The Report's Findings

The center's 131-page report is an attempt to supplement that. And in doing so, it presents a stark picture of racial disparities. For example, it notes that "98 percent of 17,000 children in foster care in New York City are black and Latino." It also makes note of what it calls the "school to prison pipeline," which it describes as a "nationwide system of policies that pushes students from the school system into the juvenile justice system."

To start with, students of color are disproportionately suspended for the same infractions: 8.3 percent of all black students, 4.8 percent of Latinos and 2.5 percent of whites in the 2001 school year according to a recent report by Elizabeth Sullivan, "Deprived Of Dignity: Degrading Treatment And Abusive Discipline In New York And Los Angeles Public Schools" from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

In addition, according to the Urban Justice Center, "In 2006, 43 percent of black students and 41 percent of Latino students in New York City graduated on time, compared to 67 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students."

In employment, African Americans, Latinos and Asians "make up 37 percent, 16 percent and 4 percent respectively of the city's workforce," but hold just 18 percent of the senior and executive staff positions.

African Americans and Latinos comprise about half the population of the city, but account for 91 percent of those in jail. In 2006, half of all police stops were of African Americans, 29 percent were of Latinos and 11 percent were of whites. The report says that this occurred despite the fact that "white suspects were 70 percent more likely than black suspects to have a weapon."

The infant mortality rate is 10.5 per 1,000 live births for African Americans and 5.9 for whites. Women of color have three times the HIV rate of white women. The vast majority of domestic violence victims are women of color. The list goes on and on.

Looking for Solutions

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was making his tour of the Far East when the Urban Justice Center released the report. It hopes that he and the City Council will adopt international human rights principles in looking at whether New York City is plagued by racial disparities and what it can do about it.

In light of persistent racial disparities, the Urban Justice Center, in coalition with other groups, for several years has been trying to pass a City Council bill that would go beyond protecting individuals who can prove they have been illegally discriminated against and move toward remedying systemic discrimination. The measure, called the Human Rights in Government Operations Audit Law, would require city agencies to "disaggregate data" at least on the basis of race and sex and, when appropriate, on immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The measure is currently stalled. Bill Perkins, who is now a state senator, originally sponsored the bill. He has on called for getting the 2009 mayoral candidates to support the measure. The bill's current sponsor, Councilmember Helen Foster of the Bronx, in a passionate address at the December forum, highlighted the racial dimensions of everything from stadium siting to congestion pricing, which she said would lead people to park their cars in Harlem and other neighborhoods of color to avoid fees.

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.  

What Three Million Immigrants Do

A college graduate from Beijing who studies hotel management and culinary art, Zhen Zhang moved to New York in 1993 with dreams of opening his own hotel. Although that idea never materialized, he now runs a successful travel agency in Flushing, Queens.

" New York is a city that is full of opportunities," Zhang said. "Here, as long as you are willing to work hard, you will have a better future. You run into language and cultural barriers but you learn to adapt."

Zhang is among the 3 million immigrants living in New York City. Like the majority of them, he works hard and pays taxes. Now his contribution to the society is reaffirmed by a study, titled "Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy." It concluded that immigrants contribute nearly one fourth of the economic output of New York State. Their contribution is even greater in New York City, where their share of wages is 37 percent of total earnings by residents.

" These numbers should wipe away any impression that immigrants are holding the New York economy back," said David Kallick, a senior fellow at the institute and the principal author of the study. "In fact, immigrants are a central component of New York’s economic growth."

The study, conducted over the past year, was released on November 26, less than two weeks after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer dropped his controversial plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants that stirred up a national debate. It is prepared by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a private research organization, as part of a joint project on "The Truth about Immigrants" with the New York Immigrant Coalition.

" We just felt like there was such a deep misunderstanding about who immigrants were that the political discourse often got far afield from any factual basis of what’s really going on here," Kallick told the New York Times. "

" This report clearly proves that immigrants fuel growth and vitality in every economic sector and every geographic area in New York," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director or the New York Immigration Coalition. "For us to maximize immigrant contributions to the economy, we must stop treating immigrants like criminals and terrorists. Instead, we need to change our immigration law so that undocumented immigrants can come out of the shadows of the underground economy and future immigrant workers ca immigrate legally to fill jobs that our economy requires."

Breaking the Stereotypes

In New York City, foreign-born residents account for 37 percent of the population. The national average is 12 percent. These immigrants are not limited to the low-wage, low-skill work often associated with them. According to the study, in New York City, immigrants make up a quarter of all chief executives, half of accountants, a third of financial managers and four out of 10 architects. They account for half of the city's doctors and six out of 10 registered nurses. In addition, more than a third of college professors are immigrants and so are more than half of all computer programmers.

Steven Michaels, an immigrant from Greece and a former comptroller of a major financial firm, said about 20 percent of the employees in his former company are foreign-born and highly educated.

" Many of them earned their MBAs here and hold middle and upper management positions," said Michaels, currently an independent financial consultant. "Leaving their families and social circles to start over in a foreign country, they have to work hard in order to be successful. They absolutely make great contribution to the economy."

" Immigrants’ contribution to economic output in New York State is about the same as their share of the population," said James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute. "That’s because immigrants start businesses, invest in New York and work in jobs all across the economic spectrum – the same as other New Yorkers."

In the Labor Force

According to the study, about 28.5 percent of all immigrants live in families with an income of between $40,000 and $80,000. Immigrants tend to have incomes in this middle range, while native-born families tend to be more concentrated at the top and bottom of the income spectrum.

In addition, immigrants have a higher work force participation rate than other Americans. Sixty-four percent of immigrants are in the labor force, compared to 60 percent of New York City residents born in the United States. Immigrants work longer hours – slightly above one hour a week more than native-born workers. And they tend to have more workers in each family – 44 percent of immigrant families have two or more family members that work, compared to 28 percent of native-born families.

Illegal immigrants, the center of the furor over Spitzer’s former license plan, were also included in the study through collaboration with the Pew Hispanic Center and Urban Institute. Immigrants without proper documentation make up about 18 percent of all immigrants in New York City, totaling at 535,000. Among them, 374,000 people are in the work force, showing a labor participation rate as high as 70 percent.

Urban Revival

Immigrants have contributed to New York City’s rebirth over the last 25 years. Because of the fiscal crisis and population decline in the 1970s, New York City’s population dropped to a record-low 7 million in the 1980 Census. The city's population reached 8.2 million in 2005 and is projected to continue to grow, partly because of immigration.

Asian immigrants are the fastest-growing group, making up 23 percent of all immigrants. Blacks are 21 percent with many newcomers from the Caribbean and Africa. Whites account for 23 percent with a big influx of Eastern Europeans, while Hispanics are 31 percent. The top five countries of birth for immigrants are the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Mexico and Guyana.

Beyond working, these immigrants contribute to the economic vitality of the city in other ways. For example, 34 percent of immigrants live in hoes they own, a rate close to that of their native-born counterparts.

Newcomers to the city have opened businesses across New York, particularly in its many ethnic enclaves. Immigrants own a variety of businesses -- grocery stores, nail salons, newsstands and restaurants, to name a few-- that create employment and generate tax revenue. In Flushing, Queens, where Chinese and Korean signs can be seen everywhere, the number of businesses grew 54.6 percent between 1994 and 2004. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Spanish is the primary language, more than 500 new businesses were established during the same period of time.


More and more immigrants have some form of higher education, the study found. In 1980s, only about 30 percent have received some college education. That number grew to 52 percent in 2005. The study also found that immigrants from Asia have considerably higher college graduation rates than native-born residents, while groups from Latin America, Caribbean and Mexico, have considerably lower educational levels.

" No matter if it is low-skill or high-skill work, immigrants fill the positions that Americans refused to take or simply could not do," said Keju Ma, a Canadian citizen who works for Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. "They fill the gap. That is significant contribution to the American economy."

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





















New York Plays Key Role in Fight for Transgender Rights

As the debate over civil rights protections on the basis of “gender identity and expression” heated up in Congress, five of New York City’s members in the House of Representative voted against the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act on November 7 because it does not cover transgendered people. At the same time, pressure is building in Albany for at least the Democrat-controlled Assembly to add gender identity to the state human rights law, which incorporated protections for gay people in 2002 while defeating an amendment covering people of transgender experience. In New York City, where the city law has covered gender identity since 2002, transgendered people still encounter persistent discrimination, putting this new civil rights measure to the test.

The City Law

New York City was late among major cities in adding sexual orientation to its human rights law. It did not pass what was known as the “gay rights bill” until 1986 and took until 2002 to add gender identity. Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund called the city law “great,” but said, “That doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go.”

Silverman said that while much of the discrimination that many New Yorkers experience tends to be subtle, people who are transgendered still are subject to discrimination that is “so obvious and degrading” that it is hard to believe.

He is handling a complaint now from a person whose license was marked “M” for male even though she presents as a woman. When she showed identification to get served in a bar, the manager said, “Your ID says male. I can’t accept that.”

“ It’s certainly OK to ask to see an ID to verify a person’s age,” Silverman said, but it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity or expression. In response to her compliant, a police officer went to the bar on the border of Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Although sympathetic, the officer said, “We can’t do anything.”

On the last Sunday in June, Khadijah Farmer, a lesbian with close-cropped hair, was using the women’s restroom at the Caliente Cab Company in the Village when a male bouncer burst in and banged on her stall door demanding that she leave. Farmer said she tried to show the man her license identifying her as female, but the bouncer wouldn’t look at it. He threw Farmer and her friends out, making them pay for food they had just started eating. Ironically the incident took place on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Day just south of Sheridan Square where the Stonewall Rebellion launched the modern gay movement in 1969.

Representatives of the restaurant deny Farmer’s version of events, but refuse to offer one of their own. The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing the Caliente Cab Company and transgendered people and their supporters have picketed it. The establishment has not, however, been put out business by an angry community

Melissa Sklarz, a veteran transgender political activist, served on a committee at the City Human Rights Commission that worked on guidelines for implementing the city transgender rights law and believes “more and more people are aware of the law now.” But, she said, “For the law to work, we need courageous people like Khadijah Farmer who are willing to stand up.”

As the Farmer case illustrates, you do not have to be a transsexual or a transitioning transperson to need the protection under the category of gender identity and expression. Farmer says she is happy being a woman, even if her style of dress and grooming lead some people to mistake her for a man. Indeed, we all cross traditional gender boundaries in small and sometimes large ways, from women who wear pants and men who wear makeup to women who fight wars and men who won’t.

Beyond the question of discrimination, these issues have very practical implications, particularly in this era when everyone must constantly show identification. Joann Prinzivalli, director of the New York Transgender Rights Organization and a transwoman, has a driver’s license that says “female.” The license was issued before 2002 when people had to have completed transgender surgery to be identified in accordance with their identity and not their biology. New York State will also change the designation on a birth certificate if one is post-operative.

But Prinzivalli’s passport still says “male” and by 2013, we are all going need a passport or federal REAL ID for air travel even within the United States and to enter federal buildings. In those cases, her gender presentation will not line up with how she is identified on her papers. “I’ll be shut out of air transportation,” she said. In the politically explosive debate over identification documents mostly dealing with undocumented immigrants, the concerns of transpeople are not considered.

Legislature Resists Transgender Protections

The Republican-led New York State Senate finally added sexual orientation to the state human rights law in 2002. But the Senate remains resistant to protecting transgendered people. It will not take up school anti-bullying legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has said he is not interested in protecting, as he put it, “transvestites.” The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act has not so much as had a hearing in his house.

For its part, the Democrat-dominated Assembly voted to open up marriage to same-sex couples earlier this year. However the Assembly, under Speaker Sheldon Silver, has refused to take up amending the state human rights law to add “gender identity and expression.”

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s gay and transgender lobby group, has made the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act its number one priority in the Assembly next year, according to Joe Tarver, communications director for the group. The bill, he said, now has 72 sponsors and 95 members committed to vote for it on the floor. Seventy-six votes are needed for passage.

Tarver noted that on October 1, the state Democratic Party approved a resolution supporting the bill. That together with the debate over transgender inclusion in the federal civil rights bill “are raising consciousness about what it means to be discriminated against based on gender identity,” he said. “It’s in the news and the political establishment is paying attention,” much the way they did to the marriage issue.

On average, according to Dan Pinello of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, states that pass laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation wait another 14 years before adding protections based on gender identity—a legal term that was not even coined when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a gay rights law in 1982. Sklarz and Tarver believe that, it is going to take the election of a Democratic Senate for the bill to clear the legislature.

The last three states to pass gay rights laws—Colorado, Iowa and Oregon-–covered gender identity at the same time.

The Fight in Washington

In the 1970s, New York Representatives Ed Koch and Bella Abzug were among the first sponsors of a federal bill to add sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The idea attracted more and more sponsors over the years, but never got a hearing in Congress.

In 1994, a scaled-down version of the federal gay rights bill was introduced covering only most forms of employment and not housing or public accommodations. Supported by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act also went nowhere.

In 2004, out gay Representative Barney Frank and the chief lobbyists for the bill at the Human Rights Campaign bowed to growing insistence by gay and transgendered activists across the country and included transgender protections in the bill. It, too, languished in the Republican-controlled House

But this year, just before it was to come up for a vote in the new Democratic-led Congress, Frank announced that the votes were not there for gender identity and he introduced a bill without protection for transgendered people. He said Congress could add gender identity to the law sometime in the future.

A national uproar in the gay and transgender movements ensued. More than 300 groups, led by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and including most statewide advocacy groups such as New York’s Pride Agenda, formed a coalition called United ENDA demanding that transgender protections be restored and that any bill without it be defeated.

New York Representative Jerry Nadler was the first member of Congress to announce he disagreed with Frank’s strategy. Nadler argues against splitting gender identity from sexual orientation—especially since President George W. Bush would veto a bill covering either.

When Frank’s gay-only bill was approved in committee last month, four liberal Democrats, including Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn, voted against it because it did not include gender identity protections. Representative Anthony Wiener of Brooklyn and Queens has endorsed the stand taken by Nadler and Clarke.

The House approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act covering only sexual orientation on November 7 by a vote of 235-184. An amendment to cover gender identity was offered by out lesbian Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and withdrawn.

When the bill reached the House floor, New York Representatives Nadia Velazquez and Edolphus Towns joined Nadler, Clarke and Weiner in voting against it because of its failure to protect transgendered people. Nadler said in a statement that, if Baldwin's amendment failed, "I will not be able to vote for the underlying bill because it fails to uphold the American values of fairness and equality.” He also said, "Splitting sexual orientation and gender identity disserves the entire LGBT community and invites the kind of legal mischief that has undermined other civil rights laws."

The most extraordinary thing about this whole debate is the way in which it demonstrates how the gay rights movement has embraced people of transgender experience and how the category of gender identity is now seen as essential not just to protecting transpeople, but gays and lesbians as well. Indeed, the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund wrote a lengthy attack on Frank’s stripped-down bill making these points. Whatever happens, as I wrotein the Gay City News, the current debate on transgender rights presents a unique opportunity to educate the American public about how prejudices about the way all of us -- transgendered or not, gay or straight – present our gender can create inequities in the workplace and beyond.

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.


Latest License Plan Angers Almost Everyone

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has been in the national spotlight since his controversial announcement in September that he would grant undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. In the face of strong criticism from the Republicans and dropping approval ratings in opinion polls, late last month Spitzer offered a new plan - a three-tiered policy that will offer different licenses for people with various immigration status.

This time, Spitzer found himself a powerful partner and supporter- the Department of Homeland Security. But a number of people who backed the initial proposal, including many immigrant rights groups, are angry at what they see as a betrayal. And many who opposed the initial proposal do not like this one either.

A Federal Seal of Approval

In a joint press conference with Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, Spitzer unveiled his new license plan, five weeks after he introduced his initial proposal to offer a driver's license to any New Yorker who wanted one, regardless of immigration status. Under the revised plan, American citizens and legal residents will be able to apply for a license that meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act. This would allow them to board a plane and enter federal buildings. A second type of license, also available to citizens and legal residents, will allow its holders to cross New York-Canadian border without carrying a passport. Both licenses are federally approved.

But the real controversy surrounds the third kind of license. It is available to undocumented immigrants as well as legal residents and citizens who choose not to have the first two types of licenses. This license is only valid for driving and insurance. It will be marked "Not for U.S. government purposes."

" The comprehensive plan we have developed makes our state more secure by bringing more people into the system and provides the greatest number of people with the greatest amount of security possible," said Spitzer. "The new system provides New Yorkers with the option of three secure licenses that will offer New Yorkers maximum choices for driver's licenses, uphold the strictest security standard and ensure the economic vitality of Upstate New York."

Chertoff, while saying he does not endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally, added that federal law does allow states to make that choice. “What we can do is insist that licenses that do not meet federal requirements be clearly so labeled,” said Chertoff. “New York has agreed to do that. In sum, that clarification, along with implementing REAL ID and enhanced driver’s licenses, represents a major step forward for security, both for New York and for the country. Accordingly, I’m pleased to have reached this agreement.”

A Boost for the REAL ID

Despite the governor's insistence that he did not change his policy due to the heavy opposition, the new plan is widely seen as a compromise between a governor who is desperately seeking support from his own constituency and a federal agency that is struggling to persuade states to adopt a stricter license program that sets national standards for state-issued identification cards. These could be issued only to applicants who can prove citizenship or legal immigration status.

That program is based on the REAL ID Act. Initiated by a recommendation from the 9/11 commission, the REAL ID aims to set = stricter and standardized regulations in an effort to keep terrorists and illegal immigrants from getting U.S. identification cards or driver's licenses. Once the program is implemented, all ID holders of state identification cards and driver’s licenses will have to renew them in person by 2013. The will be required to present a form of photo identification and documents proving date of birth, Social Security number (or verification of ineligibility) and proof of residence.

Critics of the program have cited privacy concerns and threat of identity theft and say the REAL ID could cost more than $10 billion a year. Seventeen states have passed laws to rejecting it. Winning support from a big state like New York could be a big boost for the REAL ID.

Creating Controversy

The political storm over the license plan has presented Spitzer with him biggest challenge in his 10-month-old governorship. According to a poll by Siena Research Institute, 72 percent of New Yorkers did not support Spitzer’s original plan. His approval rate has fallen to 42 percent.

And the debate has entered the presidential campaign. Senator Hilary Clinton, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidacy, stumbled when asked about Spitzer’s proposal during the Democratic candidates debate in Philadelphia on October 30.

" What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," said Clinton during the televised debate. "Well, I just want to add, I did not say it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do."

The remark, supportive but vague, immediately drew criticism from her Democratic competitors as well as Republican presidential hopefuls. Both former Senator Carolina John Edwards and Senator of Barack Obama went after her during the debate.

“ Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of two minutes just a few minutes ago,” said Edwards.

“ I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it,” Obama said.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was especially harsh. He told reporters in New Hampshire: "She is known for taking one position with one audience and another position with another audience. ...What they didn't know is she can actually take two positions in front of the same audience."

To quickly control the damage, Clinton officially voiced her support for Spitzer's three-tier plan just a few hours after her appearance at the debate.

" Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," her campaign said in a statement. "As president, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary."

“ Senator Clinton broadly supports measures like the ones being advocated by Governor Spitzer,” added Clinton spokesperson Phil Singer. “But there are details that still need to be worked out.”

A Scarlet ‘I’

Clinton may not be clear where she stands on the latest version of Spitzer’s plan. But groups representing immigrants have left no doubt of their position: They do not like it.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, called the lower-tiered license “scarlet letter” for illegal immigrants, and the governor’s change of plan “complete betrayal.”

“ What a political flip,” said Hong, who organized a protest on October 28. “He’s now embracing and letting his good name be used to promote something that has been widely known in the immigrant community as one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation to come out of Congress.”

John Liu, the City Council member from Flushing, Queens, who also attended the rally, said he was confused by the governor’s change of position.

“ Now the new development is not going to help the situation in terms of making sure people are properly licensed and insured to operate motor vehicles,” Liu said. “This is a new segregation in New York.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union, said the separate license could be an invitation for law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants who carry it.

“ Real ID -- a national ID card -- will facilitate the tracking of Americans’ movements,” said Lieberman in a prepared statement. “Each swipe of the card will leave a digital fingerprint that can be centralized into one national database to track Americans’ activities. Coming from the administration that brought us the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, the possibilities are endless, as is the potential for abuse.”

Those Opposed Stay Opposed

Meanwhile, many people who were against Spitzer’s original license plan do not like the three-tiered plan either.

This includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had come out against the initial idea. When asked about the new one, the mayor told CNN, “I still don’t think that is where we need to be.” In particular, Bloomberg expressed concern about whether any of the three licenses would enable a person to buy a gun. Previously David Swartz, state commissioner of motor vehicles, had indicated the license for undocumented immigrants would be sufficient identification for purchasing a firearm. Sources in the governor's office denied this.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, a member of the New York State Association of County Clerks who had filed a lawsuit against the original plan, said the suit would continue – despite Spitzer’s revisions. In counties outside New York City, Long Island, and Westchester, county clerk offices act as agents of the DMV to issue driver’s license. Some clerks have vowed not to issue licenses to people who cannot prove they are in the country legally.

" He hasn't changed anything," Merola said of Spitzer and his three-license proposal. "He's still looking to do the same thing that he was looking to do a month ago."

The State Senate, with a Republican majority, also passed legislation to overturn Spitzer’s plan. But the bill will most likely fail in the Democrat-dominated State Assembly. For their part, Republicans in the Assembly have said they will file a lawsuit to stop what they call as "illegal plan.” which was announced Saturday. The Republican leader of the Assembly, James Tedisco, said issuing licenses to undocumented immigrant would "make our state and nation a less secure, less safe place."

Responding to Spitzer’s latest proposal, Tedisco said, “"What he's done is make more people upset from both sides — those that supported him and those who were against him."

The governor plans to implement the three-tier licenses next year.

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

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