Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

A City ID Card for All

M. Zywicka started working as a hostess in an Italian restaurant in Murray Hill just a month after she arrived in New York. A native of Krakow, Poland, Zywicka (who does not want her full name used) came to New York on a tourist visa in June. Like countless foreigners living in this expensive city, she struggles to support herself by working off the books. But she has to be careful with the cash she earns because she doesn’t have the identification needed to open a bank account.

“ I pay everything in cash,” said Zywicka. “Sometimes I use my Polish credit card but I don’t like it because the service charge is too expensive.” Not having an ID also prevents her from getting a regular cell phone. ”I have to use a pre-paid phone so I don’t get those free minutes at night and on the weekend,” she said.

In an effort to help people like Zywicka gain access to services that require an ID, City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate of Queens wants the city to issue IDs to anyone who wants one, including undocumented immigrants. He is sponsoring a bill, the Municipal Identification Card Program Act or Intro 602, to accomplish this.

“The City of New York is home to 8 million people, many of them immigrants and some of them frankly, undocumented,” said Monserrate. “Some of them have been residents of the city for many years, and to give them a basic ID card that’s valid within the city limits only makes sense.”

“ It is my hope that this card will be the city’s first step in using the benefits of technology to allow residents not only access to public safety resources, but more convenient and stream-lined services,” he added.

A Card for the Undocumented

The proposed local law would require the city's Human Rights Commission to create a New York City Municipal Identification Card, which would feature a resident's name, address and photo. Applicants would need to provide only proof of identity and residency within New York City. They would not have to disclose their immigration status. Currently the standard form of identification is a driver's license or a non-driver’s license identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. To get that kind of identification, an applicant must present a Social Security number or tax identification number and other government-issued documents.

Monserrate’s proposed ID card would allow holders to take out library books and would help emergency workers identify them in case of an emergency. Also, undocumented immigrants with the ID will be able to report crimes and take advantage of city services they are entitled to but need an ID to obtain.

The proposal is partly inspired by the City of New Haven, which became the first city to provide IDs to undocumented immigrants in July. Within about a month, it issued about 3,000 cards. The card, called the Elm City Resident Card, costs $10 for adults and $5 for children, and has a debit card feature that can be used in municipal parking lots and participating stores.

According to the New Haven Independent, an online news publication, several municipalities from around the country are looking at similar proposals, including Miami-Dade County and cities in California, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, Wisconsin and Arizona.

Removing Barriers…

Monserrate, a former police officer, said the proposal shares the spirit of the city's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits city employees from asking residents for confidential information, including immigration status, and reporting it to a local, state or federal government agency.

“For many New Yorkers, the lack of government-issued photo identification is a substantial barrier to employment and other necessities,” said John Liu, one of 21 City Council members who have signed on to sponsor the bill. “Not only will a city ID card enhance individual opportunities, but it will also help ensure equal access to municipal services.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who believes that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay if they pay back taxes and fines and follow the rules to apply for legal status, did not issue any official statement on the matter. He was quoted by the Queens Chronicle as saying that the city needs to give permanent status to the millions of illegal immigrants already living here and move on.

Meanwhile, the proposal also received support from some elected officials at the state level.

State Senator Ruben Diaz said the bill will “close the loophole that has done nothing but drive many New Yorkers underground out of fear of our city health and safety officials.”

Jose Peralta, a member of the State Assembly from Queens, told the Daily News that the card would improve the city’s security. “An ID card should dispel the concerns of all those who fear an underground society of undocumented immigrants that no one can identify,” Peralta said. “Now we will know who is who. In terms of security, it is a very positive step.”

… Or a Threat to Security?

But the New York bill has also attracted some opposition. City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens said the proposed ID violates federal law and sends the wrong message about the country’s immigrant policy. “This card is a clear attempt to circumvent our immigration laws,” Vallone said. “Just being in our country does not entitle you to being a citizen.”

“ It’s not the place of New York City to undermine the federal government’s albeit pathetic attempts to secure our borders,” Vallone continued. “With the threat of terrorism still over our heads, we certainly should not be doing anything to make it easier to come here illegally, board planes and otherwise blend into our society unnoticed.”

Zywicka, the Polish restaurant hostess, also has doubts about the bill. She said she would be hesitant to take up the city's offer of an identification card, even if the bill is passed.

" I am afraid to leave my information with any 'official' authority," she said, adding that she doesn't want the government to be able to track her down. "I would like to keep a distance. It is not necessary for me to get this ID. I have my Polish IDs in my wallet and should be able to be identified if any accident happens."

The bill was introduced on July 25 and is currently under review by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operation.

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.  


The Legislature Acts, Doesn't Act and Reacts

Members of the New York State Senate and Assembly always go on a wild ride in the last few weeks of the session, passing bills by the bucketful, and ignoring others in the rush to adjourn. This year was no different, and when the dust settled – and the legislators had gone home – 2007 turned out to be at best a mixed year for advocates of greater civil rights and liberties.

Consider three bills before the legislature: one on gay marriage, one on the rights of accused rapists (and, not incidentally, the health of rape survivors) and one on transgender rights.

Same-Sex Marriage

In June, the State Assembly became only the third legislative body in the nation to pass a bill opening marriage to same-sex couples. (The other two such votes came in California where they were met by a veto from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) The New York measure was a program bill submitted by Governor Eliot Spitzer, the first governor in U.S. history to propose such legislation. And it was guided to victory by openly gay Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell of the Upper West Side, who made personal appeals to scared and wavering colleagues. His efforts yielded a positive vote from Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew who began public life opposed to gay rights, and an 85-61 victory, not overwhelming in a house with a 60-seat Democratic margin but beyond the expectations of most observers.

Earlier in the session, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno made it clear that his house would not take up the same-sex marriage bill. “This governor has his priorities wrong,” Bruno said in April.

Spitzer conceded he did not think the bill had “a realistic shot” at being passed but said he was introducing the measure “because it's a statement of principle that I believe in and I want to begin that dynamic.”

The marriage equality bill enjoys broad progressive support, including backing from many unions and religious groups, mostly organized by the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s leading lobby group on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

Despite the breakthrough in the Assembly, opening marriage to gay and lesbian couples remains a heavy lift in New York. Beyond the predictable opposition from conservative Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders and the Conservative Party, it does not enjoy the support of Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. They favor only civil unions, which they say will deliver all the rights of marriage while reserving that institution for heterosexual couples.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perversely, came out for same-sex marriage in 2005 on the day he announced his appeal of the only court decision in New York mandating it. His action deprived advocates of same-sex marriage of the opportunity to go to the Court of Appeals in 2006 with thousands of gay couples from the city who would have been legally married. In July 2006, the state’s highest court ultimately ruled 4-2 against a constitutional right of gay couples to marry.

Earlier this year, the Conservative Party tried to use the issue in a special election for a State Senate seat on Long Island, distributing fliers saying that electing the Republican candidate was the only hope for stopping gay marriage. But Democrat Craig Johnson, a supporter of same-sex marriage, won, reducing the Republican majority to two.

Most political observers believe that the Democrats are poised to regain a majority in a Senate that has been in Republican hands for most of the last 75 years. But unless there is a Democratic landslide in 2008, any new Democratic majority will be slim and not necessarily inclined to pass a controversial bill on same-sex marriage right away.

Transgender Rights

When the legislature finally passed a bill adding “sexual orientation” to the human rights law in 2002, it became the 13th state to do so. (The first was Wisconsin in 1981.)

New York balked, however, at including transgender rights in the human rights law 2002, and the Empire State Pride Agenda did not insist on it at the time. Today, discrimination on basis of “gender identity and expression” is illegal in 13 states -- including New Jersey, which acted this year -- and the District of Columbia. New York, though, still has no state law on the issue.

To remedy that, advocates have proposed a stand-alone bill called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, GENDA for short. Transgender activists such as Donna Cartwright argue that the push for this measure has not been nearly as intense as the advocacy work for the marriage bill. It did not even get a vote in the Assembly, let alone the Senate. “GENDA needs extra emphasis to have a real chance of passage. And [the Pride Agenda]… has a real responsibility to give it that boost,” she wrote.

Alan Van Capelle, the Pride Agenda’s executive director, said that the group pushed hard on transgender rights this year and managed to get 95 sponsors in the Assembly, more than enough votes for passage – and 10 more than the number of members who voted for the marriage act. “One piece missing is that GENDA doesn’t have a Danny O’Donnell [chief sponsor of the marriage bill] who is going to work it every day,” he said.

Van Capelle also said that the marriage issue benefited from being in the papers and the public consciousness. “Legislators aren’t as educated about transgender issues,” he said.

HIV Tests for Rape Suspects

When Eliot Spitzer successfully ran for attorney general in 1998, his ad campaign featured a rape survivor complaining that a rape suspect cannot be force-tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, “until after he’s convicted, maybe years later, which may be too late.” Spitzer proposed a law that would give rape victims the right to get rape suspects tested and the results supplied to them.

At the time, Spitzer’s proposal was condemned as “demagogic” by AIDS activists and his opponents in the race and lambasted by everyone from the state health department to the National Organization for Women. They said this issue presented a dangerous distraction from what rape survivors need to do vis-Ă -vis HIV -- commence a regimen of drugs within two to 36 hours of exposure that can prevent HIV from taking hold in their systems. Even if an immediate HIV result from a suspect was negative, the survivor of the attack needs to take the drugs in case the alleged perpetrator’s HIV infection is so recent that it does not show up in a test.

Results from a suspected or convicted rapist are “irrelevant,” AIDS specialist Dr. Howard Grossman said then. “If I were a rape victim, I’d be taking post-exposure prophylaxis no matter what the status of the perpetrator,” he told me at the time.

The New York State health department established a protocol for survivors of rape in 1998 that urged them to take the drugs necessary to prevent HIV infection immediately -- or at least within 36 hours.

During his eight years as attorney general, Spitzer did not publicly press for the HIV testing. Once he got elected governor, however, he resumed his quest for it, and it passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature.

O’Donnell, one of 21 members of the Assembly to oppose Spitzer on the bill, said passage was “emotionally understandable, but the science was not out there.” State Sen. Tom Duane, the only legislator who is open about being HIV-positive, also came out against the measure. “This bill does nothing to protect victims and may do harm,” he said in an interview.

Andrea Mitchell, a rape survivor who works for Housing Works, an AIDS agency that worked to defeat the bill, wrote in the Albany Times Union that it fails to provide post-exposure drugs to survivors of rape and “focuses obsessively on the HIV status of the perpetrators of rape at the expense of their actual victims.” The bill as amended would only apply to suspects who have been indicted, something that almost never happens within 36 hours.

The measure was opposed by the New York Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Planned Parenthood, New York Civil Liberties Union and the YWCA.

Spitzer argues the testing would help survivors of sex crimes. His spokesperson told the New York Times, “The governor believes that a victim of rape or sexual assault needs to know as soon as possible the HIV status of their attacker. This information is critical to the physical and emotional well-being of the victim.”

Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn championed Spitzer’s bill in the Assembly, chastising critics like Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “Their whole program is to protect the infected person, not the victim,” she told the New York Post.

Gay Men’s Health Crisis lobbied against the bill, but did not organize the kind of public outcry from the public health establishment that might have defeated the proposal. Indeed, despite the fact that the group’s executive director, Marjorie Hill, is a former assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS Services at the New York City health department, she was either unable or unwilling to get the city department to speak out against it. A spokesperson for the department refused to make an on-the-record comment about whether or not the bill was good or bad for public health.

Many legislators feared that by voting against the bill, they could leave themselves open to attacks that they were soft on rapists. Indeed, just after the session ended, the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee set up a web site called New Yorkers in Jeopardy, targeting Democrats who voted against this bill accusing them of “not protecting us” and “not recognizing that a rape victim has a right to know if their rapist has HIV.”

Assemblymember Crystal Peoples of Buffalo acknowledged being “confused” during the floor debate, but she voted for the bill anyway. Assemblymember Patricia Eddington of Patchogue, a clinical social worker, at first condemned it as “feel good legislation,” but after two amendments were added voted for it. Assemblymember Charles Levine of Glen Cove said, “I don’t know whether this is a just bill,” but he voted for it anyway saying that “part of the healing process means that someone’s got to feel safe.”

Some members resisted. Deborah Glick of Greenwich Village said that the only way to determine if a rape survivor has been infected “rests with the victim and that information is not provided by testing someone else.” Ellen Jaffee, a member of the Assembly from Pearl River, said the bill provided “false hope” and is “neither grounded in science nor appropriate public health policy.”

Mixed Message

Some opponents of the bill worry about what it says about the governor. While Michael Kink of Housing Works praises the governor’s competence, he said Spitzer’s “willingness to choose the soundbite is a serious flaw.” Kink said administration officials leaned on the state health department to provide a letter of support for the bill.

Other observers do not discern an obvious pattern on the part of the governor or legislature. Assemblymember Dick Gottfried of Chelsea said, “I don’t know if there is a pattern or theme to the actions of the legislature in these three bills….Each of these issues has its own pluses and minuses and merits and politics.” Gottfried voted for the marriage bill, against the AIDS bill and could not get his transgender rights bill to the floor.

Van Capelle of the Pride Agenda agreed. “I don’t think the legislature acts in thematic ways. You can see them doing things that seem to contradict each other.”

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.  

Immersed in English

Martha Escobar, a speech pathologist in her native Colombia, wanted to pursue a similar career after she moved to New York City three years ago. But her limited English proved a barrier. Then she learned about a language immersion program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After pursuing those classes, along with coursework in speech pathology at Lehman College, she has started working in her field, interning in a program for autistic children in the Bronx.

Her English has improved as well, she said. "My boyfriend is French, and now I correct him when we speak in English,” she said.

Students like Escobar are hardly unusual at City University of New York these days. Campus-wide applications to the City University of New York are up 16 percent from last year. Approximately one-third of the applicants are immigrants for whom English is not their first language and many more are first-generation children of immigrants. Attending college can make an enormous difference in their lives: According to the recent book Passing the Torch by CUNY sociologists Paul Attewell and Steve Lavin, U.S. immigrants who receive at least some post-secondary education significantly increase their children’s chances of getting a college education and, in turn, raising their children’s social, intellectual and economic level. At the same time, CUNY has introduced policies designed to raise it educational standards.

All of this has increased pressure on City University and other New York institutions to create more facilities and programs for English language. “Learning a new language well enough to perform well in college is an enormous task and requires work on many different skills,” says Ellen Balleisen, a CUNY language instructor for over 20 years. These skills take time and active assistance to learn.


CUNY’s traditional programs for speakers of other languages serve many students, particularly those who already have a strong base in English. These classes provide a valuable bridge to regular college courses by giving the students a semester or two of language learning in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

But for some students these more conventional programs do not offer enough. To address that, 12 years ago, Leslee Oppenheim, director of literacy programs at CUNY, started the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) for students with extensive language needs. It is designed to be an academic program for committed immigrant students with little background in English. Students spend 25 hours a week in class, focusing on a theme, Utopia, say, or an aspect of America, rather than on language instruction per se. This borrows from a concept used in many entry-level composition and humanities college courses nationwide.

Oppenheim says the approach offers a number of benefits. “There’s the intensive nature of the program – 25 hours a week is the foremost qualifier,” she said. “The theme-based content provides a language learning experience based more on a college course model. I think we provide a rehearsal for the content they’ll find their freshman year.”

CLIP is now a department at all CUNY community colleges and at three four-year schools: City College of Technology, York College and College of Staten Island. The immersion program provides a number of benefits not offered by more traditional English as a second language courses.


While standard English programs for speakers of other languages offer 12 to 18 hours of course work a week, the standard academic week for CLIP is 25 contact hours per week, with the same professor. This gives students a substantial amount of in-class time with one instructor who can focus on an integrated language program.” That’s pivotal for people who have the time to devote to the workload,” says Oliver Mann, an instructor both at CLIP and in standard English language courses. “CLIP really helps them manage their time, because in college classes freshmen, probably immigrant and non-immigrant, have to spend a lot more time on reading and homework.”


While traditional English classes often focus on isolated lessons in grammar and English, in the CLIP program each semester’s course is thematic, with professors developing introductory-level courses in their area of expertise. All reading, writing, speaking and grammar instruction is focused around the texts students read related to that theme. “We make content the umbrella under which the language learning fits,” said Oppenheim, although she added, “We are not pretending to teach, say, history or science per se, but using it as a broad-based concept to teach English.”

Sirina Gouni, a CLIP student, praised this approach. She said she found her theme -- American Folk -- fascinating, and the program, she said, made her “feel very confident as a college student.” The more intensive nature of CLIP, said Yennifer Santana, provided her with the opportunity to do more demanding work, such as researching papers, writing numerous essays and reading books.


Standard English language programs cost as much as regular classes, roughly $2,000 full-time per semester at the four-year campuses and $1,400 per semester at the community colleges. The classes do not count toward graduation though, which means, for the most part, students learning English spend one or two semesters of their financial aid before taking a course toward graduation. Funds for CLIP, on the other hand, come largely from the government, so students pay only $180 per semester for 25 hours a week of class time. “Less than 10 percent comes from student fees,” said Gil Gerena, CLIP director for New York City College of Technology.


After 12 years, CLIP is now serving over 3,000 conditionally admitted CUNY students and seems to have finally shed the “experimental” label.

But it still faces challenges. One of the greatest drawbacks for some CLIP students is their detachment from many of the “regular” students. Some do not even attend classes on their school’s main campus. Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Language Immersion Program, for example, has been located a 140 blocks from the downtown campus on 125th Street in an effort to keep a presence for the college uptown.

Another major problem CLIP faces is one it shares with other English-language programs at CUNY. “I think the biggest challenge is the very low salaries for teachers,” says Balleisen, who is CLIP’s primary advocate at the Professional Staff Conference, the CUNY faculty union. The CLIP instructors, she explains, are considered part- time even though they spend more than twice as much time in the classroom as full-time CUNY faculty.

When CLIP started, its teachers received a higher salary than a starting New York City public school teacher with a master’s degree. Today, according to Balleisen, “this situation has reversed quite dramatically.”

In general, CUNY has a wonderful problem on its hands – a surplus of qualified, motivated immigrant students who need a small additional initial investment before they can reap continuing long-term benefits for the New York City community. More intensive language learning programs like CLIP can help fill the gap, if the City University agrees takes the steps to strengthen it.

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen. 

New ID Could Cost Immigrants Their Licenses

As the federal government presses for the issuance of a new identity card, civil libertarians and advocates for immigrants say the plan will be a "nightmare" for New York State and are calling on Governor Eliot Spitzer to reject it.

The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, requires states to comply with certain standards when they issue driver's licenses and identification cards if the licenses are to serve as accepted federal identification. States can issue licenses without meeting those guidelines, but the license then will not serve as proper identification for entering a federal facility or boarding a federally regulated commercial plane.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says the REAL IDs are intended to "prevent terrorism" and "reduce fraud." "Raising the security standards on driver's licenses establishes another layer of protection to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using fake documents to plan or carry out an attack," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a March press release.

But the REAL ID Act has attracted a growing list of skeptics – both in the state and nationwide. Some oppose the REAL ID because it could force thousands of undocumented immigrants to lose the right to drive. Others fear the card could lay the foundation for the country's first "national ID card" and infringe on privacy. Additionally, worries abound about how New York would implement the high-tech and costly program, as well as the burden it would put on the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.


With a REAL ID, applicants must have all source documents concerning their identity, immigration status, date of birth and Social Security number verified with the original issuing agency. So, for example, the local health department might have to vouch for a person's birth certificate.

Applicants who pass muster would then receive a card that could be read by a machine, such as a scanner. Their personal information would be stored in a database that would allow information to be shared with other state. And their new card would enable them to enter federal offices and nuclear power plants, among other facilities.

But it might not stop there, according to Udi Ofer, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Some members of Congress are reportedly trying to require a REAL ID for an increasing number of activities, including applying for a new job or getting a federal housing subsidy.

At the same time, though, the REAL ID is encountering widespread resistance. States are not required to implement the REAL ID Act and can decide if and how to apply it. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Washington already have passed legislation opposing the act, and nearly two dozen other states have similar legislation pending. Critics of the REAL ID in New York would like to see the state follow suit. In pressing their case they raise a number of objections to the REAL ID.


Civil libertarians fear that the databases required by the act will give state and government officials an eagle-eye view of individuals' movements and increased access to their personal information. Some worry it could be a step toward establishing a national identity card.

Homeland security department officials dismiss such concerns. In its proposed regulations, department officials wrote, "Neither the REAL ID Act nor these proposed regulations gives the federal government any greater access to information than it had before."

In response to concerns about the database, the department wrote that the act does not create a centralized database on all drivers "because it leaves the decision of how to conduct the exchanges in the hands of the states. Moreover, no federal agency will operate the data exchanges affecting non-commercial driver's licensing."

Ofer called the department's position "absurd." He said, "Under the REAL ID Act, every database maintained in every state across the country will be linked to one another. So the government in New York will be able to access information about a citizen living Wisconsin and look at that person's birth certificate, driving records and other identifiable information. And all of these databases will be linked to a federal database."

Civil libertarians are also warning that the card's required "machine-readable technology" could give the government and others the ability to track individuals. And while the homeland security does not stipulate the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which can be used to scrutinize consumers' buying habits, it does say, "states may independently choose to implement an RFID."

The department did not respond to requests for an interview.

Effects on Immigrants

The REAL ID Act could have a major impact on immigrants in New York. Amy Sugimori, director of La Fuente, immigrant advocacy group, does not think that that is an accident. She points out the measure was sponsored by U.S. Representative James Sennsenbrenner of Wisconsin who once sponsored a bill that would have provided additional criminal penalties for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. As for the REAL ID law, she said, "What was clear was that it was intended to be very much a punitive measure against immigrants."

Opponents of the REAL ID Act fear that, if New York implements it, many undocumented immigrants could lose their driver's licenses. One of the documents an applicant must submit is proof of immigration status and undocumented immigrants, of course, do not have that.

Manuel, who asked only to be identified by his first name, said that linking the REAL IDs to driving privileges could be devastating for immigrant communities. Manuel, originally from Ecuador, lives in Queens and is a member of the New York Civic Participation Project. "Everyone needs a driver's license to get to work, to take their children to school, or to drive to the hospital in an emergency situation," he said. "But [REAL ID] means that no one can have a driver's license if you're not a legal immigrant.

Sugimori said the two-tiered system where only some people have access to driver's licenses is bad public policy. "A system that drives people underground and divides people based on status is worrisome, because it isn't good for community relations," she said.

Restricting driver's licenses could have a major impact on the state's economy as well. For example, a high percentage of workers in the state's key agricultural industry are immigrants who need driver's licenses to get to their jobs in rural areas.

In the past, Spitzer has supported driver's licenses for immigrants. "The facts show that restricting immigrants' access to driver's licenses does nothing to improve security. All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records," a Spitzer spokesperson said in 2006.

Some advocates for immigrants also fear that the REAL ID law unnecessarily stigmatizes them. In April, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows urged Spitzer to reject a law that "equates immigrants with terrorists." In a statement, the organization said, "We are deeply troubled that 9/11 is again being used as a means to justify legislation which unfairly targets immigrants and jeopardizes the privacy of United States citizens."

Much of the work of determining the authenticity of individuals' documents and trying to decipher immigration status will fall on people who staff the state's Department of Motor Vehicles office. This concerns Sugimori. "What kind of arbitrary decisions are going to be made based on appearance?" she said.

"It's not the role of a state motor vehicle agency to become immigration enforcement agencies," said Ofer. "It's bad public policy to drive people into the shadows."

Cost and Efficiency

If the REAL ID was implemented in New York, residents wanting a license would be required to go in person to motor vehicle offices and provide original identification documents. The Department of Motor Vehicles agent would then have to verify the identification documents with the agency that first issued them.

"There's no question that because of the new demands on DMV staff, New Yorkers will confront much slower service, longer lines and a huge number of technical glitches," Ofer said.

He predicted that some New Yorkers could lose driving privileges until they can prove their identity. "People move around, birth certificates may have been lost in fires, people may have been born at a time when birth certificates were not widely available," he said.

For its part, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has estimated that it will cost the state $84 million a year to issue the REAL IDs. The department also estimated that it could take state residents six times as long to renew their licenses under a REAL ID program than it now takes.

"The proposed regulations raise issues as to efficacy, privacy, cost, and even the federal government's own faith in the system as an anti-terrorist tool," state motor vehicles commissioner David Swarts said in a statement.

The REAL ID program is expected to be funded partly from the by the Homeland Security Grant Program, which provides money to states. But people wanting a license would have to pick up part of the tab as well. "I think the concept, though, was that this—like all driver's licenses—is largely a fee-based system, and that, ultimately, the cost of building REAL ID should be amortized over the driver's license fee," Chertoff said in congressional testimony.


While an array of organizations in New York continue to lobby the governor to resist the act, the state's intentions remain unclear. In the letter to the homeland security, Commissioner Swarts said the DMV current intends to offer New Yorkers the option of obtaining REAL ID. However, he has also said, "New York State will continue to evaluate its position as more information becomes available." The department would not comment on the REAL ID act for this article, and Spitzer's office did not return an interview request by press time.

Theoretically the state could opt to issue two types of licenses – a REAL ID license and the old-fashioned one. But Ofer said this would not be a good solution. If New York did that, he said, "a conventional driver's license will become a scarlet letter, telling the world that the bearer of the driver's license may be undocumented." That, he continued, "would lead to widespread discrimination against New York's immigrant communties, as well as against anyone who may be perceived to be a foreigner."

Instead advocates just want to do away with the REAL ID entirely. "If you really want to focus on what's good for a community, or what's good government," said La Fuente's Sugimori, this is not the right system."


Moving Ahead on Immigration Reform?

After several months of heated debate over how to reform our nation's immigration laws, the Senate's vote last week essentially killing the administration’s bill temporarily put the brakes on an issue of tremendous national importance. The vote on cloture, which would have ended debate and moved the bill toward a final vote, failed by a margin of 46 to 53.

Immigrant groups in New York reacted with a mixture of disappointment and a determination to continue working on an issue that clearly is not going away. "This is a chance to regroup and relaunch our efforts until we achieve real and fair immigration reform," Guillermo Chacon of the Salvadoran American National Network told the Daily News.

"I think the message for today is that this is not the end, that this is the beginning of a larger struggle," said Jose Calderon, vice president with the Hispanic Federation, in an interview with NY1.

"The Senate's failure to arrive at a solution is no excuse for the House to sit on its hands and do nothing," said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition (the organization for which I work) in a statement.

The Recap: The House Stalls

The 110th Congress first took up the immigration reform debate on March 22, 2007, when Representative Luis Guttierez, a Democrat of Illinois, and Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, introduced the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, or the STRIVE Act. Despite flaws in the bill, many advocates viewed it as a sincere attempt at bipartisan solutions for a broken immigration system.

The STRIVE Act has 72 co-sponsors. But rather than move on that or any other immigration bill, the House chose to delay its debate on immigration reform. The leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the immigration subcommittee, made the political calculation that they did not want to expose new Democratic members of the House, many of whom won their seats by narrow margins, to such a divisive and emotional vote without seeing the Senate pass a bill first. Consequently, the House put off a legislative debate on immigration and instead held a series of hearings intended to build consensus for any future immigration bill the House might consider.

A Secret, Doomed Bargain

Soon after the introduction of the STRIVE Act, the White House began organizing a group of Senate Republicans and later a handful of Senate Democrats to negotiate a deal for immigration reform. From the beginning, this backroom process shut out many lawmakers, advocates and the American people. Immigrant advocates also said the closed-door process ended up legitimizing the restrictive positions of senators, such as Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who drove an incredibly hard bargain, threatening to walk away at various points in the negotiations. In the end, the Republicans successfully pressured the Democrats to make enormous concessions in order to keep their coalition intact.

After nearly three months of private negotiations with the White House, the senators involved in this process, including Democrats Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ken Salazar of Colorado as well as a number of Senate Republicans, announced their "Grand Bargain." This bill did not reflect the immigrant rights movement's vision for immigration reform.

Among its most egregious provisions, the "Grand Bargain" would have dismantled the current family-based immigration system in favor of a point-based system that put more emphasis on education and employment experience than family relationships. It would have created a new underclass of workers by establishing a guest worker program with no real path to citizenship. And it would have dramatically expanded detention and deportation laws, effectively reducing the number of people who would be able to gain and keep lawful permanent residency.

Both anti-immigrant forces and pro-reform forces sharply criticized the bill. Opponents mounted serious procedural and substantive challenges to what many saw as the deeply flawed Senate bill.

On June 7, the Senate was unable to move toward a final vote on the bill, failing to produce the 60 votes necessary. The immigrant rights movement then called on the Senate to resume debate and not let this important issue simply go away. With the second failed cloture motion on June 28, however, immigration reform faces significant delays.

Doing Nothing is Not an Option

Many in the media and some in Congress have interpreted the Senate’s failure to move forward last week as the death of immigration reform. But that would be unacceptable. Congress has the responsibility to take up the important issue of reforming our country's immigration laws. Failure of a procedural vote may mean this particular Senate bill goes away, but in no way does it mean that the suffering of immigrant communities, the exploitation of workers, the devastation felt by separated families or the violations of immigrants' civil rights and human dignity will go away. Lawmakers have an obligation to find rational and humane solutions to fix our broken immigration system.

Avideh Moussavian is director of immigration policy and advocacy with The New York Immigration Coalition.


New Yorkers and the Immigration Bills

Linda Teoh has been waiting for a chance to visit her homeland for years. After landing at Kennedy Airport in Queens 10 years ago, she has missed all the family get-togethers, including her brother's wedding, the birth of her nieces, and her father's funeral. She knows that if she leaves the U.S., she will not be able to return for a long time because she has overstayed her visa.

A native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Teoh is one of an estimated 400,000 immigrants in New York City who have a home that they cannot go back to. A hard worker who is fluent in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, Teoh has worked her way up from a waitress to become an assistant manager in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. "The money is good in the restaurant business, but I miss my family so much."

Teoh's waiting might come to an end soon. The new immigration bill, which proposes to allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if they meet the requirements, may be her last hope. "If this new bill doesn't work out, I am going to get a paper marriage," she said.

While Teoh thinks the immigration bill could help her, many immigrant advocacy groups object to current versions of the measure. "The present immigration proposal is not acceptable on many fronts," said Sonia Ivany, president of the NY Chapter of the Labor Council on Latin American Advancement has said. "Labor unions and immigrant workers cannot accept a system that's founded on inequality and will create a large temporary workforce devoid of worker rights."

And John Delgado, business manager of union local 79, which represents construction and general building laborers, called the bill "a slap in the face of all the immigrants who have sacrificed their lives to build what we have today."

Immigration reform is being hotly debated on Capitol Hill. After long negotiations, the Senate passed its version, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on May 25. The Senate version proposes to strengthen border security, establish a guest-worker program and provide the means for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and possibly become citizens. It also calls for 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border and making English the country's national language.

"This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history," Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor of the Senate version, told the Washington Post. "It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system."

Meanwhile, the House version, sponsored by Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Jeff Flake of Arizona, is entitled the STRIVE Act of 2007 (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act). It also proposes to tighten border control and security check and favors skilled-immigrant workers over family-based immigration.

Under immigration proposals, an illegal immigrant who entered the U.S. before January 1, 2007 could receive a four-year, renewable Z visa and gain probationary legal status after paying $5,000 in fines and fees. Z visa holders will be able to apply for green cards after a series of security and background checks. They will also have to wait in the back of the line after all existing applicants, a wait that could take is eight to 13 years.

President George W. Bush has endorsed comprehensive immigration reform. "This is a good piece of legislation," he said in a briefing on comprehensive immigration reform on June 1. "This bill is one that says, we recognize that you're here illegally and there's a consequence for it. We can argue about the consequences, but you can't argue about the fact that there are consequences in this bill for people who have broken our law."

''No matter how difficult it may seem for some politically, I strongly believe it's in this nation's interest for people here in Washington to show courage and resolve and pass a comprehensive immigration reform,'' added the president.

But a number of aspects of the bill remain controversial. In the center of the debate is the bill's proposed merit-based "points system." It would evaluate applicants for permanent residency on a point system that would give high priorities to education and employment, while not putting as much emphasis on family ties as the current system does. An applicant would need a minimum of 55 to 100 points to be considered for permanent residency. A graduate degree would count for 20 points, while a specialty or high-demand occupation would count counts for 16 to 20 points. An immigrant would receive only eight points for having an adult son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen.

At a recent rally on the steps of New York's City Hall, advocacy groups for immigrants expressed opposition to the point system. "If this bill is passed in its current form, it will divide our families, hurt our communities, and weaken our nation," said Moises Perez, president of Alianza Dominicana. "We cannot support a bill that turns its back on family reunification, worker's rights and provides an unfair and unworkable legalization process for our immigrants."

"The proposed bargain… undermines our family-based immigration system," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, in a statement.

The reduced emphasis on family would have a particular impact on New York, some experts say. "Mom and pop stores in New York have been a very dynamic force in the making of American society, and I would not want to see that possibility foreclosed," Gary Gerstle, a historian of immigration, told the Times.

A system geared more to skilled labor could create problems for New York City, according to David Reimers, an emeritus immigration historian at N.Y.U. "Like all big cities, it depends on unskilled labor," he said.

Another controversial provision in the bill is the guest worker program. The proposed new Y visa will allow as many as 400,000 guest workers to work in the U.S. for two years. The visa is renewable for up to three times but workers have to go home for a year between each time.

Chung-Wha Hong said the guest worker program would hurt immigrants and other Americans as well. In a statement issued after the Senate bill was introduced, she said it "promotes exploitation of low-wage workers in a permanent underclass and drives down wages and working condition for all American workers."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also objects to the guest worker plan, largely because of the requirement that workers leave after two years. Calling the proposal a "joke," he told the New York Times. "Nobody could ever enforce that. Nobody in their right mind would ever do it." However, he supported the provisions in the new bill that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status.

While Bloomberg praised the bill for rejecting mass deportations of immigrants who are here illegally, he expressed reservations about the overall proposal. Many members of Congress who support it, he said, should "look back on their history and realize that if we had had the laws that they are proposing in many cases, they wouldn't be here because their parents or grandparents would not have been here."

On the other hand, according to a poll by CBS and the New York Times released on May 25, the new immigration reform proposal is gaining support among Americans. More than half of those polled said priorities should be given to immigrants with education, job skills and work experience. About two thirds of those polled said illegal immigrants should get a renewable visa if they pay a fine, have a clean record and pass a background check. A majority of 62 percent said illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least two years should be allowed to apply for legal status.

The House and Senate will try to hammer out their differences and agree on a bill later this month.


Co-op Disclosure Bill Stalls in Council

A civil rights bill that would require co-op boards to lift their veil of secrecy and provide a reason when they reject a buyer is stalled in the New York City Council despite the support of the vast majority of council members and other key backing. Opposition to the bill in its present form as, the Fair and Prompt Co-op Disclosure Act, Intro 119, comes from white, generally liberal council members from Manhattan, most of whom previously expressed support for the idea. The city’s real estate industry strenuously opposes the measure.

In a city with 300,000 co-ops, the sale of an apartment is packed with stress for buyers and sellers. What may seem like a great deal for both sides can be overruled by the building’s volunteer co-op board, which must approve any sale – and any buyer. While the board may not violate human-rights laws in rejecting someone, it can turn a person down for any other reason.

In most cases, potential buyers are rejected because the board has concerns about their financial situation – whether, for example, the prospective co-op member can actually afford the mortgage and monthly maintenance fee. But it is impossible to know that for a fact because the boards operate in secrecy and do not have to provide any reason for rejection.

If a board is sued for alleged illegal discrimination, it must then explain its reason and that rationale can be examined in court. In other words, if the board says it rejected a family because their finances did not measure up, a trial could explore whether the board has been consistent in such rejections and is not really trying to keep the people out because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other trait covered by anti-discrimination laws.

While most co-op boards attract little attention, some rejections involving celebrities have made headlines. In the mid 1980s, the San Remo on Central Park West nixed Madonna, apparently because they found her too vulgar. Former President Richard Nixon could not get into the East Side’s River House, even though it was home to his former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. And that same famously snooty co-op turned down Gloria Vanderbilt. She sued for discrimination, alleging that the River House rejected her because the board believed she was going to marry her good friend singer Bobby Short and bring a gay black man into the building. Unlike Nixon and Madonna, Vanderbilt was given a reason for her rejection: The board said that with only about $7 million she really was not rich enough. But she only received that explanation after she sued.


A coalition of 40 civil rights groups is supporting the disclosure bill. “If the boards are able to keep their shroud of secrecy, people who feel they were discriminated against are much less likely to pursue their rights or even apply in the first place in some buildings,” said Craig Gurian, a civil rights attorney with the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, one of the chief proponents of the bill. In the rare cases where someone does sue, Gurian says, “the reason for the rejection that you get is the one that a defense lawyer thinks is most convenient.” The bill, he argued, would lock the board into the reason that they had at the time of rejection and could not be changed.

“The bill is about fighting discrimination,” said Gurian. “It has the good side effect of promoting decency and transparency.”

The NAACP in New York has endorsed the measure. Hazel Dukes, executive director of the NAACP in New York. “Discrimination is alive and well, especially in housing. It continues to raise its ugly head,” said Hazel Dukes, the groups’ executive director.


But some representatives of co-op boards fear the bill will create problems for them, opening them to liability. “Anytime you try to give a reason, you’re going to get sued. You say the guy was obnoxious at the meeting, he comes in and says, ‘I’m going to sue you,’” Marc Luxemburg, president of the Co-Op and Condominium Council, told the New York Times.

Interestingly co-op owners who do not serve on boards back disclosure. A survey conducted by Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvales, Inc. found that 63 percent of these co-op owners supported the idea.


The bill, though, has attracted significant opposition and so seems unlikely to pass. Perhaps most importantly, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who endorsed the bill when running for re-election from her Chelsea district in 2005, is now against it. According to her spokesperson Sandy Mullin, Quinn does not think “this bill is the right answer to the problem and we’re to keep looking at other solutions.”

Quinn is not alone. Councilmember Gale Brewer, who represents Manhattan’s West Side, has been against the disclosure bill from the get-go. She said that “progressive” friends on co-op boards told her such a disclosure law “would make it harder to recruit people” to volunteers for the co-op board. Brewer said that her office gets lots of complaints about the way co-op boards are run but not about discrimination by the boards.

Councilmember Jessica Lappin of the East Side endorsed the bill in 2005. In a response to a questionnaire from Citizens Union, Lappin said then, “If required to disclose the reasons for rejecting an applicant, co-op boards would be subjected to a proper level of public scrutiny and might be less inclined to arbitrarily deny applications based on discriminatory reasons.” Now she has reversed herself, saying that she has heard from “hundreds of constituents opposed to it.” (Citizens Union is the sister organization of Citizens Union Foundation, which published Gotham Gazette.)

“I support the concept and the goal,” she said, but acknowledged that she was not making any proposals on the bill could be improved.

Another council member from the East Side, Dan Garodnick, also, also came out for the bill in 2005, saying, “As a lawyer with a background in civil rights, I support initiatives that protect New Yorkers from invidious discrimination in all its forms.” He too now opposes it, saying he does not think “that this law would accomplish these goals.”


Faced with such opposition, no hearing has been scheduled on the bill, whose chief sponsor is Councilmember Hiram Monserrate of Queens. “There should be a hearing,” Monserrate said. The General Welfare Committee did hold a hearing on the measure in September 2005 – before Quinn became speaker.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union which questioned the candidates in 2005, also is concerned that the bill is not being allowed a hearing now, despite its sponsorship by a two-thirds majority of the council.

Monserrate said he is “in discussions with attorneys for the council that they think would make it a better bill.” But he said he “cannot understand why someone would not support this call for disclosure--it insures transparency.”

At the 2005 hearing, Deputy City Human Rights Commissioner Cliff Mulqueen testified that the “commission supports the idea of requiring co-op boards to provide reasons for the rejection of purchase applications.” He did raise concerns about some procedural aspects of the proposal, however.

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.  

A Promise to Shake Up State Human Rights Division

New York has the oldest anti-discrimination law in the country – dating back to 1945 – but when it comes to implementing its policies, the state lags behind. The New York State Division of Human Rights is saddled with a backlog of thousands of complaints filed by people who claim that they have been discriminated against. Under the current review process, it can take three years or more for a case to be resolved.

Kumiki Gibson, Governor Eliot Spitzer’s new commissioner of human rights, promises to change the agency, and she recently invited me to her main offices at One Fordham Plaza in the Bronx to explain what she wants to do. Gibson admits she faces challenges. By her own account, Gibson says that when she arrived at the division she found it “filled with people at the top who were not committed to civil rights and good management.”


A native of Buffalo, Kumiki Gibson is a former counsel to Vice President Al Gore and, most recently, counsel to the president of the National Urban League. The daughter of an immigrant mother from Japan and an African-American father, Gibson says that her parents “saw to it that I got a good education and taught me that I could achieve the American Dream.” Gibson believes that most of her personal experience with discrimination stems from her work as a litigator and “being a woman in a man’s world.”

Inspired by Spitzer’s “One New York” theme set out at his inauguration, in which he acknowledged “the civil rights movement still has chapters to be written,” Gibson hopes to overhaul the New York State Division of Human Rights.

“We need to give all New Yorkers the opportunity to have full and productive lives,” she said. “This was a chance to create an institution that will survive over time.”


More than 85 percent of the complaints to the Division of Human Rights involve employment discrimination, the majority from people of color, followed by bias based on sex, disability, age, national origin, creed, conviction record, and sexual orientation.

Gibson’s first priority is dealing with the backlog of cases dating back three or more years – and her goal is to resolve each case in 465 days or less.

“That’s the statutory target, but the division never adopted targets,” she said. “Legislators put targets there for a reason. I want to get all cases in and out.”

Gibson said that she will seek changes in the law that will make it “easier for complainants to file with us or go into court.”

The agency is also actively inviting civil and human rights groups around the state to come to its offices to see what it is doing to improve things.

Gibson sees outreach and public education as a “powerful tool to enforce the law,” and that the agency would be sending out undercover testers “where we suspect systemic discrimination.”


Although Commissioner Gibson is looking at ways that the law may need to be changed, she has not settled on a legislative agenda yet.

Asked about the bill to add “gender identity and expression” to state law, as New York City did in 2002, Gibson said that she believes state law already protects transgender people and the division welcomes their complaints of discrimination. The governor does support the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and Gibson said, “I’m just trying to figure out if changes are needed.”

Joe Tarver, a spokesperson for the Empire State Pride Agenda, which is championing the transgender rights bill, said, “No matter what case law there is or what opinions by government officials there are, there is no substitute for explicit protections in the law against discrimination.”

Craig Gurian, a civil rights attorney at the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, who has played a major role in strengthening the city’s human rights law, welcomes Gibson’s appointment.

“During the Pataki years and for that matter before that, in a lot of ways the State Division was entirely non-functional,” said Gurian. “It bore no relation to a prosecuting and investigating agency,” a criticism he makes of many such human rights commissions around the country.

While he said that he did not know Gibson previously, he believes that she thinks of her job as a civil rights enforcement job, not an administrative or bureaucratic position and that she has hired civil rights lawyers for the staff.

That said, Gurian believes “there aren’t enough people at the division and there are a lot of people not doing the jobs that they’re supposed to.” But he also thinks that Gibson “understands that you can’t just rely on individual complainants coming forward. You have to be proactive. I’m sure we’ll see more division-initiated investigations.”

While he is glad that Gibson has a greater sense of urgency about resolving complaints of discrimination, he said, “It is always sobering to realize how time-consuming good investigations are.”

In the coming years, Gibson believes that her record will speak for itself.

“They should say, `the proof is in the pudding,’ but no one should question my commitment to civil rights,” said Gibson. “I want people to get justice.”

“We have to gain more credibility and enhance our reputation in the community,” she added. “We have work to do to make people believe in us again. If we can’t, we need to rethink our purpose.”

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

Language Barriers Silence Immigrant Tenants

Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, has responded to this article. For his response, see below.

Immigrant tenants and advocates for them have long complained that language barriers and inadequate outreach keep the city’s housing inspection agency from reaching thousands of immigrant families living in deplorable housing conditions. A new report by City University of New York and housing advocates offers lends credence to these complaints.

The report, entitled “Living in Isolation: Issues of Access to City Housing Services Among Immigrant New Yorkers,” shows that while immigrant households and New Yorkers with limited English proficiency are significantly more likely to have housing maintenance problems than other New Yorkers, they are less likely to report problems and to try to get services from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Residents of neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants, such as Chinatown and the Lower East Side, file far fewer housing complaints than those in other parts of the city. This is despite the fact that, according to the report, households in those communities are more vulnerable to landlord harassment and more likely to be living in poor housing conditions than people in other communities. The bottom line, say tenant advocates, is that the New Yorkers who are most in need of city housing assistance have been the least able to get it.

The report, issued by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research and Communities for Housing Equity (a coalition of housing groups to which my organization, the New York Immigration Coalition, belongs), looks demographic data from the 2000 census and the 2005 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey and overlays that information with city data on housing complaints.

Suffering in Silence


The report points out that New Yorkers with limited English benefit far less from the Bloomberg administration’s improved complaint procedures processes than other New Yorkers. Following the launch of the city’s 311 non-emergency hotline in 2003, the number of housing complaints filed with the city soared, almost doubling between 2001 and 2005.

But immigrants, who account for one in four New Yorkers, are less likely to take advantage of 311 or other avenues for complaint. A 2006 report by Communities for Housing Equity, found that only 18 percent of the immigrants and New Yorkers with limited English that it surveyed who had housing problems, reported those conditions to the housing department. For example, one women told the African Services Committee of an array of problems in her building: an insecure front door that allowed robberies; broken elevators; garbage strewn hallways, leaks and a collapsed ceiling. She had not gone to the city with her difficulties, though, because she did now know which agency to contact and, even if she did, was not sure she would be able to communicate with the people there.

She is not alone. The report, “Hear This! The Need for Multilingual Housing Services in New York” found that 62 percent of immigrants are not even aware of the existence of the housing department. And so, many such tenants prefer to contact already overburdened community-based organizations for guidance.

“I lived in horrible conditions for 20 years before I finally realized that there was a government agency that could help me,” said Zhi Qin Zheng. Now she is a leader for the Chinatown Tenant Union.

Even tenants who know about the housing department may find it difficult to get the services they need. Language remains a barrier. “It is so difficult to communicate with inspectors if they do not speak Spanish,” explained Rosalia Cruz, a tenant in Brooklyn and a tenant leader at Neighbors Helping Neighbors. “I can’t explain to the inspectors the problems that I’m having, and they say things to each other that I can’t understand.”

The City’s Response


For its part, the housing department points out that of its over 400 housing inspectors, 254 are bilingual, speaking a total of 30 languages. The agency has created a language card for housing inspectors to use when tenants do not speak English and allows inspectors to telephone an interpreter. Inspectors also have access to a translation service, offering 150 different languages, according to a housing department spokesperson. The agency has established a language access taskforce to look at the communication problems. And, to increase awareness about the services that it provides, the administration has launched its Taking It to the Streets campaign, which sends staff to different neighborhoods to talk about the services the housing department provides.

But some of this looks better on paper than in reality, some tenant advocates say. Currently inspectors are dispatched without regard for the language needs of the tenants, some charge. “Of the dozens of times I have called 311, only once has an inspector come who has spoken Spanish,” Cruz said.

Tenant advocates are working to enact city legislation, sponsored by City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, that would require the housing department to improve outreach, hire more bilingual and multilingual inspectors and assign inspectors with consideration for the language needs of the tenants and increase the translation of HPD documents.

Ericka Stallings is a housing advocate with The New York Immigration Coalition.

• • • • • • • • • •


By Shaun Donovan

Preserving our existing housing stock and ensuring that tenants live in safe and well-maintained apartments is a vital part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan to build and preserve 165,000 apartments and homes for 500,000 New Yorkers over 10 years. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is committed to helping all New Yorkers access our services, and we are implementing a language access initiative across the agency. The initiative will increase meaningful access to quality housing information for city residents who are non-English speaking or have limited proficiency in English.

We encourage tenants to call 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline, which serves as its customer service center, to complain if their landlord is not making repairs. Tenants do not have to know the name of the city agency they wish to contact, and they can be certain that the call center representative will be able to take their complaint: 311 offers simultaneous translation services in over 170 languages. Requests for information on affordable housing and complaints about poor housing conditions are two of the most common inquiries the housing department receives through 311.

The department recently expanded the affordable housing hotline to make it available in Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, Korean and Russian. The multilingual hotline will help more New York City residents gather the information they need to apply for affordable units created by the New Housing Marketplace Plan, the largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation’s history. The hotline provides listings of affordable homes and apartments available through the city’s housing lottery system. Interested applicants can find out about open lotteries by calling 311 and asking for the Affordable Housing Hotline in any of the languages available.

HPD also recently released an online 311 tool, available in Spanish as well as English, which allows users to check on the progress of their complaint on the housing department’s website. This is an important step forward in our efforts to enable tenants to better use the city’s code enforcement services.

The housing department is continuously improving the multilingual capabilities of its housing inspectors. More than 200 out of its 400 housing inspectors are bilingual, speaking a total of 30 languages. All housing inspectors use a language card that allows them to identify which language tenant with no or limited English speaks and to request appropriate free interpretation services by phone. A 24-hour a day, 7-day a week language translation service is available to housing inspectors and office staff. It offers translation into 150 languages. Additionally, the inspectors carry brochures in five most widely spoken languages in New York City, other than English.

Exciting and diverse New York City neighborhoods are the product of the hard work of immigrants who have come to our city for generations to share our success. With the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Language Access Initiative more tenants across the city will share in the city’s economic success through new affordable housing opportunities and improved housing conditions.

Shaun Donovan is the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development


City Council's First Haitian Member

Waving signs and denouncing then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, thousands of Haitians shut down the Brooklyn Bridge as they marched to City Hall in August 1997. Some carried Haitian flags as they expressed outrage at the police torture of one of their own: Abner Louima.

That "Day of Outrage Against Police Brutality and Harassment" represented a rallying cry for some members of New York’s emerging Haitian community. Now almost 10 years later many Haitians in Brooklyn united once again, this time for a different cause: the election of the first Haitian-born member of the City Council. Mathieu Eugene, a physician who runs a youth group, captured 34 percent of the vote to fill the seat previously held by U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke on the New York City Council, beating out nine other contenders to represent the 40th district.

Winning elected office has been a right of passage for ethnic groups in New York City, dating back to the days when the Irish achieved political power. In recent years, City Council has seen the election of its first Jamaican and its first Chinese member. And other groups want in on the action as well. Sikhs have become increasingly involved in Queens politics, winning election to the borough’s Democratic committee, and one of Eugene’s rivals in the 40th district was a Pakistani who, had he won, would have been that group’s first City Council member.

For members of emerging immigrants groups, winning office is a sign that they have become accepted, gives them some degree of power and provides a source of pride. But while there has been celebration in Flatbush, Eugene has not yet assumed his council seat. The swearing in ceremony for him and the other new council member elected on February 20, Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island, has been delayed indefinitely because of charge that Eugene was not a resident of the 40th District on election day, as some experts believe the law requires. Mathieu has reportedly moved into the district, but some argue the change of residence came too late. “What happens if Eugene is disqualified?” mused on the Room Eight blog. “Do they swear in the second place finisher [Jennifer James] or do they have another election?”

Errol Louis, who broke the story of Eugene’s residency, thinks neither is likely to happen. “Officials I contacted at the Board of Elections and the council itself seem more than ready to do the easy thing, which is look the other way and welcome Eugene to the council,” Louis wrote.

When and if that happens, Haitians in New York hope he will represent their concerns in City Council and perhaps pave the way for more political involvement by other Haitians in New York.


Haitians have been coming to New York at least since the 1930s but the number of arrivals sharply increased during and after the 1960s. According to 2000 census figures about 420,000 people born in Haiti live in the United States, with about 125,000 of them in New York State. Other estimates put the number of Haitian immigrants and the children of Haitian immigrants in the city at about 250,000. Many of them live in the Flatbush and East Flatbush sections of Brooklyn, parts of which are in the 40th district. While New York state has the nation’s second largest Haitian population after Florida, Haitians here have not been as successful as those in Florida and Massachusetts in getting Haitians elected to public office.

Many politically active Haitian have focused more on the political turmoil in their country of origin than on city politics even though “there are lots of issues Haitians need to deal with,” said Jocelyn McCalla, former executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. The language barrier also impedes political involvement.

But they have shown some clout. In 1990, 50,000 Haitians in New York demonstrated against a federal government policy that banned all Haitians from giving blood. The Food and Drug Administration said that because AIDS was prevalent in Haiti, the blood could be infected with the HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Following the protest, the government reversed the ban.

Often when Haitians did get involved in local politics, it was because of tragedy. The Louima beating was key, Gary Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times has said. “They were able to mobilize around this case unlike any other group has been able to do,” he told reporter Marjorie Valbrun. But three years later another Haitian New Yorker, Patrick Dorismond, was killed by police who erroneously suspected him of dealing drugs. Outrage mounted as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended the police and cast aspersions on Dorismond, whose father is a well-known Haitian singer.

Ironically these events may have led to a great acceptance of Haitians in New York, said Regine LaTortue, a Haitian native and professor at Brooklyn College “Some of the tragic events of the past have demonstrated New Yorkers were concerned about people no matter where they came from,” she said.

But efforts to translate those concern into political clout faltered, often because of divisions within the community.


The 40th district has been likened to a kind mini Caribbean with many residents having ties to nations in the West Indies and Central America. The candidates seeking the council seat this year reflected that. Along with Eugene and Mohammed Razvi, the Pakistani, were candidates from St. Vincent, Jamaica, Trinidad, Costa Rica and Panama.

Faced with such a crowded field, some Haitian residents decided their community would be best served if they could rally around a single candidate. Originally, many endorsed Ferdinand Zizi, a health care administrator. But Zizi withdrew from the race after his nominating petitions were challenged, leaving Eugene, who attended medical school in Belgium and moved to New York in 1978.

“You should see Haitians getting together more and more,” Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., told the Sun. “They will find out when they get together they can have victory.”

Eugene’s support extended beyond Haitian voters. He won endorsements from the politically powerful Clarkes – Una, the first Jamaican to serve on the City Council and her daughter Yvette, the congresswoman — and from the politically powerful Local 1199 of the Service Employees Union as well as from two Jewish newspapers. Many Haitians voted for Yvette Clarke last year in her successful run for Congress, said McCalla, perhaps prompting her and her mother to back a Haitian candidate this time around.

“Dr. Eugene managed to appeal to a broad cross section of the community,” McCalla said. And Eugene was well known for his work in the neighborhood, particularly in the area of health care, according to LaTortue.

But the Haitian support, including the backing of musician Wyclef Jean, who spoke at a campaign party the Saturday before the election, was key.

“I’m proud to be Haitian,” Eugene said last month, “but I’m a strong voice for all the community.”


Eugene’s victory may give Haitians, whose experience in their homeland provides ample reason for being leery of politics, greater faith in democracy. LaTortue said she still feels pleased when she witnesses how gracefully most failed U.S. political candidates accept defeat. “After seeing that a couple of times, you think perhaps the system will work and that votes will be fairly counted,” she said. “It takes a while to gain trust.”

Beyond being an inspiration, McCalla hopes Eugene will address some issues of concern in the community, particularly in education where the school system “is not flexible enough to respond to immigrants who, through no fault of their own” may be academically behind. LaTortue would like to see Eugene work to improve relations with the police department.

During his campaign, Eugene said he would focus on health care, education and jobs as well as issues of concern to immigrants. He stressed his experience providing health services and help to young people in the community. If he was elected to council, Eugene said, he would "continue to do the same thing but I will have more resources and the power to legislate.”

But if and when he takes his seat, McCalla said, Eugene will not be able to rest on his laurels. He will have to face the voters of the 40th district again in November. As McCalla put it, Eugene “is going to have to quickly learn the ropes at City Council.”


Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments Gotham Gazette: Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Gotham Gazette: De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.