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Leading Immigrant Advocacy Group Releases 'Respect and Dignity' 2023 State Policy Agenda

A Make the Road rally (photo: Make the Road NY)

Make the Road New York, the state’s largest member organization of immigrant advocates, will release its 2023-24 state policy platform on Wednesday and kick off a series of town halls to push for legislation that includes expanded unemployment protections, greater health care access, instituting ‘good cause’ eviction, ending racially-biased school discipline, decriminalizing sex work, raising taxes on the wealthy, and more. 

With 25,000 members statewide, Make the Road New York (MRNY) represents a major progressive group in the state that has consistently pushed for pro-immigrant and pro-worker legislation. The group is set to launch its “Respect and Dignity” policy platform at its Jackson Heights office in Queens on Wednesday afternoon followed by a town hall in the evening. The group also has town halls scheduled in Brooklyn and Westchester, and is aiming to hold one on Long Island as well.   

The new Albany agenda includes a series of legislative and budget demands that the group and its allies hope Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul will pay attention to, fresh off her narrow victory in the general election where progressives are taking credit for helping her achieve her first full term in office. As she heads into the new year working with a Democrat-dominated State Legislature, Hochul will also present her second State of the State address and Executive Budget, delineating her own priorities and setting the table for the six-month state legislative session.

“It was people of color, particularly Black voters, and people of color across New York City that really got Kathy Hochul reelected,” said Jose Lopez, co-executive director of MRNY, in a phone interview. “And I think that what our communities will be looking for given the outcome of this election and the fact that we've protected her seat, is movement on substantive issues that really impact working class and immigrant communities of color.”

Following the example of the state’s $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund, which provided aid to those who were unable to receive federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic, MRNY is pushing for the passage of a bill, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Karines Reyes that would create a permanent unemployment insurance program for “excluded” workers. At a cost of $800 million annually, the bill would establish the first-ever Excluded Worker Unemployment Program to give up to $1,200 per month in support to up to 50,000 workers ineligible for unemployment including freelancers and gig economy workers. 

A new fund would be crucial for people like Gerardo Vital, a father of two and Make the Road New York member. “Immigrants like me, we contribute and help the economy…we contribute like everybody else but at the end of the day we get no help when we lose our jobs with any type of unemployment,” he said in a phone interview, through an interpreter. 

Vital is currently unemployed and is worried about falling behind on payments for rent and car insurance. “But there's no program that I can apply to to be able to receive any kind of help,” he said. “People think that we don't count but we do because we contribute to the state, we pay our taxes.”

MRNY is also advocating for the passage of a health care coverage bill sponsored by State Senator Gustavo Rivera and outgoing Assemblymember Richard Gottfried to create a state-funded Essential Plan to provide healthcare to all low-income New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status. The group estimates that roughly 154,000 state residents are currently ineligible for federal health insurance programs such as Medicaid and the Essential Plan because of their immigration status, and that the program would cost about $345 million annually and involve participation from at least 46,000 individuals. (With Gottfried leaving the Assembly, the bill will have to be reintroduced by another member in the next legislative session.)

As Hochul heads into her first term of her own, one of the main items on her agenda is housing affordability and access, a priority that MRNY advocates also share. The group’s agenda pushes for the passage of “good cause” eviction, sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter, which would provide crucial eviction protections to tenants including against significant rent annual hikes. The bill has gained momentum in the Legislature in recent years but has yet to pass and Hochul has not said whether she supports it.   

MRNY is also urging the state to create a $200 million Housing Access Voucher Program, with half set aside for households at risk of homelessness and the other half for homeless people and families. That program, championed by State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, had a great deal of momentum in the Legislature last year, but the Hochul administration disputed the cost estimate and declined to support it.

“Those are things that New Yorkers care about, those are things New Yorkers want to see happen,” Lopez said. “And those are going to be the fights that we help lead with allies across the state to make sure that this administration delivers.”

Another proposal on the agenda includes the Solutions Not Suspensions Act, sponsored by State Senator Robert Jackson and Assemblymember Cathy Nolan, who is retiring. As with Gottfried’s bill, the legislation will have to be carried by another member next year. It aims to put an end to harsh school disciplinary practices that disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities. It would limit the use of suspensions and instead focus on restorative practices. 

Make the Road also supports the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, sponsored by Salazar, which would decriminalize sex work for consenting adults and scrub records for arrests, convictions, and incarcerations for sex work that is no longer criminal.

Though some of those legislative proposals will require significant funding from the state, Lopez said they “aren’t a substantially heavy lift” and could easily be offset by the Invest in Our New York package of bills, which aims to raise as much as $50 billion in revenue by cutting tax loopholes and raising taxes on the uber wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street. That argument is likely to meet resistance, particularly from Governor Hochul, who has repeatedly said she has no plans to raise taxes.

“We're going to be prepared for those arguments when they come,” Lopez said. “But I think the reality is that we see budgets as moral documents and there is going to be a question, especially post-election, about where we spend.”   

“Our hope is that [Governor Hochul] draws some lessons from this election and that she understands that in order to perform better, she's going to need to secure some progressive bonafides, especially in this next year,” he added. 

Make the Road has several other priorities for state government to pursue, including adequate budget allocations for the state’s new public campaign finance program, with a $70 million ask for next budget, due by April 1; expanding subsidies and eliminating bureaucratic barriers for child care for low-income families regardless of employment or immigration status; ensuring that Hochul follows through on her commitment to fully fund Foundation Aid for public schools; investing $18.6 million in adult literacy education; restoring $5.2 million in funding for the Community Health Advocates Program; increasing funding for the Navigators program that helps people enroll in health insurance; updating the New York Hospital Financial Assistance Law; and passing the Access to Representation Act to provide universal legal representation for New Yorkers under threat of deportation.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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