Gotham Gazette

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Civil Rights

Legalization and De-Legalization

As thousands of students walked out of their schools to protest pending immigration bills in Congress, 17-year-old Julio Beltre stood in front of New York’s Federal Plaza last month to tell the story of his father, Juan Beltre: On a morning a year ago, in April 2005, before the sun rose, six agents from the Department of Homeland Security had woken up his father and dragged him away from their Bronx home, while his wife and four children -- all U.S. citizens -- watched in horror.

Why was he being seized? Juan Beltre had committed a single drug possession offense dating back to 1995. But in those ten long years, Beltre had completed probation, was a long-term greencard holder -- and was now suffering from a brain tumor.

"Now my mom has to raise us alone,” his son recounted at the demonstration. His father was deported back to the Dominican Republic.

The testimonies of Julio Beltre and a dozen other citizen-children with similar stories came in a week of marches, walkouts, hearings, and headlines. Immigration is the issue everywhere, from the hearts of protesters to the halls of the Capitol to the editorial pages of The New York Times.

More Legalization -- Or More Deportations?

The debate is as complex as it is heated. On March 27th, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration bill that would, if passed into law:

  • expand the grounds of deportation
  • use domestic military bases for immigration detention
  • legalize the indefinite detention of noncitizens
  • authorize New York City police and other local officers to enforce federal immigration laws
  • erect a border fence
  • enable Homeland Security agents to expel suspected foreigners indiscriminately
  • create a national identification system for all workers.

Yet the following morning, the front page of New York’s largest Spanish language paper, El Diario, exclaimed “TRIUMFAMOS.” Meanwhile, restrictionist commentator Lou Dobbs campaigned against the bill on television and in Mexico.

This ironic role reversal stems from one section of the proposed bill, the guestworker legalization provisions. Under the leadership of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 to approve a new visa program, devised by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, under which undocumented workers would have to register with the government, maintain continuous employment for six years, pay back and future taxes, and pass civics and English lessons in order to apply for a green card. Some hail the Senate bill as a victory because, for the first time since the amnesty passed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, undocumented workers would have a potential pathway to work and live lawfully in the U.S.

Fighting To Keep The Legalization Provisions

In the coming weeks, the Judiciary proposal faces the scrutiny of the full Senate. Advocates are fighting to prevent the “earned legalization” provisions from being watered down. The main variable is whether or not the visa granted to undocumented workers will lead to a green card and eventual citizenship.

We are now at a crossroads. While the nation’s attention is focused on the legalization question, lawmakers have guaranteed only one thing: there will be no legalization-only bill. If the Senate ultimately approves anything, it will go to a closed-door conference committee to be resolved with the House bill passed in December 2005 under the leadership of Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner. The House bill concedes no greencards. Its only common ground with the Senate is provisions to expand detentions, deportations, and border police.

A shared history underlies the consensus. September 11th transformed immigration into a national security debate, with Democrats and Republicans both convinced that any immigration reform must come with tighter controls. But as the Beltre family illustrates, the New York congressional delegation has to resolve the national security agenda with a powerful reality: non-citizens are not the only affected population. Citizen spouses and children left behind are devastated because of decade-old deportation laws.

Ten Years Of Deportations

It’s not the act of terror we remember best. In April 1995, a white veteran of the first Gulf War blew up the Oklahoma City federal building. One year later, to memorialize that tragedy, then-President Bill Clinton signed a sweeping immigration enforcement measure: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. A sister bill, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed just months later.


Together, the 1996 laws transformed the meaning of membership in America and substantially ramped up policing based on citizenship. There was no legalization or guestworker program. Instead, there were sweeping deportation measures that empowered the executive branch to more easily expel people already within our borders.

Prior to the 1996 laws, a New Yorker placed in deportation proceedings could typically go before an immigration judge and seek a pardon if she could demonstrate that she was no threat to society and had significant ties to her U.S. community. But the new laws instituted a system of mandatory deportation and detention whereby the vast majority of New Yorkers facing deportation are held in immigrant prisons without bail and have no opportunity to plead their case before an immigration judge. These judges are appointees of the U.S. attorney general, yet they cannot pardon or postpone the deportation of a noncitizen – even if they believe the punishment would harm U.S. citizen children and communities.

With detention and deportation as the new mandatory minimums, more than 1.3 million people have been expelled from the U.S. in the last 10 years, and immigrants have become the fastest-growing segment of our prison population. (Homeland Security does not make city-specific statistics available.) Taxpayers are footing the bill for the ever-growing deportation budget. American veterans, breadwinners, and people who have lived here since infancy have been deported through this process.

Just before September 11th, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that 1996 went too far. One of its leading proponents, former Republican Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida, called the unintended impacts on families a “manifest injustice.” But such wisdom crumbled with the Twin Towers. America was left with the inflexible, even cruel legal infrastructure of 1996. Since the tragedy, the Bush Administration has poured billions into even more vigilant enforcement of these laws.

Plea Bargains Lead To Deportations

In New York as in other urban centers, the criminal justice system is a cornerstone of the immigration policing strategy. The criminal courts rely on a plea system to expedite the high volume of cases. Prosecutors issue lengthy indictments. Defense attorneys advise clients to plea to lesser charges, in order to secure a deal with little or no jail time.

Every week, hundreds of immigrant New Yorkers arrested for garden-variety crimes plead guilty under this plea-bargain system. But neither the judge nor attorney warn them that after they complete their sentence, a second punishment will follow: detention and deportation. As the federal immigration authorities’ reliance on local criminal institutions grows, there is no countervailing process to ensure that the rights of immigrants are observed.

Connecting Past and Present Policy

The criminalization trends of 1996 pervade the bills in Congress today. Proposals consistently extend mandatory deportation and detention to a wider net of immigrants. Even the most progressive proposals bar immigrants who admit to crimes – like using a fake ID to get a job – from obtaining green cards.

The New York congressional delegation has been nearly mute on how America’s immigration are harming families – with one recent exception. On March 28, 2006, Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx introduced the Child Citizen Protection Act, a bill to restore partial discretion to immigration judges in cases where removal of an immigrant is clearly against the best interests of a U.S. citizen child. Serrano called the bill “common-sense legislation” that would protect children and families from unnecessary separation. But the other members of Congress from New York are largely silent, despite the New York families who flood their district offices – families already devastated by deportation.

“Our leaders need to change the laws,” Julio Beltre concluded his speeech during the demonstration at Federal Plaza, “before more young people like me get hurt.” On April 24th, the 10-year anniversary of the 1996 laws, he and other New Yorkers will converge in Washington D.C. with families from other cities whose lives have changed because of deportation.

Aarti Shahani is a co-founder of Families for Freedom, a Brooklyn-based defense network for immigrant families facing deportation.

London and NYC Compared On Surveillance, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, etc.

I just spent a week in London where I was photographed about 300 times a day. No, the paparazzi were not interested in the civil rights topic page writer for Gotham Gazette. That is the average number of times someone in London is captured daily on closed circuit television cameras – whether in the Underground (their subway), driving into the city, or just walking along the street. The police force for the city’s square-mile financial district (called, confusingly, the City of London), photographs every person and every vehicle that comes within its boundaries.

Now, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has announced that the city will use $9.1 million in federal homeland security funds to install 505 surveillance cameras in 253 locations around the city -- and will be pushing to do what London has done, create what the department is calling a “ring of steel” around the financial district in downtown Manhattan, photographing every person and vehicle coming south of Chambers Street.

This is far from the only idea that New Yorkers have taken from our sister city -- or that some New Yorkers are advocating -- on a range of matters from transportation to security. A high number of them seem to involve civil liberties in one way or another. But in recent incidents touching on such matters, the cities are not exactly clones of one another -- and the contrast in their approaches may be instructive.

Recognizing Same-Sex Relationships

London has leap-frogged New York in the recognition of same-sex relationships, performing more than 700 “civil partnerships” in just a single month after they became legally available on December 21. The new United Kingdom law accords gay couples most of the rights of marriage, unlike the limited rights New York City has granted through domestic partnerships starting in the early 1990s.

New York City does recognize same-sex marriages -- but only if they have been performed legally elsewhere such as Canada. Mayor Mike Bloomberg is in court fighting against the obligation of the city to give marriage licenses to gay couples, a case that will be heard by New York State’s high court on May 31 in Albany. If the gay couples prevail, New York will still not catch up to London because the United States prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages no matter what the states may do.

Mayors And Free Speech

While Republican Bloomberg was chastised by civil libertarians for his approach to free speech when he curbed mass demonstrations in New York against the Iraq War in March 2003 and the Republican National Convention in 2004, Mayor Ken Livingstone of London, a Socialist in the Labour Party, participates in his city’s protests of the war policies of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. Now Bloomberg is scoring points with First Amendment protectors by refusing to fire the Correction Department’s top chaplain, Imam Abdul-Jalil for anti-Zionist remarks he made outside of work.

Perhaps the strangest debate over free speech is being waged over something Livingstone said that prompted a quasi-governmental board to order his suspension from office for a month beginning March 1. He appealed to the courts and the suspension was stayed.

In February 2005, Livingstone got into a verbal contretemps with a reporter he despises from the Evening Standard newspaper. He asked the reporter, Oliver Finegold, whether he had ever been a "German war criminal." The Guardian reported, "On being told that the reporter objected to the remark and was Jewish, the mayor said: 'Ah, well you might be but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?'''

The Board of Deputies of British Jews complained to something called the Adjudication Panel, "the government body which deals with serious disciplinary cases involving local government," the paper wrote. They judged the mayor's remarks "insensitive" and sanctioned him because he was unapologetic.

Richie Nimmo of Manchester wrote to the Guardian, the suspension "is just the latest example of a creeping orthodoxy in British public life, according to which you cannot say anything that offends anyone if it can be construed to be in any way connected to their ethnic or religious identity. The placing of community relations above freedom of expression, satire and vigorous argument, whether in the form of the cancellation of a theatre production in Birmingham, the self-censorship of cartoons across Britain or the suspension of an elected representative in London, is a sinister development."

In his own essay in the same paper, Livingstone wrote, "The fundamental issue in this whole affair is not whether or not I was 'insensitive,' it is the principle that those whom the people elect should only be removed by the people or because they have broken the law."

If New York mayors could be suspended for "insensitive" remarks, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani might not have served more than a few weeks between them. Koch used to brag about "giving ulcers, not getting them." And Giuliani did things like calling an innocent man killed by the police "no altar boy," based on sealed juvenile records he was under no authority to release. Both mayors suffered a dip in the polls attributed to such off-the-cuff remarks.

Recently, Giuliani called upon his fellow Italian Americans to lighten up about their criticisms that one of his favorite TV shows, HBO's "The Sopranos," defames their ethnic group. "You could spend your whole life wanting to be insulted," he told the New York Times. "Why?” Of course, Giuliani acted deeply offended when a portrait at the Brooklyn Museum of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was displayed because it contained elephant dung. He tried to get the city to reduce the museum’s subsidy, an effort blocked in court because it involved government censorship.

The Flap Over “My Name is Rachel Corrie"

While not a civil liberties issue because it does not involve censorship by the state, one of the most direct contrasts between London and New York involves a play called "My Name is Rachel Corrie." When it was mounted at the Royal Court Theatre in London, it was a sold-out hit. But a planned production of it at New York Theater Workshop was postponed, provoking much debate over self-censorship in the arts.

The play, by noted actor Alan Rickman and Kathleen Viner, is drawn from the diaries of Corrie, a 23-year old American who three years ago “was killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip as she tried to protect a Palestinian home,” the New York Times reported. After James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, spoke to "friends and colleagues in the artistic community and to religious leaders as well as to representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action" (as he explains in a note on the theater company's Web site), he made the decision to postpone the production: "As we listened to various opinions and read thousands of entries on websites and blogs, we realized we needed to find ways to let Rachel’s words rise above the polemics. We regret that requesting more time to achieve that goal was interpreted as failing to fulfill a commitment and, worse, as censorship."

"I don't think we were worried about the audience," he told the New York Times. "I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.”

Nicola has been attacked by everyone from 2005 British Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter to Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner, whose work is often produced at the Workshop. Viner, writing in the Guardian where she is an editor, said, “Since when did theatre come to be about those who don't go to see it? If the play itself, as Mr. Nicola clearly concedes, is not the problem, then isn't the answer to get people in to watch it, rather than exercising prior censorship? With freedom of speech now at the top of the international agenda, and George Clooney's outstanding ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ reminding us of the dangers of not standing up to witch-hunts, Americans should not be denied the right to hear Rachel Corrie's words -- words that only two weeks ago were deemed acceptable.”

The play will now get a West End (their equivalent of Broadway) production in London starting on March 28, and the search for another American producer is currently underway.

The Right to Protest

London is an easier place to protest publicly, despite all the security. Anti-war demonstrators are virtually camped out 24 hours a day on the sidewalk directly across from the entrance to Parliament, unthinkable these days either at City Hall or at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. During the world-wide protests at the start of the Iraq War in February 2003, demonstrators in London had the run of the town and paraded right past the Houses of Parliament. In New York, the police department prevented marchers from going past the United Nations and even from joining the demonstration on the side streets to which it was restricted.

When I was in London, I passed a peaceful anti-war vigil of about 40 people in Trafalgar Square one evening. There were no police in sight. In New York a few months ago, by contrast, a small picket of housing activists working for home rule on rent regulation laws was not only prevented from marching past the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg on East 79th Street, but there were swarms of cops and virtually everyone in the demonstration was photographed and videotaped by a police unit.

On the other hand, there may have been no effective difference in the surveillance: After all, the London demonstrators were no doubt picked up by the omnipresent closed circuit cameras.

Surveillance, Security and Civil Liberties

New York frequently follows London’s lead in instituting security measures. It wasn’t directly after 9/11 or when Spain’s commuter trains were bombed by terrorists in 2004 that New York began making spot bag checks for people entering the subways; it was when London was attacked this past July.

And now the New York Police Department is proposing to take London's lead in saturation surveillance of Wall Street, and reportedly contemplating similar treatment for midtown Manhattan as well. There is also a plan to install closed circuit cameras throughout our subway system, which is scheduled for completion in 2008.

Those who advocate for such heightened surveillance echo the sentiments of Jack Gin, who heads a private security company in Great Britain called Extreme CCTV: “I suggest that without security, we would lose the foundation upon which civil liberties exist," he said shortly after the London bombings. "Without security, we would have no freedom."

The New York Civil Liberties Union sees it differently: “What's next? A GPS [Global Positioning System] tracking device on every bumper? Cameras in our living rooms? Where does it end?” Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union asked in the Daily News.

Critics point to a 2005 study of closed circuit TV surveillance in 14 British cities, which found that it had no significant effect on crime in 13 of them, mostly due to understaffing of monitors and poor images at night. They did play a key role in identifying the July 7 Underground and bus bombers, but only after they had done their deeds.

Liberty, the British equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, is wary of the misuses of images captured by all the TV cameras. But the organization is more stirred up about proposals for the future -- a national identification card and a national registry, which, it says, " will fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state,” intrude on privacy, and adversely affect race relations without having a real impact on crime and terrorism.

But if in some ways London has instituted, and is contemplating, stricter security measures than those in New York, in other ways they are less strict. Bag checks are not a routine experience in London. The British Museum and most others do not ask to look into the bags of people entering, whereas guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York always do so now.

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.  

Immigration Debate Heats Up in Senate

The long-awaited immigration debate in the U.S. Senate is finally about to get underway. The next few weeks in the Senate will be crucial in determining how this country will treat the 11 million undocumented immigrants who have come in search of the American Dream but who lack legal status to live and work here. In the end, we’ll find out if we are capable of reforming the failing immigration system to manage migration flows better, and if we can do it in a way that treats immigrants fairly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin working on sweeping immigration reform legislation in early March. Whatever bill emerges from that committee will then go to the full Senate for consideration and eventually a vote, most likely in April.

The stakes could not be higher for New York City, where an estimated half a million city residents live and work without legal immigration status, and many more are affected by family separation and immigration processing backlogs.

The Bush Plan

In order to understand the context of the Senate debate, it’s necessary to look at some of the major proposals on the table. In January 2004, President George W. Bush made the first of several speeches in which he called for stepped-up enforcement combined with a guestworker program that would offer temporary work visas to undocumented workers and workers from abroad.

The president’s plan pleased just about no one, however. Immigrant advocates criticized his guestworker plan because it would kick workers out of the country after six years and offer them no path to permanent residence and citizenship. Anti-immigrant restrictionists, meanwhile, labeled even this very limited guestworker program an “amnesty” that rewards lawbreakers.

The House Bill

In a few whirlwind days near the end of the session in December, House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, railroaded through to passage the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437).

The House bill (if approved by the Senate as well) would ratchet up border and interior enforcement and create severe new penalties for immigration violations. Unlawful presence –- when someone’s visa status expires, for example -– would no longer merely be a civil violation but would become a felony crime. Anyone who “assists” or “encourages” an undocumented immigrant to remain in the country could be sent to prison for five years –- a provision that has social workers, advocates, and others wondering if their work with undocumented populations is going to land them in jail if H.R. 4437 becomes law.

The enforcement-only approach taken by the House bill makes no attempt to deal realistically with the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, other than to criminalize, arrest and deport as many of them as possible. Immigrant advocates insist that a more comprehensive and solution-oriented approach to fixing the broken U.S. immigration system is needed, and they have been riding on the hope that more moderate voices in the Senate will prevail.

The Senate Debate

A number of different immigration bills, all claiming to be comprehensive, have been introduced in the Senate, including a bill by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, and one by Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyle. On February 23rd, however, Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released his “Chairman’s Mark,” a draft bill that ends the speculation about which bill would serve as the starting point for consideration of immigration reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Specter’s draft bill attempts to cobble together a compromise from various existing proposals. The bill, to immigrant advocates’ dismay, incorporates many of the severe enforcement provisions from the Sensenbrenner House bill. Like the Bush plan, it would create a guestworker program to allow needed workers from abroad to spend up to six years working in the United States before being forced to return to their country of origin.

The bill’s treatment of undocumented workers constitutes perhaps the most strained compromise of all. Specter’s bill would grant temporary visas of indefinite duration to undocumented immigrants; the visa status would not expire after a certain number of years. However, there would be no specific path to permanent residence and citizenship for these workers. This provision basically creates millions of workers stuck in a permanent second-class status.

What -- And Who's -- Missing

Immigrant communities are protesting the Chairman’s Mark as falling far short of the basic principles needed for effective and realistic immigration reform, which include:

  • legalization and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here
  • reunification of families separated by restrictive laws and bureaucratic delays
  • a temporary-worker program with full labor rights and a path to citizenship
  • smart, targeted enforcement

These compelling principles need more champions in Congress if we are to achieve a humane and workable immigration system. New York’s senators have been largely missing from the immigration debate so far. But Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton could make a crucial difference in the weeks ahead in avoiding a rush to a compromise position drawn from deeply flawed proposals.

Norman Eng, an immigration attorney, is communications and research coordinator with The New York Immigration Coalition. For more immigrant news, see The Citizen. 


Domestic Partners Bill –- Quashed In Court

New York's highest court handed Mayor Michael Bloomberg a Valentine on February 14 -- and took it away from domestic partners -- ruling four to three that the mayor was within his rights not to enforce the City Council’s Equal Benefits Law.

The ruling by the Court of Appeals is a setback not just for people in such partnerships, but for the New York City Council's ability to use the power of the purse for social justice. What’s more, it may significantly limit the council’s right to pass laws that the mayor contends run afoul of state and federal laws.

Domestic partners, gay and straight, have been able to register with the city since 1991, and employees of the city government have been entitled to benefits for their domestic partners since Mayor David Dinkins settled a court case in 1993. While many private companies provide domestic partner benefits to their workers as a way to be fair and competitive, they are not required to do so under city law.

The City Council tried to broaden the number of private firms providing such benefits by passing Councilmember Christine Quinn’s Equal Benefits Law in 2004, overriding a veto by Mayor Bloomberg to enact it. The law requires contractors who do more than $100,000 worth of business with the city to treat the domestic partners of employees the same as spouses in the provision of benefits.

The mayor challenged the validity of the law and refused to enforce it. While city contracts are full of requirements on everything from paying a living wage (a bill he signed) to complying with the city’s human rights law, Bloomberg has said repeatedly that on principle and under the law, the procurement process should not be used to “advance social causes.” Last June, he even went so far as to say that the city should not have used it to fight apartheid in South Africa.

Bloomberg has also criticized the practice of using the city’s shareholder power to advance social causes, a leading activity of City Comptroller William Thompson. The mayor has nevertheless not stopped his Finance Commissioner, Martha Stark, from continuing to collaborate with Thompson on these shareholder resolutions in her capacity as head of the City Employees’ Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System.

In October 2004, Matt Foreman, director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, who once called the Equal Benefits Law the most important piece of gay legislation in the state, resigned his position on the City Human Rights Commission to protest Bloomberg’s obstruction of the law. Late last year, Foreman returned to the commission at the mayor’s request.

The Court of Appeals majority decision (in pdf format) said, “Where a local law seems to conflict with a state or federal one, the mayor’s obligation is to obey the latter, as the mayor has done here.” The city’s Corporation Counsel had argued that the Equal Benefits Law violated the state Municipal Home Rule Law and federal insurance laws.

Stephen Holley, the City Council’s attorney, told the AP, “I find it remarkable that the mayor can ignore a law passed over his veto. It’s a close call we lost. It’s unfortunate.”

Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay lobby, said, “New York City is underwriting discrimination. [The] ruling does not say that this practice is not happening or render any opinion about whether it is right or wrong. It just says the Equal Benefits Bill is not the mechanism to correct it."

Christine Quinn, now the Speaker of the City Council, told the New York Times, “What this says is if the mayor disregards our law, I have to sue first...” She has vowed to revive the law both through legislative action in Albany and asking the court for a re-hearing of the case. Similar laws in other localities from San Francisco to Portland, Maine have been upheld in whole or in part by state and federal courts. She called the ruling of New York’s court “disappointing and flawed.”

She has said in the past that she will also look into compelling the mayor to enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying law that he has termed “illegal” and “silly.”

The fight over domestic partner rights would be rendered moot for the most part if lesbian and gay couples had the right to marry. Bloomberg has been successful in stopping that from taking place in the city, getting the Appellate Division to overturn in December a lower court ruling that he had to open marriage to same-sex couples. The case is now being appealed by Lambda Legal Defense to the Court of Appeals and Bloomberg has said--perversely in light of the resources he has expended fighting it--that he “hopes” he loses the constitutional arguments before the high court.

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.  

The DREAM Act and Immigrant Youth

Most college students look toward graduation with a sense of excitement and new possibilities, but for 21-year-old Angie, an honors student at a private Christian college in New York, it is with heightened anxiety and uncertainty that she begins her final semester of college in January.

“I’m worried; I don’t know what’s going to happen after graduation,” says Angie, who asked that her last name not be used.

Angie’s worries are rooted in more than post-adolescent angst. She and her parents are Colombian immigrants who came to this country nearly 20 years ago on tourist visas, when she was three years old, and for a variety of reasons, remained here after their visas had expired.

“My father decided to bring me and my mom here in order to find better opportunities and to escape the guerilla war that was going on. Anything was better than living in Colombia at that time."

Angie’s father started as a gas station attendant in 1987 and has worked his way up to owning and operating a successful cleaning business. He bought his family a house in the suburbs and pays his fair share of taxes. “My dad thought it was going to be easy to get legal status here,” says Angie, “but it hasn’t worked out that way.”

She is fortunate in that her father’s hard work has made it possible for her to afford college. But now, with graduation nearing, she is facing extremely limited prospects because of her lack of immigration status. Graduate school is out of the question for financial reasons. As for job prospects, they are bleak: despite her 3.6 grade point average, she will be shut out from lawful employment in the United States. And, as always, there looms the threat of deportation if she is ever found in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such stories have prompted efforts to pass federal legislation that would grant lawful permanent residency -- “green cards” -- to the estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant youth who graduate from U.S. high schools each year, on the condition that they complete at least two years of college or military service. The legislation, known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act (S.2075), also would eliminate restrictions on a state’s ability to provide in-state tuition to state residents without regard to immigration status.

To qualify for relief under the DREAM Act, students must have come to the United States at least five years ago and must have been under age 16 at the time they entered the country. These students would qualify for conditional permanent resident status upon acceptance to college, graduation from high school, or award of a GED certificate. Conditional permanent resident status would be granted for six years, after which the students must petition to have the conditions removed. During the six years, students must graduate from college or accrue at least two years of higher education or military service.

The DREAM Act would create a powerful incentive for young people to succeed in their education and stay out of trouble, and immigrant advocates believe this bill should be a no-brainer. For the past four years, however, despite broad bipartisan support, the DREAM Act has repeatedly been prevented from going to a vote by the House and Senate leaders.

The bill was reintroduced in Congress on November 18, 2005 by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Richard Lugar (R-IL). The re-introduction of the DREAM Act comes at a time when the broader immigration debate has become increasingly politicized and contentious. Young persons who are eager to attend college or join the workforce, however, should not be stuck in limbo until Congress resolves every controversial immigration issue, say immigrant advocates. Though the fate of the DREAM Act remains uncertain, advocates are hopeful that Congress will take these young people off the immigration battlefield.

Norman Eng is a lawyer and policy associate with The New York Immigration Coalition who writes on immigration policy for that organization.  

Christine Quinn and Gay Rights in NYC

When Christine Quinn was elected by her colleagues to be the Speaker of the New York City Council, much was made of her being the first woman and the first openly gay person to assume the office. The New York Post ran a picture of her marching in the Gay Pride Parade from six years ago. She herself declared in her speech in the council chambers that she was “incredibly proud that in the most diverse city in the world, diversity is seen as a strength, not an impediment."

It is true that all previous leaders of the council have been white men, ostensibly all straight. It is also true that many previous opponents of gay rights and women’s rights were there at City Hall for her election, joining the standing ovation. It’s understandable why some would see this as an unmitigated triumph: It was just a decade ago, after all, when Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari could pronounce candidate Karen Burstein “unfit” for the office of State Attorney General because she was “an admitted lesbian” – and the only person to suffer any repercussions from the remark was Burstein, who lost the election.

But, while the elevation of the first woman and the first gay person to what many call “the second most powerful office in New York” (after only the mayor) is certainly a breakthrough, it is also a reminder that this city has lagged behind others in advancing both women and gay issues and candidates.

Women Office-Holders And Women’s Rights

Only three women have held citywide office in New York City. Carol Bellamy was city council president from 1978 to 1985. That post evolved into the office of public advocate, a position now held by Betsy Gotbaum. Elizabeth Holtzman , a former Congresswoman best known for serving on the House Watergate committee and now an attorney in private practice, served one term as city comptroller from 1990 to 1994.

No woman has ever been mayor of New York, though there are 178 women mayors in American cities as large as Dallas, Cleveland and Atlanta.

Of the 51 members of the New York City Council, 16 are women – up one from last year.

While the city has long banned discrimination on the basis of gender, New York voters defeated a referendum on adding an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution in the 1970s. It still does not have one.

Gay Office-Holders

Out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians are relatively rare in New York politics, but there have been sightings as long ago as three decades. Ken Sherrill , a political science professor at Hunter College, became the first out gay elected official in city history in 1977 when he was elected a Democratic district leader. Deborah Glick , an out lesbian, won the Assembly seat from Greenwich Village in 1990 and is still serving in Albany. Thomas K. Duane of Chelsea was the first out gay city council member, elected in 1991 with Christine Quinn as his campaign manager and first chief of staff. When Duane moved on to Albany to become the first out gay State Senator in 1999, Quinn succeeded him in the Council.

There have been a smattering of gay commissioners in every administration going back to the Lindsay administration (though Lindsay’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Brown, did not come out until after he left office, when he founded the National Gay Task Force in 1973, making front page news.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has out lesbians in Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Verna Eggleston , both of whom are African American as well. Among Bloomberg’s Human Rights Commissioners is Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

As for the City Council, with both Phil Reed and Margarita Lopez no longer council members thanks to term limits, Quinn now has only one colleague who is openly gay, newly elected Councilmember Rosie Mendez, representing the Lower East Side.

Gay Rights In The Past

For all the visibility of New York City as the center of gay life – and the home of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, which sparked the modern gay rights movement – the city has lagged behind many others in implementing gay rights.

It did not pass a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation until 1986, long after cities such as Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis had.

Ironically or not, the “gay rights bill,” as it was known, was thwarted by one of Quinn’s predecessors, Tom Cuite of Brooklyn, whose official titles then were majority leader and vice chair (this was before the position was renamed Speaker). When Mayor Ed Koch, a supporter of the bill, would raise the issue in meetings, Cuite would stand up and walk out of the room. Cuite kept it bottled up in committee for 12 years.

Cuite was succeeded by Peter Vallone, Sr. of Astoria, Queens, also an opponent of the gay bill. Vallone appeared at a rally against the bill where Catholic Bishop Patrick Ahern declared, “Homosexuals not only should not make love because it is immoral, they cannot make love because it is impossible.”

In his new memoir, “Learning to Govern,” Vallone writes, “Although I voted against the bill, I instructed the committee 'to vote their consciences...'...I later came to understand and agree that the law was necessary for its value as a tool to prevent bias and violence against differences in sexual orientation--not as a lifestyle endorsement....My vote was no, but my heart said yes...”

People grow and change on both sides of this issue that has vexed New York. At Quinn’s election as Speaker, Vallone sat in the front row and blew her a kiss as she paid tribute to him. She also praised Queens Democratic Leader Thomas Manton , arguably the key to her victory as Speaker. As a council member, Manton voted against gay rights; eventually, though, as a member of Congress he became a sponsor of the federal gay rights bill (which is still a bill, not a law).

Gay Rights In The Future

Quinn’s victory does not mean that the fight for gay rights is over in New York. She cannot legally marry her partner, attorney Kim Catullo, in the city because Mayor Bloomberg successfully overturned a February 2005 ruling ordering him to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. While California's legislature became the first such body in America to pass a same-sex marriage bill in 2005 (only to have it vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), a New York City Council resolution to support the right of gay people to marry never got a vote even under the pro-gay marriage leadership of Quinn's immediate predecessor, Speaker Gifford Miller.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and especially transgendered people still suffer disproportionately from such life-threatening problems as AIDS and homelessness.

Quinn’s 2004 Equal Benefits Law, requiring contractors with the city to give domestic partners of their employees the same benefits as they give spouses, is also being thwarted in court by Bloomberg, threatening to strip the council of its power to use the procurement process to advance social goals in general. And an anti-bullying law , also deemed “illegal” by Bloomberg, at least points up the fact that kids perceived to be gay or transgendered can experience school as a hell--so much so that the city has provided the Harvey Milk School as a segregated refuge rather than deal with the endemic problem in the schools.

January 4, 2005 may go down in the history books as the opening of another door in New York with the election of Christine Quinn as Speaker. But her colleagues and political experts will tell you she won the post because they like her personally, admire her work, and believe she can help them get their jobs done. "She knows how to get bills passed and enable her colleagues to get bills passed," said Sherrill, the political scientist. "In a functioning legislature, people achieve positions of leadership because they enable their colleagues to advance their careers."

If gay people are rooting for Quinn, so too are her council colleagues, though perhaps for different reasons.

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.  

Same-Sex Marriage Loses

When in February New York State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan ordered New York City to start providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Mayor Michael Bloomberg directed the city’s law department to appeal the decision.

Ten months later, the justice’s decision has been struck down in a 4-1 ruling of the New York State Appellate Division.

The case is not over yet. Lambda Legal Defense, a gay rights advocacy group that brought the suit on behalf of five same-sex couples, will appeal the latest ruling to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

There are also four other same-sex marriage cases pending in various appeals courts in New York, all of which lost at the trial level.

Why It Was Struck Down

Justice Milton Williams, writing for the majority of the First Department of the Appellate Division, in the case called Hernandez v. Robles, found that the current state law's prohibition of marriage to anyone other than male-female couples “expresses an important, long-recognized public policy supporting, among other things, procreation, child welfare and social stability--all legitimate state interests.” He declared that Justice Ling-Cohan erred in having ruled last February that New York’s Domestic Relations Law is unconstitutional because it does not permit same-sex marriage. Her decision in effect created “a new constitutional right,” Williams wrote, an act that “usurped that of the legislature.”

Justice David B. Saxe, the only dissenter in the Appellate Court ruling, wrote that “plaintiffs have established a violation of the liberty interests protected by the due process clause of our state constitution.” He added, “Employing the reasoning that marriage must be limited to heterosexuals because that is what the institution has historically been, merely justifies discrimination with the bare explanation that it has always been this way.”

Bloomberg’s Reaction

New York City has offered some form of domestic partner rights since the years of former Mayor Ed Koch, establishing a registry under former Mayor David Dinkins, who later settled a lawsuit with gay teachers that granted all city employees health benefits for their domestic partners. Those rights were codified into law in the second administration of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

But Michael Bloomberg had resisted explicitly supporting the right of gay couples to marry -- until Justice Ling-Cohan’s ruling. And, when he finally came out in support of gay marriage, he simultaneously announced he would go to court to fight that right. Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts called Bloomberg’s appeal “terrible for us” gay people, because it prevented thousands of gay couples from being legally married by the time the case is decided by the Court of Appeals, probably sometime in 2007.

But Bloomberg reasoned that that was exactly why he was ordering the appeal, because there would be “chaos” if gay couples could marry in the city, and then have their marriages nullified by a later court ruling.

After the appellate court’s recent reversal, Mayor Bloomberg issued a statement: “As I have said, this issue should be decided by the state’s highest court and I assume today’s decision will be appealed. If today’s decision is affirmed by the Court of Appeals, I will urge the legislature to change the State’s Domestic Relations Law to permit gay marriage.”

So far, the bills in the State Senate and Assembly to open marriage to same-sex couples have gone nowhere. On the other hand, neither has there been any legislative action on a state Defense of Marriage Act to explicitly ban gay people from marrying.

Asked why the mayor is not lobbying for gay marriage rights if he believes only the legislature has that power, Kate Ahlers of the city’s law department said, “I think he is doing it in tandem. It is important to have legal clarification.” The city’s briefs in this case, which include references to the bible, argue only the legislature can make this change.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has moved to recognize the validity of the marriages of same-sex couples legally married elsewhere, such as Canada which has welcomed American gay couples to marry there. Same-sex marriage is also legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain, but it is more difficult for non-residents to marry in those countries.

The State Of Gay Couple Recognition Elsewhere

Most European nations have some form of gay partner recognition, including the United Kingdom which just started civil partnerships on December 5 with Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish among the first to register.

South Africa’s high court ruled on December 1 that parliament must rewrite the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. The court gave the legislature a year to fashion a solution rather than ordering an end to the discrimination immediately.

More than 40 American states ban same-sex marriage in law and an increasing number have enacted state constitutional amendments to block gay couples from marrying or entering into civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Massachusetts is the only state that lets gay couples marry--by an order of their Supreme Judicial Court in 2004--and at present the couples have to be Bay State residents. Connecticut began offering civil unions to same-sex couples this year via legislative act and Vermont did so in 2000. Hawaii, California, and New Jersey offer limited domestic partner benefits, with California’s system most closely mirroring marriage rights.

What Now?

Susan Sommer of Lambda said the plaintiff couples in Lambda’s suit are “disappointed, but they knew there was a good chance we’d be reversed by this court. We’re in this for the long run. On the bright side, they know we’re one step closer.”

Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay lobby group, said, “Lesbian and gay couples fall in love, we make the same commitments married couples make, and many of us are raising children. We are families in every sense of the word. We should not be denied the literally hundreds of rights and protections the state provides married couples and their families.”

That sentiment is not shared by the majority of voters in this country, though polling in the Northeast is more supportive. The U.S. Congress passed a Defense of Marriage Act by a 5-1 margin in 1996, forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriage and allowing states not to recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states. It was signed by President Bill Clinton and supported by now Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as by then-Representative Chuck Schumer, none of whom have changed their positions. They do, however, oppose President George W. Bush’s proposal for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The Court of Appeals is no sure thing for the pro-gay marriage side in this case. Just three of the seven justices are appointees of former Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, and one of them is set to retire in September. Governor George Pataki, while considered a moderate Republican, has appointed more conservative jurists.

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.  

Proposed Law Aims to Prevent Discrimination

Vanessa David was happy working for the Department of Education, delivering sheetrock and other construction material to school construction sites. But after nine months on the job her supervisor fired her. David believed she was discriminated against, as a woman, an African-American, and as a lesbian, and so she filed a complaint with the City Human Rights Commission.

That was almost seven years ago. The complaint went nowhere, at one point commission staff telling her that it would be difficult to prove discrimination, even though she had been the only woman among 45 employees at the Division of Trucking, and only one of three African-Americans. “Certain trades belong to the Irish, some to the Italians,” she recalled being told.

“Even with the support of my union, my supervisor still has his job, the commission still isn’t investigating my case, and I probably have a three-year court battle left,” she said earlier this year at a City Council hearing in support of a proposed new anti-discrimination law, Intro 512-A. “I believe that Intro 512 could have prevented many of these problems.”

The bill, which is called the Human Rights in Government Operations Audit Law (or Human Rights GOAL), is intended to “stop discrimination before it happens” according to its supporters at a coalition named the New York City Human Rights Initiative.

“We need to anticipate discrimination before it becomes a legal matter and harmful,” said outgoing Councilmember Bill Perkins, the bill’s chief sponsor.

“We know there are inequalities in city employment and services,” said Barbara Schulman of the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project, a leader in the initiative. “They are not the product of malicious intentional decisions to exclude or neglect particular groups,” but of “habit, of conducting business as usual, and of insufficient avenues for input from those affected by policy.”

Betty Powell, a veteran Brooklyn-based diversity trainer, testified in April that the law would require us “to look with unblinking candor at all our city agencies’ programs and policies, employment practices, budget allocations, service deliveries, etc. [and] ascertain through audit and analysis, not whether or not, but how the racial and gender gaps show up in our city’s work and workplaces, and then rigorously support historically unparalleled, proactive structural solutions.”

As former Mayor David Dinkins testified at that same hearing, the law could prevent many discrimination lawsuits against city agencies, and thus save tax dollars, by “identifying potentially harmful policies in advance” rather than provide “redress for discrimination after the fact,” as the city’s current Human Rights Law does.

The bill has 32 co-sponsors in the City Council, including outgoing Speaker Gifford Miller. But advocates say that Miller’s support has been tepid, and the Bloomberg administration opposed an earlier version of the bill. The offices of both Miller and Bloomberg say they are now “reviewing” a new draft of it.

Anthony Crowell, special counsel to the mayor, testified that the administration supported many of the goals of the proposed legislation, but had a problem with its language, which ignores, he said, “the real progress we have already made” in preventing discrimination, declines to “adopt a realistic approach to governing,” and makes everything mandatory. “These mandates are so broad, and so vague, that they would cause endless disputes over their intent and bureaucratic confusion.”

To push the legislation along, its supporters held a rally/press conference on the steps of City Hall shortly before Election Day, participants holding up signs with big red lips on them and the words: “Real Solutions, Not Lip Service.”

“We hear all the time how diverse the city is,” Craig Gurian, director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York , said at the October rally, “but New York City and the New York metropolitan area remain among the most segregated places in the nation.” It is in the city’s “self interest,” given the millions it pays out in discrimination suits annually. “Any sensible entity--whether it’s a hospital, a corporation, or even a municipality -- always needs to be taking risk reduction steps.”

The proposed legislation tries to make the city apply international human rights law, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women , signed by the United States in 1980 but not ratified by the Senate, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination , which was ratified. This bill goes further, mandating that all city agencies take a proactive approach to monitoring inequities and preventing discrimination by educating the staff and public about its provisions, conducting audits of compliance and developing action plans in response, and seeking the input of the city’s diverse communities in doing so.

Under the bill, a newly-created eight-member Human Rights Task Force, appointed by the mayor, would be charged with implementing the law. The Commissioners of Citywide Administrative Services and Human Rights would serve ex officio along with the Chair of the Equal Employment Practices Commission. The law would also create a 13-member Human Rights Advisory Committee, including the comptroller, public advocate, appointees of the five borough presidents, five members appointed by the City Council, and a chair picked by the mayor with the council’s advice and consent. This committee’s function would be “to advise on the guidelines and procedures” used by the Human Rights Task Force.

Ejim Dike, a leader of the Initiative, said, “Race, gender, sexual orientation, and neighborhood determine whether you get services, health insurance, and how long you will live.” She believes that evident disparities require the new medicine of this legislation.

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.  

The Citizen

Untitled Document

The Department of Homeland Security frequently fails to follow up on leads that foreign visitors have overstayed their visas, according to a new report. Of the 301,046 leads on possible visa violators reported to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in 2004, only 4,164 cases were formally pursued, resulting in just 671 apprehensions. The visa overstay population in the United States is now estimated at 3.6 million.

President George Bush once again urged Congress to adopt a temporary-worker program that would allow some undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States for as long as six years. The plan was first proposed in January 2004, but it has run into resistance. Critics argued that allowing more immigrants to compete in the job market will drag down wages.

However, a new study shows immigration in the 1990s actually increased the average wage of American-born workers by 2.7 percent. The study also said that immigrants do not always compete for the same jobs as American-born workers."The two groups are not 'perfect substitutes' even when they have similar education and the same occupation. A Chinese cook is not the same as a Texas barbecue chef."

If immigrants' effect on the economy is a subject of dispute, their increasing political clout is clear, at least in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his re-election campaign with a commercial in which he speaks in Spanish, and ended it with ones in which he speaks Chinese, Korean and Russian."It's especially appealing to the people of the older generation," said Justin Yu, of The World Journal, a Chinese newspaper. "They really feel they connected with him because he's using the same language."

The following stories -- translated into English from the Bengali, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Urdu press via our partner, Voices That Must Be Heard -- can be access through The Citizen.

Transporting Illegal Immigrants
From Hoy
Greyhound bus is implementing a policy that prohibits its employees from selling tickets to undocumented immigrants.

Imam Resigns From the Police Department over 9/11
From Muslims Weekly
An imam slated to be sworn in as a Fire Department of New York chaplain resigned last week because he doubted the U.S. government's official story blaming 19 hijackers for the events of September 11, 2001.

Day labor Center in Flushing
From World Journal
Although some companies are still taking a wait-and-see attitude, many business owners support the creation of the day-labor center.

The Unemployed
From World Journal
The latest homicide case in Chinatown tells of the disappointment, desperation, pain and suffering of unemployed immigrants.

Without Insurance
From Hoy
New study reveals that people who are poor or without insurance are taken to public hospitals, even when the facility closest to their residence is a private one.

Are We Good Neighbors?
From Russian Bazaar
A letter to the editor wonders how people view Russian immigrants.

Lottery Visa
From Irish Echo
Applying to the lottery has become an entirely online process, leading to an explosion of Web sites that offer to help people with their applications for a fee.



City Council Passes Bill to Establish Commission on Day Labor Centers

Jian Quo Shen left his native Shanghai, China, five years ago to come to work in America so his aging parents can have a better life in their final years. Often working as $75-a-day laborer, he slept on a bunk bed in a tiny room in Chinatown.

But on July 7, 2004 in a construction site in Elmhurst, Queens a concrete wall collapsed and crushed him. He was the 14th day laborer killed since 1999. This accident came just two weeks after the death of Angel Segovia, a native of Ecuador, who fell from a third-story balcony roof in Brooklyn.

In an effort to prevent more such tragedies, the City Council passed a bill to establish a commission to look into how more job centers could be developed across the city to serve its estimated 8,000 day laborers who struggle to find employment each day are often subjected to low pay, long hours, and hazardous working conditions.

The bill, Intro 592-A, was passed by a vote of 43 to 2. According to the bill, A recent survey of day laborers in New York City found that almost 85 percent of those surveyed have experienced some type of abuse in the industry: 50 percent experienced non-payment of wages, and 56 percent were paid less than the agreed upon wage.

The temporary commission will consist of 20 members, appointed by the Council Speaker and the Mayor. At least 12 of them will be immigrant day laborers or representatives of groups with experience working on issues affecting immigrant day laborers. Officials from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Department of Small Business Services, and the Police Department will also be on the commission.

Councilmember Vincent Gentile from Bay Ridge, who helped draft the bill, said it was a "win-win" situation.

"Laborers are protected," said Gentile. "And for the community, laborers are not congregating on street corners."

Councilmember Helen Sears from Jackson Heights, who also contributed to the bill, admitted that undocumented immigrants pose another difficult issue.

"While there are many day laborers who are undocumented, there are many who are not," said Sears. "And those undocumented immigrants have been mistreated and abused. This bill will be able to prevent that."

But Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. from Astoria objected to language in the legislation that would grant 12 of the 20 seats on the commission to immigrant day laborers or representatives of groups working with laborers.

"This is giving the official sanction... to illegal aliens," said Vallone, Jr. "We are a body that makes the law. We should not be sanctioning breaking the law."

Similar issues have generated heated discussion in cities and suburbs across the country. While some cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, welcome immigrant workers, others do not. Residents in Danbury, Connecticut, and Farmingdale, Long Island, have long complained about day laborers on their street corners, saying that they have threatened the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

According to the bill, job centers are organized to connect day laborers with employers seeking work in settings that provide accountability and help prevent workplace exploitation. But different from the employment agencies, which are prevalent in many immigrant communities, those job centers do not charge day laborers for their services and are administered by the local government or community-based groups. Most job centers require employers to sign a contract attesting to the wages agreed upon by the employer and the day laborer.

In addition, those job centers will provide a secure space for day laborers to congregate and offer bathrooms and shelter from bad weather conditions. Some sites will also help to connect day laborers to additional services, including classes on vocational skills, labor and immigration laws, and literacy skills in both Spanish and English. Community organizations may also offer social services on sites, including health care services, legal services, food pantries and peer support groups.

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.  

Campaign 2005: Real Estate Boom; Corporate Developments; Immigrant Entrepreneurs.

Bloomberg’s obsession with West Side Manhattan development and Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James’ objections to the proposed Nets Stadium (In PDF format) are both big-time community development issues.

But most such issues play out in individual neighborhoods. And with crime and the crack epidemic on the decline, the popular belief that the public schools are improving, and with white and middle class people actually throwing elbows to move into once forsaken neighborhoods, community development is increasingly seen for its added economic value to the middle class, and less for who it might be leaving behind or displacing.

Following are three of the issues on the minds of the electorate this political season.

New York’s Real Estate Boom (or “Help: I can no longer afford to live here”)

A woman I know, formerly of Fort Greene, is living the up side of what has become an all too common story in the Big Apple. Having bought what is generously called a two bedroom apartment looking out on Lafayette Avenue six years ago for $155,000 – a price she feared at the time was inflated - she recently sold it for $630,00 to a young woman with a healthy trust fund. “Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it,” my friend comments. “There’s too much noise on the street outside of the apartment. And yet now, I can’t even afford to live there myself.”

Speaking with the new real estate savvy she’s attained, she explains that the level of home seeker desperation has risen in areas like Fort Greene because “there’s just no inventory left”.

Affordable housing in New York is hard to find and at a premium. Community activists and vulnerable residents have been grumbling for years about the transformation of neighborhoods across the city in which rents and sale prices have gone through the roof and low-income people are finding themselves priced out of areas where they’ve lived for generations. What’s perhaps most striking is that neighborhoods all over the city which were once seen as unrecoverable pockets of poverty and blight, like Red Hook for instance, are now hungrily looked upon by developers and yuppie settlers alike.

A report by the Center for an Urban Future (In PDF Format) noted that the Mayor of New York has considerable power in controlling housing production and community development through his authority over zoning and land use, building code changes, appointments to the City Planning Commission, among other things.

But on the neighborhood level, where gentrification battles are most intensely fought and are as much about emotionally charged race- and class-based land claims as they are about residential or commercial change, most politicians are studiously agnostic on the question of what kind of development befits their neighborhood; when they offer their opinion on the subject there are too few “right” answers and simply too many opportunities to piss people off.

As a result, for better or worse, it’s far more difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable for their position on gentrification. Take Harlem, one of the most high profile community development battlegrounds in the city. With middle class and non African Americans pouring in, glossy commercial development pushing small businesses off of 125th Street, and Columbia University creeping around its borders, politicians have no choice but to acknowledge the tension between those who want Harlem to dismantle the legacy of poverty, and those who denounce the changing complexion of area residents and commercial corridors. But few will offer a clear vision of what Harlem should look like. Recently, city council candidates who vied for Harlem’s District 9 city council seat, in response to questions about proposed development projects, criticized the community review process undergone by recent community development projects and declared that as candidates they seek “responsible development” – arguably one of the most meaningless and non committal terms in civic discourse.

Large Scale Corporate Neighborhood Development (Or “But what if I don’t want a highway running through my backyard?”)

The question of whether to allow the proposed building of land grabbing sports stadiums and box stores has given rise to this year’s highest profile community referendums.

The Forest Ratner proposed development of 21 acres in Brooklyn, which includes the Nets stadium, housing and commercial development, became a rallying cry for opponents of eminent domain, which represents the government’s ability to seize property needed for the completion of a public project.

But more than anything else, outer borough projects like Ratner’s stadium plan and the Ikea store which is now destined to arrive in Red Hook, are important because they pit two distinct camps against each other: On one side you have those who champion job creation or who define economic progress as upscale development; on the other side you have residents and business people who will likely be displaced or who object to the inevitable traffic congestion and other environmental implications..

The Nets Stadium was originally cast as government teaming up with big commercial interests to literally bulldoze over small, defenseless residents and small businesses. But Ratner and Ikea were both able to win overwhelming support from local elected officials by offering huge buy-outs to residents and enticing folks with jobs, particularly the public housing populations of Fort Greene and Red Hook respectively. Both the Nets Stadium and Ikea battles took on racial and class dimensions as predominately white, middle class activists found themselves being shouted down by African American residents from the projects demanding jobs.

In the end, most city wide and local elected officials (with the exception of Tish James) opted to support Ikea and the Nets stadium rather than risk being perceived as obstacles to neighborhood economic progress. The Nets stadium first demonstrated its city-wide profile as Public Advocate contender Norman Siegal joined with residents to fight Ratner’s plans, but Virginia Fields and Gifford Miller, along with Bloomberg, were strongly in favor of Ratner’s economic development vision. Ferrer, the Democratic party nominee, has been wishy-washy on the issue, both praising the project and raising questions about who will be displaced by it.

The importance of job creation will continue to be a pivotal issue in deciding the political futures of large scale commercial development in New York, but this knife can cut both ways: Wal Mart was successfully thwarted from gaining a foothold in New York, because it is perceived as an exploitative employer and poor corporate citizen.

Immigrant Small Business Development (Or “I am yearning to breathe free, not to be a terrorist”)

The obstacles facing small business entrepreneurs in New York City are legion. Seen as representing the bottom of the economic food chain, immigrant entrepreneurs fight for respect wherever they set up shop. Most have limited access to conventional forms of working capital and many possess little or no formal business training that will help them grow and make a bigger contribution to the city’s economy.

Some areas, like the ethnically kaleidoscopic streets of Northwest Queens, have been reborn over the last few years, spurred on by the business activity of new arrivals. One would think that in a city where immigrant levels are at historically high levels -almost 3 million New Yorkers were born in a foreign county - the needs and contributions of immigrant small business people would be more fully appreciated. In fact, the term micro-entrepreneur has become popular over the last fifteen years largely as a way to categorize a culture of subsistence-level commercial activity honed in the developing world. Some research estimates that micro-entrepreneurs now make up 35 percent of the employment force in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens.

The reality is politicians and policy makers, who rarely pay attention to constituencies they perceive as largely unorganized non-voters, are only now beginning to wake up to the importance of immigrant entrepreneurs. One possible indication that policy advocates are taking immigrant business development more seriously is the fact that the Center for an Urban Future is releasing a report on immigrant entrepreneurs and how the city can support them.

Perhaps in another sign of things to come, organizations like the East Harlem’s Esperanza del Barrio, Bushwick’s Latin American Workers Project and Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, have been putting pressure on the administration to improve conditions for street vendors in the city, including better treatment by the police, more public space to accommodate vending and an increase in the number of vending licenses the city provides.

The Bloomberg Administration asserts that it has reorganized the Department of Small Business Services to focus more on micro-entrepreneurs and has opened up Business Solution Centers in all boroughs to provide technical assistance to entrepreneurs. But beyond this gesture, immigrant constituencies and interest groups are sure to demand more from city officials. For instance there are efforts to gain support for immigrant entrepreneurs through measures as varied as public capitalization of loan funds, to the rezoning of areas to accommodate and incubate small businesses. Some of this advocacy goes beyond small business development issues and challenges the formal and informal status of immigrants in the city: Esperanza del Barrio is leading an immigrant rights campaign to allow undocumented entrepreneurs more freedom to pursue work opportunities.

Mark Winston Griffith, a founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, has been in charge of the community development topic page since its inception in 2003.  

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