Gotham Gazette Wed, 17 Jul 2019 00:58:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Pressing Immigration Issues, with City Council Member Carlos Menchaca cm carlos menacha 2

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

May 8, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Pressing Immigration Issues, with City Council Member Carlos Menchaca

cm carlos menchaca wbai 150City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, chair of the Council's immigration committee and co-chair of its 2020 Census Task Force, joined the show to discuss a wide range of issues related to immigrant communities and public policy, including whether New York City is really a "sanctuary city."

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Pressing Immigration Issues, with City Council Member Carlos Menchaca Wed, 08 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Budget Includes $20 Million in Census Outreach Funding, Half What Advocates Wanted nyic census rally

Monday census day of action rally (photo: @thenyic)

The new state budget agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature includes $20 million in U.S. Census outreach funding, half of what community advocates say is needed to ensure an adequate count of New York’s population next year. The budget that came together over the weekend and was voted through by the two legislative houses early Monday immediately took effect, given the April 1 start to the state fiscal year.

The $20 million in state census funding is for the year leading up to when the official count begins, coincidentally, on April 1 of next year. Governor Andrew Cuomo had not including any census outreach funding in his executive budget proposal earlier this year. As advocates and some lawmakers pushed for $40 million in funding to be included in the state budget, the final spending plan included half that amount. On Monday, one year from the start of the count, the New York Counts 2020 coalition and New York City Office of the Census held a day of action across the city, with disappointment about the state funding figure hanging over the effort, but having no apparent impact on the enthusiasm of the activists involved.

The Census, the constitutionally mandated decennial population count, is expected to be particularly challenging in 2020, raising concerns of a significant undercount in New York. The federal government is underfunding the U.S. Census Bureau, hiring far fewer enumerators than the last count in 2010. The census is shifting to a primarily digital methodology, encouraging households to fill out the questionnaire online, which could lead to lower response rates by older populations and in communities that lack access to the internet.

And New York is home to large populations of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, who are less likely to respond to the census, a trend that could be particularly acute under the Trump administration, which has fostered and promoted a heightened atmosphere of fear in those communities. Those fears are exacerbated by the administration’s attempts to include a citizenship question on the census, which is the subject of a legal fight that will be heard by the United States Supreme Court in three weeks (President Trump himself pushed for the question on Twitter Monday).

All those factors combined could spell disaster for New York State. An undercount could lead to significant cuts in federal funding -- New York receives as much as $80 billion annually -- and could result in the loss of two seats in the House of Representatives (the loss of one seat is expected given broader population trends).

New York Counts 2020, a coalition of advocates and issue-focused organizations, has been pushing the state to provide at least $40 million in funding to help reach hard-to-count communities. But state action has been slow and unsatisfactory, advocates have said. Besides the level of funding of outreach efforts, the state was also late to create a commission to examine census issues. It blew past a deadline to issue a report.

On Monday, the New York Counts coalition partnered with New York City’s Office of the Census, headed by director Julie Menin, and hundreds of volunteers in a day of action to mark one year till the 2020 Census kicks off. “Given the state's disappointing $20 million investment in Census outreach, we must work twice as hard,” on outreach efforts, said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is a facilitator of the larger coalition, in a statement.

“Our share of over $800 billion of annual federal funding and our voice and power in Congress are at risk, and the stakes could not be higher,” Menin said in a statement.

While the state has been lax in its efforts, the city has been far more proactive. De Blasio’s January appointment of Menin to head the city’s census office was followed later that month by New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s announcement of a 2020 Census Task Force, chaired by Council Members Carlina Rivera and Carlos Menchaca.

In an op-ed in Gotham Gazette on Monday, Rivera and Menchaca also expressed disappointment that the state hadn’t provided the funding needed for adequate outreach. “We need more details about how this funding will be distributed and will keep fighting to ensure that community based organizations in New York City get the funding they need to get an accurate count locally,” they wrote.

A new city budget, due by July 1, will offer city officials an opportunity to put more money behind outreach efforts in the five boroughs.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

State Budget Includes $20 Million in Census Outreach Funding, Half What Advocates Wanted Mon, 01 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Why We Wore ‘Abolish ICE’ Shirts to the Statue of Liberty op tiff huang

the author, Tiffany Huang, and her partner (photo: Sy Klipsch-Abudu of NYCLU)

Two months ago, my partner gifted me tickets for a Statue of Liberty tour. Despite growing up near New York and living in the city for the last two years, I had yet to visit the statue itself, and was excited to make the trip. For me and many others, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of welcome to immigrants and refugees to the United States.

As our July tour date approached, however, the news roiled with ever-more-horrifying reports about family separation and child detention, brought about by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. These horrors were fresh, but not altogether new. Although the United States has indeed served as a beacon of welcome and refuge for many immigrants over the centuries, it has not always lived up to that ideal. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the (anti-immigration) Immigration Act of 1924, to Operation Wetback in the 1950s, this country has at times enacted ugly, racist policies that excluded people from the U.S. on the basis of race and national origin.

We are in the midst of one of those periods. Under the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become an agent of toxic anti-immigrant action. Their “zero-tolerance” policy has led to human rights abuses that have horrified onlookers both in the U.S. and around the world. While the Trump administration has since ended the practice of family separation, more than 500 children remain separated from their families. ICE has deported 460 parents without their children. The trauma that these families have experienced will endure far past this moment.

When we were preparing to go on our Statue of Liberty tour, we felt compelled to raise attention to the contradiction between what the statue symbolizes and the reality of our present politics. We therefore chose to wear shirts that read “Abolish ICE.” For us, “Abolish ICE” is a call to acknowledge the abuses of current immigration policy, and to rebuild our broken immigration system.

When we arrived at the tour’s embarkation point, however, security personnel stopped us and demanded that we either change our shirts, or leave the tour. Although we insisted that we had no plans for disruptive action -- and indeed, we did not -- they held firm. We opted to leave the tour, but later contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) about the incident. The National Park Service has since admitted that it was a mistake to bar us from the tour because of our shirts, which were simply and obviously an expression of free speech.

We are grateful that the U.S. Park Police has acknowledged its error. But to us, the bigger story is the injustice that the Trump administration continues to perpetrate on immigrant communities. As the Statue of Liberty stands in the New York Harbor, we as a nation must stand up for what she symbolizes.

Tiffany J. Huang is a graduate student at Columbia University. On Twitter @tiffjhuang.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Why We Wore ‘Abolish ICE’ Shirts to the Statue of Liberty Wed, 22 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era mayorsoffice rikers island

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Under the Trump administration, we are seeing escalated attacks against immigrant communities across the country. Raids, workplace sweeps, and the detention of Dreamers, asylum seekers, and other immigrants have led to the daily separation of families.

More than any other city, New York City has been proactive in responding to these attacks. At the center of our efforts to support our immigrant community is the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) — the nation’s first universal legal defense program for immigrants facing deportation.

Over the last four years, NYIFUP has set the national standard for protecting the due process rights of immigrants and keeping families together.  

Research shows that detained immigrants with access to legal counsel have a 48% probability of success in immigration court, as compared to 4% without access to counsel.  

Moreover, the New York City Council has made significant investments in complementary initiatives, including providing representation to immigrant children, survivors of domestic violence, asylum seekers, and those applying for U.S. citizenship.  

Our comprehensive legal services effort ensures income is not a barrier to obtaining quality, trustworthy representation for many immigrants at risk of deportation.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio has dangerously limited due process to many more at risk of deportation by quietly implementing a policy that excludes immigrants, including veterans, with certain convictions from qualifying for representation through our legal defense programs.

New York City already mandates universal appointment of counsel in Family Court and Housing Court. Appointed counsel in those courts is based on financial need, not on a person’s criminal record.

A criminal record may, at times, be a factor for a judge deciding the merits of the case, but it’s never a factor in deciding who deserves an attorney. We must have the same standard in our immigration courts that we do in family and housing.

Elected officials, especially those who proclaim a progressive identity, should not fuel the nation’s deportation machine by limiting due process at a time like this.

Instead, we have a duty to do everything in our power to ensure a level playing field in a system that is heavily weighted against people of color and immigrants, who all too often are ensnared by a system set up to criminalize them.

The mayor’s approach is dangerous. We reject his exclusionary policy and urge him to restore our legal services programs to universal representation models without discriminatory exclusions.

Our legal services programs do not determine who gets to stay in the country and who doesn’t — that is the role of our courts. Instead, our publicly funded programs help immigrants understand the proceedings they are in, as well as their legal rights and obligations.

Making certain individuals ineligible for legal services strips them of a meaningful opportunity to have their day in court — leaving immigrants subject to deportation to countries where their lives may be at risk and allowing for the senseless separation of families.

We would do well to remember the words of retired Immigration Judge Paul Grussendorf, who explained, “it is un-American to detain someone, send them to a remote facility where they have no contact with family, place them in legal proceedings where they are often unable to comprehend, and not to provide counsel for them.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are the laboratories of democracy. We add that cities are the spark of genius that drives innovation in our democracy.

New York City has led the way in protecting the rights of immigrants. We must expand on that progress — not turn back. Other cities across the nation are looking to us as beacons of progress.

As descendants of immigrants and LGBTQ members of the New York City Council, and as New Yorkers, we are committed to eradicating inequality, discrimination, and barriers to fairness in our great city.

We are committed to universal representation and due process for all immigrant New Yorkers.

Justice is on our side.

Carlos Menchaca and Daniel Dromm are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Menchaca chairs the Council’s immigration committee, while Dromm is chair of the finance committee. On Twitter @cmenchaca and @Dromm25.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Defining 'Real Democrat,' Cynthia Nixon Offers Early Policy Platform cynthia nixon gov rally event

Cynthia Nixon (photo: Cynthia for NY on Facebook)

Actor and activist Cynthia Nixon launched her challenge to two-term incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo by calling him a fake Democrat who has governed like a Republican and only takes progressive stances when they are politically expedient or he has no choice.

Nixon, who certainly has an uphill climb if she wants to beat Cuomo in the September 13 Democratic primary, has staked her campaign on claiming to be a true progressive, with a liberal agenda focused on racial and economic justice, led by what has been her marquee issue as an activist over the past two decades: education funding. As a spokesperson with the Alliance for Quality Education, Nixon has long-championed increased investment in the state’s public schools, especially those in disadvantaged communities.

Running to Cuomo’s left, Nixon has quickly outlined a variety of policy positions that are garnering her additional media attention, beyond the significant amount she captures as a celebrity running for elected office, while she also criticizes Cuomo on topics that are less easily placed on the ideological spectrum: management of the MTA and its subways, government corruption, and personality. Like Cuomo’s Republican opponents, Nixon calls him a bully who governs out of fear rather than collaboration.

“If we had a governor who acted like a Democrat," Nixon said at a recent house party meet-and-greet, "we could have fully funded our schools, we could have enacted campaign finance reform, we could have enacted the women’s equality agenda, we could have enacted the New York Dream Act, we could have fought for single-payer health care, we could have strengthened our rent regulations, and we could have fixed our subway.”

She also indicated she would "invest in public housing," end mass-incarceration and "the over-policing of communities of color" and "make our state into a real sanctuary state.”

“We cannot depend on career politicians to deliver the change that we have been begging for, for literally decades,” she said to the roughly 15 attendees, according to a video posted to Facebook.

The governor has responded to Nixon’s candidacy with a fit of effort, rallying allies, tacking leftward on several fronts, and making a couple of gaffes. Cuomo is running on a record that impresses many, including high-profile progressive achievements such as the passage of marriage equality in New York in 2011, an aggressive gun regulation program in 2013, a large increase in the minimum wage and a paid family leave program in 2015, and more.

“During my administration we have made this state the most progressive state in the United States of America,” Cuomo recently said, and dismisses the notion that Nixon has pushed him leftward.

Asked about his apparent move in that direction since Nixon announced her candidacy, Cuomo recently said:

“Yeah, I say: look at what I have done all my life, all I did with Mario Cuomo. When we took a position against the death penalty every year, at tremendous political cost. Look at what I did at HUD when I was with President Clinton, and we went all over the country building an agenda for poor people. I sued the Klu Klux Klan. Look at what I did when I was the first big state in the United States to pass marriage equality...when I passed $15 minimum wage, when I passed paid family leave, when I closed more prisons than any governor in the history of the state...Look at a lifetime of work, my friend. I have been doing the same thing since I entered public service. When I was in my twenties, I was doing homeless housing in Brooklyn, homeless housing for homeless families and people and victims of domestic violence, so I’m a very simple, consistent fellow. We got into this business because my father taught me that the Democratic Party at its best was a vehicle for social justice and social change; it’s what I’ve been doing since day one.”

Nixon and her supporters, like those in the liberal Working Families Party, which endorsed her after backing Cuomo in his previous two gubernatorial races, have said some of Cuomo’s big achievements are watered down and there’s a long list of progressive goals that could have been achieved if Cuomo didn’t govern from the center, empower Republicans and breakaway Democrats in the state Senate, appease his big-money donors, and focus on the wrong priorities. Indeed, much of Nixon’s platform includes policy priorities that Cuomo has said he backs but has not gotten passed through the Legislature, something his critics say has been by design.

A recent Siena College poll shows Nixon gaining ground, though she still appears a significant underdog to a governor with near-universal name recognition in New York, $30 million and counting in the bank, and other advantages of incumbency. Cuomo’s 66%-19% advantage among Democratic voters in a poll released just as Nixon launched her campaign in mid-March shrank to 58%-27% in a poll released mid-April, but the governor still appears to be in strong position as the campaign begins to heat up. With the primary vote set for September 13, Nixon clearly needs to show Democratic voters around the state that she understands their concerns, while continuing to answer questions about her qualifications.

In her early campaign, she has begun to hold events around New York, while attending rallies where she is not a featured speaker, and sitting for several magazine profiles and appearing on television with Wendy Williams and Stephen Colbert. Twitter has become one of her key campaign tools, which she uses to reach her roughly 173,000 followers and many others through retweets and press coverage. Through these appearances and tweets, as well as press releases and campaign videos, Nixon has made a variety of policy positions clear, some of which are affirmative plans, others that are only critiques of how Cuomo has done things, with her own specific proposals still unannounced.

A little more than a month after declaring her candidacy, Nixon does not have a page on her website dedicated to policy, and has released one detailed issue plan, on energy and the environment. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment about her policy agenda and what New Yorkers might expect in the future in terms of policy rollout.

But, Nixon has expressed support for a number of long-standing but unpassed policy proposals like the New York Dream Act, and begun to put forth other elements of her platform, which, given her lack of experience in government, she will be relying on heavily to woo voters. She has also listed off a number of ways in which she would govern differently from Cuomo, typically to the left.

Nixon has called for legalizing recreational use of marijuana in New York.

She has framed it as an issue of racial equity and criminal justice. “We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something white people do with impunity,” she said in a video posted to Twitter. At the same time, she frames the issue as an opportunity for economic growth and a potential new source of state tax revenue, “Legalizing marijuana can generate millions of dollars in tax revenue to improve the lives of all New Yorkers,” Nixon said in a tweet. She has also pointed out the potential agricultural opportunities in further tweets on the subject.

Another reform that Nixon has expressed support for relates to forgiveness for those who have been arrested and convicted on charges relating to cannabis. “Ending the injustice of putting New Yorkers in prison for marijuana is a start but we also have to correct past injustices, by expunging prior convictions — particularly for nonviolent offenders whose only convictions are for marijuana use,” Nixon tweeted.

Nixon has been a vocal activist on education issues in the city and state for the better part of 20 years. Working with the Alliance for Quality Education, she has decried what they call the underfunding and unequal funding of schools, while also opposing the over-emphasis on standardized testing and the expansion of charter schools.

Talking to reporters in Syracuse recently, Nixon said of more education funding, “We need it to improve buildings that have mold, that have lead, that have asbestos, but we also need it to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to have more social workers and psychologists, and we need to have people who are really trained in conflict resolution.”

At a press conference in March, during her first week as a declared gubernatorial candidate, Nixon appeared with the Alliance for Quality Education in Albany. She said of local education funding, “We need to not have it based on property values,” while suggesting that schools should rely primarily on state funding, not local. She also criticized the 2% cap on annual property tax growth everywhere in New York except New York City, which Cuomo implemented and points to as a major accomplishment. “He makes it very difficult if a locality wants to raise taxes on itself for education," Nixon said.

She also expressed support for the Assembly Democrats’ plan to increase public school funding in the state at the AQE press conference, which occurred during state budget negotiations before a deal was reached in late March. The Assembly plan would have directed an additional $1.5 billion in funding to public school districts, slightly more than double the funding that Cuomo had proposed, at an increase of $769 million over the prior year. The new state budget for the fiscal year that started April 1 increased state education spending by $1 billion, to a total of $26.7 billion.  Cuomo regularly notes that New York spends more per pupil than any other state, and has long asked if the state and its localities are getting enough from that high level of spending, leading him to some of his calls for education reforms.

Nixon also frames education funding as a social and racial justice issue. “There is a $7 million budget for school resource officers, and a quarter of a million budget for mental health, we need to flip that,” she said. “We are treating our black and brown children, we’re viewing them as criminals, we’re viewing them as a threat from the very earliest ages.”

“Allowing more police into our schools will only fuel the school-to-prison pipeline which has ruined the lives of so many young black and brown students. More smartboards, less metal detectors,” she tweeted.

Nixon has also shown her opposition to charter schools, which are publicly-funded and privately run. Cuomo has been a major supporter of charter schools, helping them expand, especially in New York City. “We have to stop diverting education funding into privately run charter schools, and put the focus back where it should be: on strengthening our public schools and keeping them public,” Nixon wrote on Twitter.  

She has also criticized Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program that attempts to make city and state colleges tuition-free for students from many middle-class families. Cuomo considers it a crowning achievement, but critics like Nixon have put it in the bucket of progressive policies that don’t go as far as they should.

“In terms of free college for all, it only affects a very narrow group of New Yorkers who are middle class New Yorkers who earn too much money to be affected by the federal grant, the pell grant, and people who can afford to go to college full-time, don’t have to work, can graduate in four years, can guarantee they won’t move out of state for four years, and, importantly, don't need any help with books, with room, with board, with transportation -- that’s a very narrow targeted group of people,” Nixon said in an interview with Karen DeWitt of upstate public radio, WXXI News.

Nixon has come out in favor of repealing one of Cuomo’s major education reform initiatives, though something the governor has already largely abandoned. She is calling for removing any ties between state standardized test scores and teacher evaluations, otherwise known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) system. The initial passage of the system as well as the implementation of the Common Core learning standards helped fuel an opt-out movement whereby many parents have kept their children from taking the grades 3-8 tests in English language arts and math. The movement has also been bolstered by teachers unions decrying the focus on the tests, which themselves have seen both much criticism and some adjustments in terms of duration of testing and more.

Elections, Voting, and Campaign Finance
Nixon has thus far been light on details regarding campaign finance reform, though she has indicated support for an overhaul of New York’s system, which is known for its sky-high individual contribution limits and for the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from those who set up multiple limited liability corporations and has been a major boon to Cuomo’s coffers.

Nixon has been particularly critical of how Cuomo has built up his $30-plus million campaign warchest, pointing out that a tiny percentage has come from small donors, as exposed by The New York Times, while the rest is predominantly from wealthy individuals, corporations, and real estate developers.

Nixon has repeatedly stressed she is not accepting any corporate donations, opting to highlight the role that small donations have played in her campaign, but the nature of “corporate donations” has been loosely translated and Nixon is still accepting donations from LLCs, which at the federal level are considered corporations, but are are considered people at the state level.

In tweeting about her endorsement from Citizen Action of New York, Nixon appeared to support the public financing of elections, one of the advocacy group’s top priorities. Nixon’s endorsement from the Working Families Party mentions Nixon’s commitment to campaign finance reform, however it does not reference specifics.

On voting reform, Nixon has said New York is lagging behind on things like early voting. One of Cuomo’s recent moves, which added to claims that Nixon has moved him to take progressive action, was to move toward granting parolees the right to vote. Nixon tweeted that “Voter suppression in New York should have ended eight years ago, from the rights of parolees to access to early voting and automatic registration.”

Campaign finance reform and early voting are on the list of policies that Cuomo has said he backs and proposed year after year, only to see them die in the Republican-led Senate, while Nixon and others say that Cuomo either could have done more to get them passed even given current political dynamics or that his support for Republican control of the Senate has led to these policy failures.

Energy & Environment
Energy and environmental issues, like education, were major topics in the 2014 gubernatorial primary in which Cuomo defeated law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is now campaign treasurer for Nixon. Teachout did win a surprising 34% of the primary vote, likely related to her calls to ban fracking and reverse much of Cuomo’s education agenda.

While Cuomo did institute a fracking ban and has retreated on many education reforms, both larger topics are again at play this year.

Nixon has come out hard against fracking and non-renewable energy, backing environmental activists’ calls for a ban on all fracking-related infrastructure and more ambitious renewable energy goals. “I pledge that if I am elected Governor I will not approve any new use of fracked gas in New York State. Andrew Cuomo should take the same pledge. New York should not build fossil fuel power plants or pipelines that threaten our environment and contribute to climate change,” tweeted Nixon.

She has said she supports the Climate and Community Protection Act, stating that passing it would be at the top of her priority list should she become governor. She has stated her intentions to set New York on a road to achieve 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2050.

As part of her plan to achieve this, Nixon has proposed that she would reject all new investment proposals in fossil fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines and plants. She stated that she wants to hold what she calls “corporate polluters” accountable, suggesting this as a way to raise revenue in the state. While this may lead to calls by Nixon for a carbon tax, she has not given specifics for how she wants to punish those polluters.

Nixon has also been highly critical of nuclear energy as a potential alternative to fossil fuel, going so far as to state that nuclear power will not at all be part of her clean energy plan. On her campaign website, Nixon says she is against the state’s 2016 agreement to bail out aging nuclear power plants for $7.6 billion.

Nixon also recently came out against the Crestwood Liquefied Petroleum Gas Storage Project, a plan to import 1.5 million barrels of liquid propane from Texas and store it under Seneca Lake in unused salt mines in the town of Reading. “The Finger Lakes is a world-class wine and tourist destination that supports thousands of jobs and brings billions of dollars into New York’s economy every year. Clean air and clean water are vital for these businesses to thrive. I am firmly opposed to the Crestwood Gas Storage Project and the Romulus garbage incinerator,” Nixon tweeted.

On the same day that Nixon released her “A Just Transition for New York” environmental platform, Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation rejected a water quality certification for a proposed gas pipeline. The department cited an incomplete application and environmental concerns as a reason, though some are arguing that Nixon’s environmental platform is influencing Cuomo’s actions.

Health Care
Nixon’s thoughts on health care are relatively scarce thus far, but she has expressed support for a single-payer system in New York. However, in a comment on Twitter relating to her recent endorsement from the Working Families Party, Nixon laid out several top policy priorities. “We will fight for equitable schools, good jobs, single-payer health care, subways that actually work, environmental justice, and an end to mass incarceration. It’s time for a New York that belongs to all of us—for the many, not the few,” said Nixon.

She made similar but more vague statement in a tweet thanking advocacy group Citizen Action for its endorsement. “I look forward to working with them on public financing of elections, racial justice, and guaranteeing quality healthcare and education to every New Yorker.” But in her recent interview with New York Magazine, Nixon also brought up the fight for a state level single-payer health care system as something she supports.

The New York City subway system appears to be one of the key issues of the gubernatorial race. As the system has been plagued by delays and breakdowns, Cuomo’s management of the MTA has become a focus for elected officials, advocates, and riders. It has also become a focal point for those seeking to unseat him, including both Nixon and Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive and presumptive GOP nominee for governor.

Nixon has placed the blame for MTA troubles squarely at Cuomo’s feet. “He slashed taxes on the wealthiest, and he’s slashed services on everybody else. He’s lost $25 billion from state revenue,” Nixon said in her interview with New York Magazine, adding that “fixing the subways” is one thing that money could have been spent on.  

Nixon has been highly critical of Cuomo on the MTA but hasn’t fleshed out her own vision, though she has made a few general comments about how she would change priorities. Her campaign website has a section for “#CuomosMTA” and on the site, she says cosmetic changes, like wifi in subway stations, misguided priorities that put resources toward things that don’t actually improve the system. “The subway is the lifeblood of NYC. If the subway dies, so does the City of New York. When I’m governor, I’m going to make fixing the subway a top priority,” Nixon said on Twitter.

While Cuomo has overseen implementation of the MTA’s Subway Action Plan, even forcing New York City to pay for half of the $836 million tab, which seeks to make fast repairs to tracks and signals to return the subways to a more functional state, he has been criticized for acting too late and not prioritizing the subways over other projects like lights on bridges and expansion of the Long Island Railroad.

Nixon has come out in support of a comprehensive congestion pricing plan to reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan and create a new dedicated revenue source for the MTA. Cuomo has also expressed general support for congestion pricing and created a panel that crafted a specific proposal, but the governor never came out in full support of that plan. He saw one initial piece of it, a surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles, passed in the new state budget, and called it a first step toward congestion pricing.

“I think we need comprehensive congestion pricing not just on Uber and Lyft and black cars and stuff like that,” said Nixon. “We need money. We need a dedicated revenue stream. We have to be creative. I think congestion pricing is a great place to start.”

Economic Development
Nixon has been critical of Cuomo’s economic development programs. “The thing I keep hearing from people is top-down economic development isn't helping people. There were millions of dollars being doled out to people who then contribute to Cuomo's campaign coffers,” Nixon said recently as she toured upstate areas. She said the governor should listen to the needs of communities and then work to help them with those needs. Both lines of argument are similar to the ways Molinaro has characterized things in his criticisms of Cuomo.

Nixon has further suggested that as part of economic development strategies and contracts, private employers that work with the state government should face requirements to hire and train local workers from the communities that they are working in. “We need to make sure that economic development benefits everybody, not just those who are financially and powerfully connected,” said Nixon. She has not presented a real plan for how she would approach economic development.

Nixon has placed a fair amount of focus on the affordable housing crisis in New York City and across the state. She has talked about the need to strengthen rent regulations, criticizing Cuomo for not doing more to protect rent-regulated apartments, and she visited NYCHA housing soon after she launched her campaign in March, calling the conditions of the units in the housing authority “devastating”. She appeared to blame both Mayor de Blasio, who is a close ally and she campaigned for heavily in 2013, and Cuomo, though she has criticized Cuomo more heavily for not doing more.

In comments on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she said, Cuomo “has declared a state of emergency, and yet he's doing nothing about it.” Nixon pointed out how additional funds to deal with the crisis have not yet been spent even though a state of emergency has been declared.

Nixon has said she wants to renew and strengthen state rent laws and protect affordable housing, highlighting issues with how landlords are allowed to raise rents on rent-regulated tenants.

Nixon received the endorsement from activist group NY Communities for Change, which focuses on affordable housing. At an event with the organization, she sharply criticized Cuomo on housing and homelessness. “In the last ten years across this country, we’ve seen a reduction by 14% in homelessness, but not in Andrew Cuomo’s New York State,” she said. “Over the last eight years in New York State, we’ve seen a 36% increase in homelessness.” She promised to work with activists to reduce homelessness in the state, though she did not get into specifics other than one or two of the nuances of rent regulations, leaving undiscussed, for now at least, questions around rental subsidies, a topic of much debate in New York over the past decade and beyond.

Nixon, like Molinaro and many other Cuomo critics, has been critical of the budgeting process in New York state government. In a press release, she said, “Instead of an open and transparent process with a public debate on the issues, Cuomo’s budget cobbles together a series of backroom deals.”

There has been a great deal of criticism for many years of Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making process, and Nixon has not only criticized the secretive nature of the way big budget deals are made, but also that Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the only woman leading a legislative conference, was kept out of negotiations of new sexual harassment policies, as well as all others.

“Governor Cuomo is allowing essential reforms like tax hikes on multimillionaires, bail reform, and early voting to drop off the table altogether,” she also said, questioning Cuomo’s approach to budget priorities.

In addition to her opposition to the state’s 2% cap on annual property tax growth, applicable everywhere outside New York City, Nixon has also come out as opposed to the 2% cap on annual state spending growth, both signature Cuomo achievements. At a press conference in Albany, Nixon said, “I think that that 2 percent cap on state spending is disastrous and what it means is we shrink the budget year after year.” While this is not really true, given that the budget does continue to grow, because of Medicaid and other costs, state government has in some ways shrunk under Cuomo, who has largely kept spending at his executive agencies flat over the course of several years.

Nixon appears ready to increase taxes on high earners and state spending on services including education. She expressed support for a progressive tax plan proposed by the Democrat-dominated Assembly, led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, which would see taxes raised on those earning more than $5 million.

Nixon supports the New York DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in the state access to in-state tuition and financial aid. Speaking with El Diario, a Spanish-language newspaper, Nixon said, “We have to pass legislation to make sure we do not collaborate with ICE, that they are not welcomed here and we have to pass the New York DREAM Act.” Not long after those comments, Cuomo issued an executive order to keep ICE from many state properties, one of several recent moves that have led to widespread comments that Cuomo is overtly responding to Nixon’s candidacy.

Nixon has come out in support of providing undocumented immigrants in New York with access to state driver’s licenses, saying, “I think that people who are old enough to do this and know how to drive should receive a license.”

“The hard-working members of our community should be able to drive their children to school and go to work without fear that a broken tail-light will lead to deportation. Let’s make driver's licenses available to all qualified New Yorkers and make NY a REAL sanctuary state,” Nixon recently tweeted. In a campaign video that included City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, the first elected official to endorse Nixon for governor, Nixon outlined her call for the restoration of full access to driver’s licenses.

In accepting an endorsement from activist group Make The Road Action, Nixon also announced support for the bill, tweeting, “Our governor has failed to provide hundreds of thousands of otherwise qualified New Yorkers with a path to obtain a license because of their immigration status. I will work with @MaketheRoadAct and working families across the state to pass the Driver's License Bill.”

While Cuomo has expressed some openness to possibly supporting the driver’s license bill, he most recently said it is something that could be done by a change to state law or that could be a county by county decision

Nixon also supports the Liberty Act, which she argues would put New York State on par with California in terms of immigration protections. The act would potentially prohibit state and local official’s interaction with ICE agents and provide a right to counsel for immigrants facing deportation who can’t afford a lawyer. “Our immigrant communities are fighting to keep their families together. They need a governor who will fight with them, from driver’s licenses to making New York a true sanctuary state, and Andrew Cuomo hasn’t. In 2018, you can’t call yourself a Democrat if you’re not doing everything you can to fight for immigrants” remarked Nixon in a press release.

by Matthew Sweeney and Ben Max

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

by Matthew Sweeney, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Defining 'Real Democrat,' Cynthia Nixon Offers Early Policy Platform Mon, 30 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Driver’s Licenses for All Would Better Many Lives, Including Mine make the road drivers licenses

Make the Road New York members rally in Albany for driver’s licenses for all

Every morning, I drive with my wife to work. My commute is the scariest part of my day - and not because of the traffic. It’s because I know that a routine traffic stop could lead to me being separated from my family forever.

I’m an undocumented immigrant, and New York will not currently allow me to get a driver’s license. For New Yorkers like me, it’s way past time for our state to step up and do what other states have done: ensure that all qualified drivers, regardless of immigration status, can have access to a license.

The attacks by the Trump Administration continue to get worse. Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are using every excuse to detain and deport immigrants alike and tear us from our families, as they did in detaining 225 immigrant New Yorkers one recent week. They’re especially using minor traffic violations.

That’s why I recently joined fellow immigrants and advocates from across New York State to call on the State Legislature -- starting with the Assembly -- to restore access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers.

This bill would change my life, and my family’s too. I have lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and I wish I could be eligible to adjust my immigration status, but at the moment due to our current broken immigration system, that is not possible. There is no clear path for me to be able to adjust my immigration status, but other measures can be helpful to me and others like me.

I live in Long Island with my wife and two children. Every day, I leave my house to drive to work, with uncertainty and fear. Where I live, there is a lack of public transportation. It can take hours to get anywhere by bus or train, and taking a taxi is too expensive. I have to drive because I cannot afford to be late to my job and I need to be able to go to the store, take my children to their doctor appointments, and pick them up from school.

I was once stopped at a traffic stop by police. I was given a ticket for driving without a license and needed to go to court. I couldn’t sleep due to the fear I felt of going to court and possibly being separated from my family. I went to court and, with the legal fees of my attorney, I ended up paying almost $700. Thankfully it wasn’t worse than that -- and it now easily could be.

In my home country in Latin America, I had my driver’s license, but right now, due to my immigration status, I am not able to get a driver’s license in New York State.

Expanding access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers makes sense. If it passes, immigrants will be able to register, and insure their vehicles in New York, creating an economic boost. A 2017 analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute determined that New York would receive an estimated $57 million in combined annual revenue​.

Allowing driver’s licenses for all will improve public safety by making sure that all drivers on the road are licensed. States like California have already been experiencing the positive effects of granting undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses since 2015. A Stanford report released last year found there had been a significant decrease in hit-and-run accidents.

At a time when the Trump Administration’s attacks on our communities continue, passing this legislation would demonstrate that New York stands up for everyone, regardless of their immigration status. New York has delayed too long; we need to do more to stand against the White House anti-immigrant rhetoric now.

Obtaining a driver’s license will change my life, my family’s life, and that of thousands of New Yorkers. It would mean being able to pick up my children from school or take them to the doctor without fear. And it would help me to potentially get a promotion at my current job, or be able to look for better one.

There are 12 states, including Connecticut and Maryland, that currently allow undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. The new governor of our neighboring state, New Jersey, has committed to follow those states and expand access to driver’s licenses. But we haven't heard a commitment from Governor Cuomo yet. New York should be next.

Jorge Cotraro is a Long Island resident and a member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @MakeTheRoadNY.

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Driver’s Licenses for All Would Better Many Lives, Including Mine Sun, 29 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Expanding Immigrant Access to Health Care in New York Statue of Liberty

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

In January of 2017, after living in this country for 17 years, I was able to access health insurance for the first time in my life. I became eligible as a new graduate studentl at NYU, which had a Student Health Insurance Plan—and, because in New York, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients were eligible for health insurance.

Now, when I am ill or in need of a checkup, uncertainty and stress are no longer part of the equation. When I feel sick, I no longer need to try to force my body into thinking I’m not sick or treat myself with Tylenol or Theraflu. Instead, I can see a doctor, get the prescription I need, and recover quickly.

Having access to high-quality health care in the past year has lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders. I used to feel anxious and scared every time I started to catch a cold. Now, each time I find myself at the Student Health Center since then, I feel gratitude and relief.

But now, as President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants escalate, health care access is in jeopardy again for Dreamers like me, as well as immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

New York has long led the way in providing more expansive health care access than the federal government and most states. In Florida, where I went to college, I could not get health insurance. Earlier this year, Dreamers in New York received good news when Governor Cuomo announced that income-eligible DACA beneficiaries would continue to be eligible for state-funded Medicaid. This was an important step forward for the immigrant community and for health care for all in New York.

But the governor’s announcement does not mean that all Dreamers and immigrants will have access to health care. We need further action to ensure that all Dreamers and TPS holders have access to health insurance.

For immigrant youth like me, and young people across the state more generally, the solution is to pass legislation to increase the upper age limit of the Child Health Plus (CHP) Program from 19 to 29.

CHP was founded on the fundamental truth that health care is a human right. The program honors this principle by providing comprehensive health care services to uninsured young people not eligible for Medicaid or Marketplace coverage. For a mere .5% of the state’s annual budget, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could expand CHP in this way to increase access to nearly 100,000 more young adults who would be newly eligible for high-quality coverage, since they have been aging out of CHP when they turn 19.

Additionally, with Trump acting to terminate TPS for countries like El Salvador and Haiti, hundreds of thousands of current TPS holders are at risk of losing legal status. In New York, this will put tens of thousands more in jeopardy of losing access to health care, in addition to potentially facing deportation.

New York State must take measures to ensure that TPS holders maintain their health coverage regardless of the reckless—and, frankly, racist—policies from Washington. First, the State must pass legislation to ensure TPS recipients remain eligible for Medicaid, even if they are stripped of their protection. Second, New York should create a state-funded Essential Plan for all New Yorkers who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. This plan would be of particular urgency for immigrants who will be losing their TPS and thus, their current health insurance.

These policies offer a clear path for New York to lead on immigrant health care access. That’s why immigrant-led organizations like Make the Road New York (MRNY), which has included the policies as part of their statewide Respect and Dignity for All Platform, and the Coverage for All Coalition are lobbying legislators and the governor to adopt them. In fact, more than 500 MRNY members will be rallying and talking to legislators in Albany today -- Tuesday, March 6 -- about this issue as a central part of their 2018 agenda.

Day in, and day out, immigrants build this country. We are the ones who cook your food, care for your kids, stock your shelves, pick your vegetables, mow your lawn, and clean your house. We graduate in the top percentile of our classes, pay for our own education, serve our communities, and make lasting contributions to the beautiful tapestry of American culture. 

Like all Americans, and all New Yorkers, we deserve access to health care—not as a privilege, but as a right.

New York has led the way before on health care access and standing up for immigrants. This legislative session, it’s time for Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to renew that commitment by adopting further measures to protect immigrants like me.

The Trump administration doesn’t want immigrants like me to have access to health care. We need New York to have our backs.

Lucas Lopes is a Master of Public Administration student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

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Expanding Immigrant Access to Health Care in New York Mon, 05 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
The Diversity Visa: A Ticket To A Better Life Diversity

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

This past October my mom passed the United States citizenship exam. On November 7, she became a U.S. citizen. And this past December my dad passed the United States citizenship exam. On January 31, he became a U.S. citizen. Soon, my sisters and I will become U.S. citizens as well. None of this was guaranteed to us, and it almost didn’t happen.

My family is from Bangladesh. We moved to the United States in July 2011 through the Diversity Visa process, which is currently being called into question at the federal level, especially after a recent terrorist attack in New York City. The experience of my family -- me, my parents, and my two younger sisters -- is a testament to what the Diversity Visa program can do for people, and for the United States, a country we are proud to call home.

Simply put, the Diversity Visa changed our lives. It gave us a second chance. It allowed me to be where I am today: 15 years old and a tenth-grader in a New York City high school.  

In Bangladesh, my dad was a businessman, running a company called Nicos Digital Color Lab. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, he was also a self-taught photographer, and sometimes taught computer lessons to high school students. My mom has a master’s degree, and helped to support our home.  

Back in Bangladesh, there was a lot of pressure on my parents: my grandparents, two cousins, two uncles, and an aunt all lived with us in the same house. My dad paid all of our family’s expenses, and my mom cooked and took care of everyone. The entire family depended on my parents, and it put an obvious strain on their marriage. Things began to fall apart between my mom and my dad. Since they were the caretakers, though, no one much noticed.

One day, when my dad was in his Color Lab staring at his computer screen, one of his friends stopped by and asked for a cigarette. He told my dad to apply for the Diversity Visa to the U.S.

My dad laughed at first, “A common person like me, with no extraordinary talents, living in a small town in a country named Bangladesh, will get a visa to go to the United States?”

My dad’s friend smiled and told him to ask my mom to apply. “Your wife is your lucky charm. Her application will get accepted.” My parents quickly filled out an application under my mom’s name.

Soon after, we received a first letter notifying us that we had been selected, and then a second letter notifying us that we would be interviewed. After an extensive vetting process, we were approved. My mom, my sisters, and I were given a visa. A month later, my dad’s visa was approved as well. While the process may seem easy, it was not. It took time, preparation for the interviews, and anxiety until the visas were in hand.  

As we looked up airline tickets to go to the U.S., we realized we didn’t have enough money to get there. But, we soon found, miraculously, that our family was surrounded by supportive guardian angels. All my dad’s childhood best friends came to our rescue. They all contributed, not only helping to pay for our plane tickets, but providing extra money to survive in the U.S. as we started our new lives.  

After moving to the U.S. and gaining employment, my dad paid all their money back. But we will never be able to give back the generosity, kindness, and opportunity they gave us. I am forever grateful to my dad’s friends for helping to change our lives.

In the years since, we have established our lives in the U.S. It has not been easy. My father, a former businessman, works as a taxi driver. My mother, with her master’s degree, takes care of my sisters and me. We all go to school, studying for a better future for our family. But we feel so lucky to be living in the United States. It has changed our lives immeasurably.

If we were still in Bangladesh, I’m confident that my family would have fallen apart, and my parents might have separated. My sisters and I wouldn’t have been able to receive a proper education because education in Bangladesh costs so much. I wouldn’t be independent, navigating the subways of New York City on my own. I wouldn’t have my parents as close to me as they are to me right now, and they probably wouldn’t be able to give much time to my sisters and me as they do right now. My parents wouldn’t be able to financially support my grandparents and all their siblings as they do now.

Getting settled here in the United States was not easy; it still isn’t. Adjusting to the new environment around us, being away from our extended family, hearing threats because we are Muslims and people see us as foreigners. But life is better. And there is the possibility of an even better future. A future I work toward every day at school.

That is what the Diversity Visa has meant to me. A ticket to a better life.

The United States is my home. It always has been. I may not be born here, but I am an American. I love this country so much. The Diversity Visa changed my family’s life forever. For that for so many Americans to come, I pray we do not get rid of it.

Laila Dola is a high school student in Queens and a former member of the Generation Citizen Student Leadership Board.

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The Diversity Visa: A Ticket To A Better Life Thu, 15 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Standing Up for Immigrants in Your Neighborhood wethepeople1

We The People

When the President recently reportedly referred to El Salvador, Haiti, and African nations as “s***hole countries,” it once again served as a reminder of the rampant prejudice and discrimination experienced by immigrants and ethnic minorities. And as the livelihoods of 800,000 young Dreamers living in our country hangs in the balance, we need to support immigrants now more than ever.

At Educational Alliance (EA) – the social service provider and network of community centers I lead on the Lower East Side and East Village – we have dedicated much of the past year to ramping up our programs and services for immigrants. The demographics of the Lower East side have changed since EA was founded 128 years ago, but the challenge is the same: immigrants need help adjusting to American life. We believe that our successful “We the People” initiative this past year can serve as a model for the rest of the city.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, we saw a substantial rise in hate crimes. Here in New York, hate crimes increased by 24% from the previous year, with a major proportion of the rise the result of bias crimes against Muslims and LGBTQ people.

So at EA, we launched We the People as a way of promoting inclusiveness and protection from the hateful and divisive rhetoric targeted at vulnerable populations. We knew that the President’s attacks on immigrant communities would only increase in time, so it was important to show immigrants in our community that there was a safe space they could go to for information and help.

Within a week after taking office, President Trump signed the infamous travel ban, prohibiting travel from seven predominantly-Muslim countries to the United States, sending a clear message that immigrants from Muslim countries don’t belong in our country.

We were ready. Under We the People, we worked with local businesses to identify themselves as welcoming to immigrants, and began training people to be “upstanders,” giving them the tools they need to effectively stand up for justice and intervene in conflict if they witnessed discrimination or attempts to bully our immigrant Muslim brothers and sisters.

Soon after, Trump issued an executive order stating that cities that refused to comply with federal immigration authorities would be ineligible to receive federal grants. And soon after, he rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, placing hundreds of thousands more lives in limbo and in danger of being separated from their family, friends, and colleagues. Though both actions were halted by the courts, the aggressive stance towards immigrants undoubtedly had a chilling effect on their comfort in seeking services or reporting crimes.

But not in our neighborhood. Our partnerships with businesses and other local community groups early on helped spread the word that EA had the community’s back and that this was a place they could turn to for help. Under the initiative, we began to host a series of events, workshops, and community forums, including “Know Your Rights” events where we provide people with access to information on immigration fraud, rights, and legal services.

In the coming year, we will continue this work, investing in programs and services where we can be most impactful and joining together with local residents and businesses to ensure that our community remains safe and supportive for people of all backgrounds.

That’s because regardless of just how divisive and discriminatory our national leaders are towards immigrants and vulnerable communities, we will stand strong – as we have for 128 years – for all people, regardless of race or religious creed.

Alan van Capelle is President and CEO of Educational Alliance, a social service provider for the Lower East Side and East Village.

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Standing Up for Immigrants in Your Neighborhood Wed, 31 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
As Trump Pushes Deportations, Volunteers Intensify Immigrant-Accompaniment Program jericho walk 1

A New Sanctuary Coalition "Jericho walk" (photo: Katrina Shakarian)

The day before Thanksgiving, a group of volunteers met Manuel, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, in back of the Dunkin Donuts at 321 Broadway in Manhattan, to accompany him to his immigration court hearing at 26 Federal Plaza.

The volunteers were part of the New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program, which trains people to accompany undocumented immigrants on check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to immigration court hearings. The program aims to support people caught in deportation proceedings by creating a community that is present with them and bearing witness to the process.

“I think it’s really important that people that show up for a hearing or a check-in know that there are people supporting them,” said Denise Rickles, a retired teacher from Manhattan, who attended Manuel’s accompaniment. “I try to come once a week and I’ve been doing it for a number of months.”

The New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, founded in 2007, is an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals that stand in solidarity with the city's undocumented residents facing deportation. The coalition receives funding through Judson Memorial Church, its fiscal sponsor. In addition to organizing accompaniments, the coalition hosts immigration clinics and leads weekly prayer walks around Federal Plaza in protest of deportations.

In 2017 -- as the national conversation around immigration and deportation reached fever pitch after the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has regularly demonized immigrants and promised crack downs on immigration -- the coalition organized about nine accompaniments a week, said Managing Organizer Sara Gozalo.

Volunteers go on three types of accompaniments: ICE check-ins and court hearings for non-detained individuals at 26 Federal Plaza, and hearings for people who are detained at a location on Varick Street.

“Advocacy without confrontation,” is how Gozalo described the program at a recent volunteer training in a hall of St. Boniface Church in Brooklyn, speaking to about 60 attendees. “Even if you feel like you’re not doing anything, your presence there means a lot. I promise you. It’s much harder to deport someone when people are watching.”

Gozalo’s reassurance, and the support of the coalition’s volunteers, comes at a time of sweeping rhetoric from the White House and increased immigration enforcement by the federal government under President Donald Trump.

Arrests by ICE are at a three-year high, although total deportations are actually down from fiscal year 2016. The discrepancy is due, in part, to the backlog of cases in federal immigration court. There are more than 650,000 pending cases nationally, about 85,000 of which are being heard in New York City courtrooms, according to data from the Transition Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC).

While President Obama was not seen by many immigration advocates as adverse enough to deportations, one of Trump’s first acts as president was signing an executive order that sought to increase enforcement of federal immigration laws.

ICE explicitly attributes its increase of administrative arrests to the direction set forth in Trump’s order. The agency made 143,470 administrative arrests in fiscal year 2017, which it describes as the highest number of such arrests over the past three fiscal years. Fiscal year 2017 ended on September 30, and according to its latest Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, the uptick in arrests began after Trump’s inauguration.

On November 23, seven people followed Manuel out of the Dunkin Donuts and through security at the Worth Street entrance of 26 Federal Plaza. The group piled into an elevator and rode to the twelfth floor where Manuel was scheduled for a Master Calendar hearing -- a short and preliminary hearing at the very beginning of deportation proceedings, months and sometimes years before a final determination is made and enforced.

On this day, Manuel, whose last name is being withheld at the request of New Sanctuary Coalition leadership, intended to bring his asylum application, completed with the help of the coalition, and those of his wife and children, to the attention of a judge.

An undocumented immigrant detected by the federal government is served with a Notice to Appear in federal immigration court by the Department of Homeland Security. The Master Calendar hearing is that person's first appearance in front of a judge, during which they confirm having received the notice and acknowledge the government's case against them.

During Master Calendar hearings, judges inform defendants that they can obtain legal counsel. However, since deportation proceedings are considered civil cases and not criminal, the right to counsel guaranteed by the sixth amendment does not extend to immigrants facing deportation. Many people end up facing government attorneys, litigating their status alone.

On one side of the twelfth floor, the names of judges line a black bulletin board with the day’s caseloads and room numbers printed on white sheets of paper underneath. On the other side are the courtrooms, which on this day had waiting rooms so packed that appointment holders and their families overflowed into the grey and windowless hallway.

At least 30 people lined the walls. One woman held a baby across her chest, others had toddlers in strollers, and some were grown children and teens plopped onto the floor with their backs against the wall. Sections of the hallway’s fluorescent lights had blown out, so most of the crowd waited in the dark.

“The waiting is the worst part,” said Melvyn Stevens, a retiree from Manhattan on his sixth accompaniment with the coalition. “When I got up this morning I already had anxiety. It’s manageable, but given everything, it’s not a good environment. The building is made to make you feel small.”

People showing up for ICE check-ins and hearings often do it alone and with little to no English language proficiency. So, coalition volunteers help them navigate their appointments.

Upon arrival, the volunteer group leader confirms their appointment on the bulletin board, and helps them locate their courtroom. Others on the accompaniment offer small gestures like conversation during the wait, and making a run to the sixth floor cafeteria to buy them a bottle of water or a snack.

The New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program is “very reassuring for people,” said Anne Pilsbury, director of Central American Legal Assistance (CALA) in Brooklyn. “[26 Federal Plaza] is a very confusing place and it’s hard to get information from anyone. The accompaniments humanize a very inhumane process.”  

CALA sends its overflow of asylum seekers to the New Sanctuary Coalition’s weekly immigration clinics for assistance completing applications.

On accompaniments to Master Calendar hearings, such as Manuel’s, volunteers can sit in the courtroom during the hearing. When his case was called, volunteers in the room made their presence known to the judge by standing up when he walked to the respondent’s table, and sitting down when he did.

This is different from accompaniments to ICE appointments, on which volunteers are not allowed in ICE’s waiting room on the ninth floor. Instead, the group waits in the sixth floor cafeteria, and one by one they take turns going to the ninth floor and briefly checking in on the person until they’re called into the appointment. If the outcome is detainment, the volunteers spring into action, contacting the detainee’s family, launching a letter writing campaign in their defense, and in some cases, rallying the press and other organizations in their support.

Back in the courtroom, Manuel’s hearing was brief. His lawyer was not present. An in-house Spanish interpreter translated the judge’s every word, and in turn, Garcia’s responses were translated into English. He submitted a printed copy of his asylum application to the judge and now waits for a decision.

According to TRAC, across the country in fiscal year 2017, “asylum grants increased, [but] denials grew faster.” Its report shows that roughly 60 percent of asylum applications were denied, making it the fifth year in a row that denial rates increased nationally.

The same report cites an increase in the proportion of asylum seekers who go through the process without a lawyer. Ten years ago, only 13 percent of applicants were unrepresented, while in 2017 the figure shot up to 20 percent. Asylum seekers who are not represented by an attorney are denied 90 percent of the time.

There aren’t enough immigration lawyers to keep up with demand, and some people can’t afford them even when they are available.

Recently, in New York City, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio and the heavily Democratic City Council, under the leadership of former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, sought to bridge that gap and counter the Trump administration’s immigration policies, by allocating $30 million for immigrant legal services in the city’s budget for the current fiscal year.

The money will pay for legal representation of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, at all stages of the process, whether they are applying for asylum, fighting deportation, or have been detained. De Blasio and the Council have expanded the counsel program, known as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), over the past few years, with additional urgency since Trump’s election.

Immigration proceedings are hardly straightforward. Someone can have one or multiple Master Calendar hearings over the course of several years. Eventually, a hearing for a final judgment does takes place, once a determination on asylum is made, or for those not seeking asylum, once they’ve made some other case for remaining in the United States.

If a judge rules to deport, the case can be drawn out further, as people have the option to file several rounds of appeals.

All the while, ICE has broad discretion over requiring check-ins. For some, check-ins start before or during the Master Calendar Hearing process. For others, there are no check-ins until a final judgement to deport is made.

While a person cannot be deported before an order of removal is final, they can be detained. People in deportation proceedings who are convicted of crimes are generally detained. Those convicted of less serious crimes, however, may be given an opportunity to post bond, explained Edward Cuccia, the attorney representing Riaz Talukder, a beneficiary of the New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program.

Talukder came to the United States from Bangladesh in the 1980s. Today, he is the sole breadwinner for his family of two American-born children and a wife, who is battling thyroid cancer.

In 2010, he discovered there was an 11-year-old deportation order against him stemming from a failed application for asylum years before. That year, he was granted a stay of deportation, and has been checking in with ICE annually every since.

During Obama’s presidency, such deferments of deportation were a courtesy to thousands of people like Talukder who had been living in the United States for many years, abiding by the law, forming families, and establishing their lives.

Under Trump, the directive has changed. ICE officers are under tremendous precious to ratchet up numbers. There are no more courtesies, everybody is a priority, explained Cuccia, the lawyer.

On November 20, Talukder showed up for his second appointment in four weeks. He was granted a temporary stay of 6 more months, an apparently lucky outcome.

"There are a lot of factors determining decisions made by ICE,” said Cuccia.

“Certainly, having a community presence with a client, even a small one, has the potential to influence the outcome positively. For my client, the volunteer accompaniment, the massive press response, and the overwhelming community support, was, in part, what resulted in a favorable decision at his last check-in,” he said.

Similarly, organizers and volunteers at the New Sanctuary Coalition say that the vast majority of judges are happy to see community support in the courtroom. Some judges will acknowledge them during the hearing, and commit their presence to the record.

“For our friends,” as the coalition refers to the undocumented immigrants they support, “often times, for the first time since they’ve entered the whole removal process, people are treating them with respect and dignity,” said Carol Scott, a self-defense instructor in Brooklyn who was the volunteer leader of Garcia’s accompaniment on the twenty-third.

“We’ve had friends send notes after. One person who was in detention said, you didn’t send people, you sent seven angels,” said Scott. “So, the language is just beautiful. Not being alone in a hostile environment is a powerful balm to the soul.”

Earlier in the day, while Manuel waited for his hearing, he was approached two times by people waiting for their own names to be called, inquiring about his entourage. At the end of  each conversation, he handed them a New Sanctuary Coalition business card with a smile on his face.

by Katrina Shakarian for Gotham Gazette

As Trump Pushes Deportations, Volunteers Intensify Immigrant-Accompaniment Program Sun, 07 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000