Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


New ID Could Cost Immigrants Their Licenses

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The department did not respond to requests for an interview.

Effects on Immigrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cost and Efficiency

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Moving Ahead on Immigration Reform?

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

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

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

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

The Recap: The House Stalls

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

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

A Secret, Doomed Bargain

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Nothing is Not an Option

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

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


New Yorkers and the Immigration Bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Co-op Disclosure Bill Stalls in Council

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Promise to Shake Up State Human Rights Division

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language Barriers Silence Immigrant Tenants

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering in Silence


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

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

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

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

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

The City’s Response


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

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

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

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

• • • • • • • • • •


By Shaun Donovan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


City Council's First Haitian Member

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Where Is The Civil Rights Agenda?

What does “civil rights” mean in 2007?

In his target="new"> State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made only one explicit reference to civil rights: “Four years ago this week on Martin Luther King Junior's birthday in 2003 we spelled out our plan to uphold a basic and fundamental civil right: The right to a quality education.”

Bloomberg went on to bemoan underachievement by African American and Latino students in city schools and heralded evidence that the city is “closing the racial and ethnic performance gap that has long been the shame of our school system.”

The new Governor, Eliot Spitzer, called his State of the State address “One New York,” and in his litany of what “One New York” means, he included this line: “One New York means a state that understands that the civil rights movement still has chapters to be written.”

But what is the content of these chapters? There was no further explicit mention of “civil rights” in his speech, but Spitzer did talk about “Lieutenant Governor Paterson’s comprehensive plan for minority- and women-owned business development”; he also said that state laws should protect “a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health,” and that a worker should never be "forced to choose between keeping her faith and keeping her job.”

There seems to have been a shift – and a reduction -- in rhetoric around civil rights from New York’s leaders. But does this mean they do not care about racial and other kinds of discrimination?

Mayor Bloomberg is not the only one to frame education as a civil rights issue. The NAACP under Hazel Dukes is deeply involved in the campaign for smaller class size – which the Bloomberg administration has resisted.

Bloomberg has also focused on addressing the problems of the poor: He is committed to getting the Earned Income Tax Credit to more families. He has pledged to reduce chronic illnesses in low-income communities.

The mayor has been skillful as well in addressing the case of Sean Bell, an African-American man who was killed on is wedding day in a hail of 51 police bullets in Queens. Early on he acknowledged that it seemed “excessive” to him, much to the consternation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and the police union. However well or ill-advised the mayor’s remarks were, they did help defuse some racial tension over the issue.

For his part, Governor Spitzer has given New York its first African American Lieutenant Governor, former Senate Democratic Leader David Paterson of Harlem. “There's a sense that people have sometimes that others aren't ready for a woman, for an African-American, for a gay or lesbian,” Paterson said at a rousing inauguration at Riverside Church. “But the perception that others aren't ready is actually, in many ways, the confirmation that you aren't ready -- because others seem to do fine when left to their own devices.”

Paterson is fond of quoting Frederick Douglass and is especially keen on significantly increasing the percentage of firms getting state contracts that are owned by people of color and women (as Spitzer alluded to in his address).

Spitzer also has appointed Kumiki Gibson to head the moribund State Division of Human Rights. She has been a leader at the National Urban League and is a former counsel to Vice President Al Gore.

One could argue that several aspects of Spitzer’s first budget, released on the last day of January, could fit a civil rights agenda – his plan for education, above all, which (according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity) “will increase total annual state education aid from the current level of $17.6 billion to $24.7 billion in four years. Equally important, all future education funding will be the product of a new foundation formula which takes district poverty and inflation into account.” And, to take a less publicized example, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger praised Spitzer’s call for a 24 percent increase in government funding for more than 2,000 charitable food pantries and soup kitchens.

Still, it would be difficult to tell one month into the new Spitzer administration and into the second Bloomberg administrations, that there are explicitly civil rights issues in New York that some advocacy groups consider priorities:

Same-sex marriage: The most contentious civil rights issue in the state is whether or not it will open marriage to same-sex couples. Spitzer has promised to introduce a bill to accomplish that, but has also told advocates that he does not believe it will pass here for ten years.

School Segregation: New York has among “the highest levels of black segregation,” according to a student of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which found “the average black student attended schools with less than one quarter white students in 2003.” The New York Civil Liberties Union has made the ending of such segregation a priority. Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg has said: “Racially segregated schools lead to inadequate educational opportunities for children of color; which lead to disparities in job opportunities and income; which lead to racially segregated housing and communities; which lead to segregated schools.”

Civil Liberties Most civil libertarians see the United States Constitution under siege by the Bush administration through everything from the indefinite detention of terror suspects to intrusions on our fundamental rights to privacy. These make local concerns over civil liberties issues seem pale by comparison. But advocates, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, feel they cannot afford to ignore:

Surveillance. The New York Civil Liberties Union is calling for public oversight of the “rapid proliferation of video cameras” in town.

Parade Restrictions. There has been much grumbling over the new Police Department regulations on how many bicyclists can ride through town together without a permit.

The Right To Assembly. There has been a call, for example, to end the music ban at Central Park’s Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

Patients’ Rights The NYCLU is also raising concerns about how patient rights will be compromised by adopting routine testing for HIV instead of informed written consent as is required now.

Police-Community Relations. In the wake of the Sean Bell case, there have been greater calls to do something about police attitudes toward communities of color.

In his State of the City, Bloomberg did not address the Bell case directly, but said respect between police and the public must flow “in both directions” and promised more resources for the woefully understaffed Civilian Complaint Review Board—a promise he delivered on shortly thereafter. It is still extremely rare for the board to take action against police misconduct, no less for the department to discipline their own.

Bloomberg also promised to improve training at the police academy, but there was no talk of the kind of fundamental restructuring of police work that other cities (including New Haven) have undertaken to reduce the “us vs. them” relationship between police and the communities they serve.

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.  

Drivers’ Licenses for Immigrants

With a new administration in Albany, many immigrant New Yorkers are hoping that a policy that has denied drivers' licenses to hundreds of thousands of state residents who lack immigration status will be reversed. Their hopes are not unfounded. On the campaign trail last year, Governor Eliot Spitzer publicly and repeatedly expressed support for making drivers' licenses available to all New Yorkers, including those who do not have immigration status. Many are now wondering what kind of driver's license proposal they can expect to see from the new governor.

How Did We Get Here?

The driver's license issue first became big news in early 2004, when the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, began sending out thousands of letters threatening to suspend the licenses of individuals whose Social Security number on file with DMV did not match the federal government's records.

DMV officials defended their actions as an effort to deter fraud and combat terrorism, stating that they were merely seeking to 'verify that the applicant is, in fact, who s/he purports to be.' For the 300,000 immigrants throughout New York State who received a DMV letter and faced suspension of their drivers' licenses, however, the effort represented an attack on their ability to make a living and survive in New York.

The DMV policy was challenged in state court, where a preliminary injunction was granted to halt the suspensions. In June 2006, however, a state appellate court in Cubas v. Martinez reversed the lower court's decision and upheld the DMV's policy of requiring proof of immigration status.

Meanwhile, attempts to pass legislation to reform the state's driver's license policy fell short. Last year, a bill that would have granted driver's license access to all qualified state residents passed the Assembly Transportation Committee but stalled in committee in the Senate.

A New Hope

Governor Eliot Spitzer has gone on record to support drivers' licenses for all New York State residents, regardless of their immigration status. 'The facts show that restricting immigrants' access to drivers' licenses does nothing to improve security. All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records,' a Spitzer spokesperson told the Associated Press last October. She also noted that road safety would improve if all immigrants obtained licenses and insurance, and that the DMV is not trained to act as an immigration agency.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers stand to benefit from such a change in the state's driver's license policy. An estimated 650,000 New York State residents are undocumented immigrants, with more than 500,000 of them residing in New York City, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Shadow of Federal Law

Creating a state policy to extend driver's license access to residents who lack immigration status is made more complicated by the federal Real ID Act of 2005. That law, described by its sponsors as an effort to disrupt terrorist travel, establishes extensive requirements for state-issued drivers' licenses and identification cards to be accepted as federal identification. The Real ID Act calls on state motor vehicle departments to check the immigration status of every applicant and to verify the authenticity of all documents submitted by applicants with the issuing agency. It also envisions digitizing and storing state driver's license records and linking them electronically to other states' databases as well as to federal government databases.

Although state compliance with Real ID is voluntary, licenses issued by states that do not comply with Real ID by May 2008 will not be accepted for any official federal purpose, such as boarding commercial airplanes or entering federal buildings. Nonetheless, immigrant advocates in New York are urging the governor and State Legislature not to adopt Real ID in New York.

Real ID also has been criticized by advocates concerned with privacy and identity theft and by state officials from around the country. In September 2006, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators issued a report finding that Real ID would cost states more than $11 billion to implement and 'reduce efficiencies and increase wait times for citizens.'

Some states have created a two-tiered licensing system that offers driving certificates or some sort of alternative license to immigrants who lack immigration status. Immigrant advocates in New York, however, are urging the governor to reject a two-tiered scheme because, they point out, a two-tiered system has a 'scarlet letter' effect, allowing license holders to be singled out as being undocumented.

It remains to be seen whether the new governor will take up this highly charged issue during his first 100 days in office.

Norman Eng is communications coordinator, and Milan Bhatt is employment policy associate, with The New York Immigration Coalition.

Civil Liberties and the Election

While the headlines trumpet dramatic change in federal and New York State government, the experience on the ground for city residents in terms of civil rights issues may be more one of tone than of concrete legislative change. The new more pro-civil rights Democratic majorities in Congress still have a Republican president ready to veto any diminution of the Patriot Act, which civil libertarians find problematic. New Yorkers may soon be able to check a book out of the library without fear that the record will be handed over to the authorities, but there is little evidence that there will be a general relaxation of the heightened restrictions.

A Surveillance Society

The Democratic Congress can put the brakes on further incursions of the Bush administration into civil liberties, but we may discover how difficult it is to recover long-held rights that were cast aside in the name of security. New Yorkers have come to accept a surveillance society where almost every public move is videotaped. Random bag searches by the New York Police Department at subway entrances--instituted after the July 2005 London Underground terrorist attacks--were upheld as constitutional by federal courts here. The New York City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, a Democrat with roots in progressive Chelsea, defends her recent campaign on nightlife safety as satisfying the concerns of civil libertarians. But some advocates have challenged the constitutionality of being taped and carded every time they go to a club.

Less Than A Civil Rights Agenda In Albany

New York’s new Governor Eliot Spitzer has an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly, but the State Senate remains in the hands of a Republican majority most of whose members have been cross-endorsed by the Conservative Party.

The only member of the Republican majority to support opening marriage to same-sex couples, Nick Spano from Westchester, looks to be narrowly losing his Senate seat to county legislator Andrea Stewart-Cousins who does not explicitly support such a bill, but has promised to vote for it if it makes it to the floor--which Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has promised it will not. (Unlike Congressional Democrats, the State Senate Democrats did not make much of an effort to win a majority in their chamber with their leader, David Paterson, off running for Lieutenant Governor.)

Civil libertarians may just be waking up to the fact that Governor-elect Spitzer does not share their agendas. Though during the campaign Spitzer announced his support for opening marriage to same-sex couples, he founded the Center for the Community Interest, which, as its Web site indicates, "supports common sense policies that strike a balance between rights and responsibilities, and defends those policies when civil liberties demands are carried to unreasonable conclusions that hurt or endanger others, or erode our shared quality-of-life." He is also a supporter of the death penalty and wants rape suspects tested for HIV despite the objections of public health authorities who counsel rape victims to take drugs to stave off HIV immediately rather than wait for an unreliable test result from someone who may or may not have committed a crime.

The other problem for civil libertarians at the New York State level is that after 12 years as governor, George Pataki has finally managed to install a conservative majority on the state’s high Court of Appeals whose members serve 14-year terms or until they reach age 70. Just as Pataki had to deal with a court dominated by Mario Cuomo picks who were progressive, Spitzer--even if he were inclined toward a more liberal judiciary--will not see a majority until towards the end of his second term should he win one. Spitzer can have more impact on the mid-level Appellate Division where judges sit for five-year terms.

An Unchanged Judiciary

George Bush is still making all the appointments to the federal courts and has two years to solidify a conservative majority on the Supreme Court should one of the current Justices, several of whom are no spring chickens, die or retire. The federal judiciary is one area where the election of a Democrat-controlled Senate can put the brakes on the rightward tilt.

President Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat to begin with, could not balance the Reagan-Bush, Sr. appointees from the right like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas with leftist judges because for most of his tenure, Republicans controlled the Senate. Clinton opted for relative moderates such as Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If the Democrats in the Senate do nothing else, they should be able to thwart the more radically conservative Bush appointees to the bench.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-West Side and Brooklyn) will become the new Chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution and promises at least to get hearings going on civil rights and liberties concerns that the Republican majority refused to.

But civil liberties were not high on the list of issues that Democratic candidates won on November 7th. It remains to be seen whether the new majorities will take bold actions to restore civil liberties compromised under the Republicans or settle for some symbolic victories in their drive for the center that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton exhorted them to govern from at her re-election party.

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.  

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast