Why New York Is Still the Capital of Immigrant America

Why New York Is Still the Capital of Immigrant America

Why New York Is Still the Capital of Immigrant America

As the country charts a new course on immigration, New York remains a beacon of hope.


ICE agents pat down detainees. New York City recently passed legislation to protect immigrants from the Obama administrations zealous detainment and deportation policies. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey.)

In March of this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared New York “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world.” The occasion: the signing of Local Laws 982 and 989, two pieces of of legislation designed to shield immigrants from the long and overzealous arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Passed overwhelmingly by the New York City Council, the laws bar the New York Police Department and Department of Corrections from providing immigration officials with information about those arrested for minor crimes or ordered released after charges are dismissed.

In passing these laws, New York joins a small group of cities rejecting some of the harshest effects of the Obama administration’s expansion of the federal Secure Communities program. S-Comm, as the program is known, is responsible for record deportation numbers that have exceeded 1.4 million in four years, translating into a monthly rate far higher than that of President Bush. The program targets both undocumented immigrants and lawful permanent residents for detention and removal by using local law enforcement and corrections agencies to report immigrants to ICE, a process that typically results in prolonged detention prior to removal, even for those accused of the most petty misdemeanors. The Department of Homeland Security’s own numbers reveal that a mere 26 percent of those deported in 2011 under the program were convicted of violent crimes. The rest—the overwhelming majority—are dragged into detention as a result of minor infractions or none at all. In some jurisdictions, including purported liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, more than half of those deported through S-Comm have no criminal convictions of any kind.

Compared with enforcement programs such as the Bush administration’s Operation “Return to Sender,” which targeted civil immigration violators in a series of brutal home raid operations, S-Comm has been subject to far less criticism. After all, ICE has claimed, if inaccurately, to focus the program on the violent and dangerous offenders. But in New York City, where more than a third of the population is foreign-born, immigrant communities and grassroots activist organizations have fought the rhetoric, pushing the City Council to limit law enforcement officers from collaborating with ICE.

Thanks to an impressive history of grassroots organizing by immigrant activists and allies, laws to protect immigrants from some of the effects of federal enforcement are an accepted feature of New York City political life. Since the mayoralty of Edward Koch, the city has maintained executive orders barring local government and social services agencies from releasing immigration information to the federal government. Schools, health care and victims’ rights offices and the administration for Children’s Services are covered by an umbrella order to protect the confidentiality of immigration status information. A Department of Education regulation explicitly bars school officials from inquiring into or referencing the immigration status of any student or her parents. And in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg signed Executive Order 41 barring the New York City Police Department from inquiring into status “unless investigating illegal activity other than mere status as an undocumented alien.” Inquiries into the status of crime victims or witnesses are prohibited outright.

And New York City does more than defend immigrants from ICE; it takes affirmative steps to serve immigrants. The mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, established as a charter agency in a 2001 referendum, is tasked with linking immigrants, community-based organizations, and city agencies to disaster relief, health care, and education advocacy. The administration for Children’s Services has established its own Director of Immigrant Services, charged not only with attending to the special needs of families with mixed or no status but also with advocating to legalize children within its custody. Four of the five boroughs have newcomer high schools, and Manhattan’s Comprehensive Night and Day School allows older and working immigrant high-school students to obtain their diploma without having to choose between jobs and education.

This pro-immigrant embrace has long been reflected in political language that crosses party lines. The city hasn’t had a Democratic Mayor since David Dinkins left office in 1993. Yet it’s hard to imagine any elected official within the City winning a campaign based on anti-immigrant activism, as did former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy in 2003 and 2008, or even fighting for English-only government agencies, like Congressman Peter T. King, whose district bridges Nassau and Suffolk. In contrast, the “city of immigrants” rhetoric of New York City’s Republican and Independent mayors has afforded them national platforms in support of immigration reform and made them famous for challenging their party bases.

* * *

Tarnished Golden Land

With all this evidence of New York’s pro-immigrant political culture, it might be tempting to end the story here. But it’s not that simple. Working as a civil rights attorney in New York City, I know that immigrants here have access to more mutual and public support than in other parts of the country or even in nearby suburbs; my former employer, the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF was able to win cases like Recalde v. Bae Cleaners, which provided important housing protections to immigrants, because of a strong network of neighborhood advocates who linked tenants to support. But the street-level effects of New York’s laws are not so benign. New York City’s elected officials may help themselves get elected with localist pride in immigrant culture, they have hardly ushered in a goldene medine of immigrant justice.

On March 18, the same day Mayor Bloomberg signed the anti-S-Comm initiatives into law, my colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights brought the class action challenge to the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy to trial. Widely excoriated for its near-exclusive focus on black and Latino men and its stunning failure to lead to legitimate arrests—fewer than .15 percent of stop-and-frisk encounters result in the discovery of a gun—the stop-and-frisk program has dragged thousands of immigrants into the jail system on minor, if any, infractions. And once there, even with the protections of recent local laws, they are vulnerable to ICE detainers.

Protesting the result of harsh federal detention policies, in short, does not mean that that the city is willing to limit its own enforcement excesses. The NYPD’s once-secret “Demographics Unit,” tasked with surveillance and infiltration of Muslim businesses, campus organizations and mosques on account of religious affiliation alone has unearthed not even a single lead to terrorist activity. But it has elicited outrage in immigrant communities and sparked federal lawsuits accusing the City of profiling religious minorities and violating court orders that prohibit police surveillance in violation of the First Amendment.

Moreover, State and city labor laws may be comparatively strong—the City Council passed a living wage law in 2012, and recently overrode a mayoral veto of laws prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed—but lax enforcement, decades of aggressive anti-labor policies and the effects of the recession have allowed worker exploitation to thrive, leaving advocacy almost exclusively in the hands of nonprofits, community organizing groups and increasingly embattled unions. City economic life in the aftermath of the recession remains brutally hard for all workers, and especially so for more vulnerable immigrants. For the first time, census data reveals more immigrant population growth in the suburbs than in New York City itself.

* * *

Tired, Organized Masses

Notwithstanding the current administration’s very mixed record on “friendliness” to immigrants, New Yorkers tend to identify themselves as residents of a pro-immigrant city. Yet New York’s elected officials aren’t pro-immigrant—to the extent that they are—out of special compassion or enlightenment; they’re pro-immigrant because they are accountable to the Latino, Asian, and Caribbean communities who organize and vote.

New York City’s enduring history as an immigrant gateway has allowed generations of ethnic, racial and religious minorities to establish themselves as sources of political, cultural and economic power. The Fiscal Policy Institute’s studies of census data find that immigrants own 18 percent of the small businesses in the country but 48 percent of small businesses in New York City. And organized labor in New York encompasses not just large, immigrant activist unions like UNITE HERE, but also anti-sweatshop organizing campaigns, a domestic workers rights movement, and self-help centers to train workers to advocate to win back stolen wages.

As a result, New York remains the cultural center of American immigrant life. New immigrant communities in the South and Midwest have been greeted with hostility, with states like Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina passing even harsher version of Arizona’s “papers please” law in response to increasing presence of Latinos. Across the country, hate crimes against perceived immigrants, particularly Latinos, are on the rise; in the Northeast, day laborers in suburbs and rural areas are victim to alarming numbers of physical attacks. But New Yorkers can hear 800 different languages spoken freely on subway cars, attend parades and festivals dedicated to Pakistani independence and Panamanian pride, and read dozens of New York-based foreign-language newspapers printed not only in Spanish, Arabic, Russian or Mandarin but also in Swedish, Estonian, Polish, Tagalog, Korean, Creole, Urdu and Portuguese.

Courts in New York City are similarly open to civil protections for immigrants. In the last ten years, towns like Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Farmers Branch, Texas, have been defending statutes barring undocumented immigrants from renting homes within their borders and punishing landlords for doing so. But New York courts have been enforcing an obscure provision of New York City Human Rights Law that was amended in 1989 to do the opposite: to address “fears among immigrants of a growing bias within the community against those who may look or sound foreign” and to limit inquires into “citizenship status when such documentation was not required by law.” Applying the statute to tenants’ rights in Recalde v. Bae Cleaners in 2008, a New York State Supreme Court judge noted a “disturbing trend involving the private use of immigration laws to deny housing and other benefits based on immigration status” and barred a landlord from discriminating against a tenant perceived to be undocumented, the first decision of its kind in the country.

Bae Cleaners is not an anomaly. After a decade of rising anti-immigrant hostility in the rest of the country, New York City’s legal culture remains relatively, and sometimes strikingly, hospitable to immigrants. Five-year reviews of immigration judges across the country show that between 2007 and 2012, more than half of New York City’s immigration judges granted 75 percent or more of the asylum claims that come before them, with four of thirty-four judges granting such claims more than 90 percent of the time. No other jurisdiction came close; in Newark and San Francisco, fewer than half granted claims more than 50 percent of the time, and in Atlanta, no judge granted even 35 percent of the claims. Regional differences in immigration population might account for some of this disparity, because a high percentage of immigrants from countries experiencing severe turmoil and oppression could drive grant rates up, and New York City’s immigrants come from an unusually diverse array of countries. More important, however, is the fact that in New York, immigrants have a far more likely chance of accessing legal representation, a factor that far exceeds any other in predicting the success of a claim.

* * *

A New Life?

After years of sustained organizing, and despite ugly anti-immigrant fervor in individual towns and states, it seems the nation’s political class has started making its own “immigrant-friendly” gestures. Congress is considering comprehensive immigration reform for the first time in decades, the Obama administration has granted young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to apply for temporary work permits, and national news organizations are retiring the offensive phrase “illegal immigrant.”

But the intense loneliness of a new home, a new climate and a new language can’t be legislated or serviced away, not even in cities like New York. Seven years ago, I represented a 16-year-old Chinese teenager in immigration proceedings. Escaping the threat of a forced marriage to an abusive older man, she had smuggled herself into the United States by going tens of thousands of dollars into debt to a threatening snakehead. She’d been caught entering the United States with a false passport; despite her age, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had detained her in horrific conditions with adults. She was finally placed in program for unaccompanied minors, where her caseworkers found a Brooklyn family to take her in. Eligible for a little-known federal immigration benefit called special immigrant juvenile status, which provides immigrant visas to children and youth who have been abandoned, neglected, or abused, she was lucky to land in a city where advocates have educated the family court system to work with immigrants. Her application moved fairly smoothly. My colleagues and I considered her among the very fortunate.

Enrolled in a high school for newcomers, she quickly learned enough English to communicate a problem in many ways more pressing than meeting deadlines for immigration applications: desperate grief and isolation. “I go to school, and I see everyone smiling and happy. I smile too, but I know they are not like me.” What could I tell her? What she had she had gone through in her home and on the journey to the United States would stagger any well-adjusted adult. She wouldn’t be healed by the kindness of her guardians or a positive outcome in her legal case.

I pointed to a pile of folders on my desk. A significant portion of those files pertained to her classmates, teenagers from Afghanistan, El Salvador and Senegal, kids who had told me they were miserable but would rather die than go back, kids who missed their mothers, kids still in fear of the traffickers who had brought them here, kids who ended each day exhausted from working in restaurants at night while in the day trying to attain fluency in English, sometimes their third or fourth language, kids who joined youth empowerment groups to fight for immigration reform nationally and improved benefits locally. Her classmates were in many ways just like her. Small comfort, perhaps, and certainly not a substitute for the American dream.

But a legacy of achievement, stability, and sheer numerical power provides New York City’s newcomers with a sense of protection and possibility. Integrated and even prominent in the city’s political, economic, cultural life, immigrants here probably are more welcome than in any other place in the country. My young client finished high school, green card in hand. Ninety percent of her classmates, students from Guinea, Thailand, Mexico and Pakistan, graduated with her. Many of them still without permanent status, they face enormous economic, psychological, and linguistic obstacles. But they enter adulthood in a city that is helping to transform immigrant culture from a pretty feature of a politician’s speech to a source of genuine political power.

Read Aura Bogado on the good, the bad and the ugly in the Senate’s new immigration legislation. Read all of the articles in The Nation’s special issue on New York City.

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