With President Barack Obama once again delaying immigration reform with a path to citizenship, immigrants aren’t waiting any longer for Washington to act on their behalf.
Instead, they are uniting around a new strategy for progress: the extension of state citizenship to millions of noncitizen residents.
New York is at the forefront of this national effort.
Legislation called the New York is Home Act, recently introduced by state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Assembly Member Karim Camara, would extend the full rights and responsibilities of state citizenship to nearly 3 million non-citizens who meet very specific criteria and apply through New York’s Office for New Americans.
Earlier this week, Senate Republicans, aware of their political vulnerabilities this election season, launched a thinly-veiled fear-mongering campaign over the legislation. They are trying to turn a commonsense legislative proposal into a wedge issue and divide Democrats in the process.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Democrats, and progressive leaders like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio should not take the bait. Instead, they should rally around this legislation, and recognize how sensible and pragmatic it is.
Today, as in the past, New York is home to many immigrants who make valuable contributions to the communities where they live and work.
From Buffalo to the Bronx, non-citizen residents overwhelmingly want the same things as native-born New York residents: good schools, decent jobs, safe neighborhoods, economic security, and real opportunities for inclusion and advancement.
According to the New York is Home Act, non-citizen residents who can show proof of identity, three years of residency, tax payments, and a commitment to follow the law and serve on juries would be eligible to become state citizens.
To non-citizen residents who meet those specific criteria, access to the following benefits would be granted: financial aid for higher education, health care, drivers’ licenses, professional licenses, the right to vote, the right to run for office, and complete protection against racial profiling.
The argument for full equality and inclusion of immigrant residents is that state citizenship should recognize and reward the efforts of noncitizens who make our communities stronger.
We all stand to gain when everyone who calls New York home is treated as a real contributor to the greatness of our state. By the same token, viewing immigrants as expendable, exploitable and deportable hurts us all and undermines our shared values.
What happens in New York with this legislation is being closely watched around the country, especially in states like Oregon, California, Illinois, and New Jersey, where efforts to introduce and pass similar legislation are gaining traction because of Washington’s failure on immigration.
The New York is Home Act would enable the full and equal participation of immigrants in all activities that define our democracy and economy.
It respects the federal government’s authority over federal immigration, while asserting New York’s authority to define its state citizenry and the beneficiaries of state citizenship.
State laws around the country have long excluded non-citizens from voting rights, higher education, health care, drivers’ licenses, and professional licenses. This exclusion is a loss for all of us, because it limits the ability of immigrants to participate fully in activities that strengthen the social and economic fabric of our country and advance our common interests as Americans.
It’s time to promote full inclusion and equality for all.
Taking all the necessary political steps to get this done in New York will be a challenge, but with a reunified Democratic state Senate and leadership from Cuomo, it can happen.
We should set a clear example for the nation and create a model for other states to follow.
Through the expansion of state citizenship, non-citizens can exercise greater economic and political power on behalf of everyone, and do more to help our entire state and country grow, thrive, and prosper. New York is the only home many noncitizen residents have ever known.
Now is the moment to start counting and respecting these New Yorkers as real citizens.
Andrew Friedman is co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. Javier Valdes is co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
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