En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Latinos Here Embrace Census and Push Immigration Reform

 

A
group of Latino clergymen launched what they call a “radical” campaign last
April that encouraged undocumented immigrants to boycott the 2010 Census in an
effort to speed the rewriting of national immigration policies.


Using
the slogan, “Before you count us, you must legalize us!” organizers have spread
their message everywhere from the pulpit to the airwaves. Their logic? The
consequences of a population undercount – with the reductions in federal
funding and representation that go along with it – would spur elected officials
to expedite federal legislation to legalize undocumented immigrants.


Driven
by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, the idea drew
the ire of elected officials and Census advocates from Boston
to Los Angeles.
Opponents said the boycott is a misguided attempt at calling for immigration
reform, arguing that undercounts would cause communities with large immigrant
populations to lose federal funding and Congressional representation.


The
movement claims to have convinced millions of undocumented immigrants – already
a hard-to-reach group that fears participation could lead to deportation – not
to participate in the Census, which will be taken next month. But it’s gained
little traction in one immigrant-filled city: New York.


Although
the group intended to launch the Census boycott in the five boroughs, several
of the coalition’s leaders from New
York
voted to keep the boycott away. Perhaps that’s
why the boycott wasn’t also promoted in other ethnic communities, despite
organizers’ intention of reaching out to Asian and Arab groups as well.


Instead,
local clergymen are encouraging the opposite: Full participation in the
nationwide count, with some even partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau to
offer educational outreach and training in their churches. “Here in New York City we have political leaders that really care
about the undocumented people,” said the Rev. Domingo Vázquez, a
director-at-large for the group and a Manhattan
pastor.


Vázquez
says it was not the group’s priority to pressure Mayor Bloomberg or the New York congressional
delegation about reform, because many representatives are vocal advocates for
changing federal immigration laws. Also, the city has adopted progressive policies
that protect undocumented immigrants: one, signed in 2003, protects all New York residents from
disclosing their immigration status when using vital city services, such as
hospitals. The other, signed more recently in 2008, mandates that all city agencies
provide public services in New York’s
six most-spoken languages.


While
undocumented immigrants are still ineligible for most federal welfare benefits,
such as Medicaid, and often face harsh labor conditions in the city, there is
still a feeling that illegal immigrants fare better in New York than they do in
other parts of the country, said Angelo Falcón, president and co-founder of the
Manhattan-based think tank, the National Institute for Latino Policy.


“In
many instances, people who are undocumented are politically active and
empowered in New York
Falcón said.


Beyond
the U.S.
Census


With
momentum around revamping the nation immigration’s policy gaining force, some
immigrant advocates are contemplating what role the city will play in the
debate, especially given New York’s history as
the gateway to America.


President
Obama announced during his recent State of the Union address that tackling
federal immigration policy is on his 2010 agenda. (Though, as many interviewed
for this article pointed out, it will need to wait until after some resolution
of the debate on health care.) Obama and others use the term “comprehensive
immigration reform” to describe a series of potential changes to policy that
range from increasing border security and enforcement of immigration law, to
determining how to adjust the status of the country’s estimated 12 million
undocumented immigrants. There is less debate about what needs fixing,
generally speaking, than about how to do it.


Peter
Salins, a senior fellow who writes on immigration for the Manhattan Institute,
a conservative think tank, says for any federal immigration policy to gain
popular support it must have two elements: a strong enforcement policy and at
least partial legalization of the undocumented population. Immigration reform
would benefit mayors of large cities such as New York, Salins says, because it would moot
the current approach of turning a blind eye to immigration status.


“Mayor
Bloomberg is eager to get out from under this difficult cloud and do it in the
sunlight,” Salins said.


Bloomberg
pledged last month to assemble a bipartisan, nationwide coalition of mayors to
assist the President in building support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Bloomberg himself has said he supports a path to legalization for all
undocumented immigrants as well as increased visa quotas and a DNA- or
fingerprint-based verification system that allows only legal immigrants to work
in the United States.


Advocates
for immigration reform are hopeful the mayor’s commitment to launching a
national debate will be fruitful, given his credibility as both a successful
businessman and an experienced mayor who has gained respect on both sides of
the aisle.


“He
can speak to both the challenges and the opportunities that we as a city have
seen,” said Fatima Shama, the mayor’s Commissioner on Immigrant Affairs. He can
also offer “the perspective of understanding the economic vitality that
immigrants offer.”


Unlike
other cities that in recent years have seen both their population and economy
decline, New York
has benefited significantly from immigrants and their labor. Since 1970, the
city’s immigrant population has more than doubled to 3 million, while the
native-born population declined by more than 1 million. Immigrants now represent
more than a third of the city’s population, and four in 10 workers are legal
immigrants, contributing $215 billion to the city’s economy in 2008. And this
data from the Office of the State Comptroller does not include the spending or
wages of the city’s more than half a million estimated undocumented residents.


Federal
law, local policies


Advocates
say the city has its own set of immigration policy problems, only some of which
are the result of federal legislation. Reduced
education resources contribute to non-native English speaking and Hispanic
school children having the highest drop-out rates in the city,
says
Javier Valdés,
deputy director at
Make the Road, a direct service provider to low-income immigrants in
Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn. And
current occupancy caps in the city housing code often work against large
immigrant families trying to find appropriate affordable housing, says the
Manhattan Institute’s Salins.


The
city’s confusing mix of local and federal law enforcement that deals with
immigrants is also a problem, says Angela Fernández, executive director of the
nonprofit Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. At places like Rikers Island,
the city’s main jail complex off the coast of Queens,
immigrants awaiting trial can be placed into deportation proceedings,
regardless of their conviction, if they unknowingly disclose their illegal
immigration status to a federal agent. “It’s the intersection between criminal
and immigration law,” Fernández said, “which is problematic from a due process
position.”


Immigration
law is ultimately federal law, but localities like New York often make their own policies to
deal with issues, which results in inconsistencies across the nation. Salins
says as talks about reform continue, bringing the law and reality as close to
conformity as possible should be the goal. “The optimal is to have national
immigration law that is consistent with the on-the-ground reality in places
like New York
Salins said.


But
getting on the same page as to whose reality the nation’s immigration policy
should reflect will be difficult. To solve that problem, immigrant advocates
say they hope that, in New York
at least, there will be coalition-building at the grassroots level, in addition
to the mayor’s initiative. Rev. Vázquez says after seeing how quickly community
groups and local officials came together to advocate for a complete Census
count, there is a good chance they will come together again to promote
comprehensive immigration reform.


“Ten
years ago it was hard – the community wasn’t involved,” said Vazquez. “But we
have a different New York
now.”