On Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo will be sworn in for his third term on Ellis Island, a historic site that symbolizes the centrality of immigrants to our state and country. It’s a good choice of location, but only if the governor works hard to make New York finally deliver for immigrant communities.
For as long as we can remember, including the last eight years, the Legislature has consistently failed to pass policies to extend protections and opportunity to New York immigrants, who now constitute 23% of the state’s population. Meanwhile, the governor has failed to use his political capital at critical moments.
But now, as Democrats — who benefited enormously from historic Latino and immigrant voter turnout — prepare to take the reins of the state Senate, there can be no more excuses. It’s time for Albany to finally work for immigrants.
Immigrant New Yorkers are looking for speedy action on many priorities. Chief among them are restoring access to driver’s licenses for all, passing the New York Dream Act, and expanding protections for tenants across the state.
First, at a moment where the Trump administration has declared war on immigrants and uses even minor traffic infractions to justify detaining people, locking them in cages, and separating them from their families, the single most important thing that New York can do to protect immigrants is to restore access to driver’s licenses to all.
Lack of access to licenses, particularly in areas like Western New York, the Hudson Valley and Long Island, is a leading cause of deportations, as it’s often the first point of contact between immigrants and law enforcement, which can trigger Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations. New York used to ensure access to licenses to all, and it’s time to do so again — just like 12 other states already do.
This should be a no-brainer, as research shows improved road safety, economic benefits and lower auto insurance premiums for all New Yorkers. If the governor is going to Ellis Island to share his commitment to immigrant issues, he must stand up for driver’s licenses for all today.
Second, we must finally pass the state Dream Act, which would address the urgent need in immigrant communities for equal access to higher education. It would achieve tuition equity by ensuring that all qualified students, regardless of immigration status, are able to access the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. The Dream Act has passed the Assembly year after year, but been blocked in the Senate. With 39 Democrats now in the Senate majority, it’s time to get it passed.
Finally, immigrant tenants are being displaced from their communities at an alarming rate. With the rent laws, which regulate one million rent-stabilized units, up for renewal this year, it’s urgent to strengthen protections by repealing the vacancy bonus and preferential rent loopholes — which give landlords incentives to force tenants out and dramatically raise rents.
Legislators should also move toward a system of universal rent control, by passing new “good cause” eviction legislation, which would expand rights for the five million tenant households with no existing protections. At a moment when the governor is falling over himself to give billions in tax breaks to Amazon that will fuel displacement, expanding these protections is more urgent than ever.
These are not, of course, immigrant communities’ only priorities. But they are urgent ones. Get them done.