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Albany Democrats Claim Few Victories on Immigration. Can They Start Winning Now?

Can state politicians ride a growing wave of support for immigrants?

Early in his term as governor, Eliot Spitzer introduced a plan to issue driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status.

Now a fairly commonplace practice, the proposal drew swift and decisive pushback from state Republicans and Spitzer’s own Democratic party, including current rising star Kirsten Gillibrand. The proposition was defeated in the state Senate, 39–19.

Over a decade later, undocumented immigrants in New York are still unable to get a driving permit of any kind. Democrats have introduced similar measures regularly since Spitzer’s attempt in 2007. All have failed. In the meantime, 12 states — including traditionally red states like Utah and Nevada — and Washington, D.C. have passed laws that provide driver’s licenses to residents regardless of immigration status.

This is far from the only measure that New York lawmakers failed to pass as it became law in much more conservative states. Years of fruitless organizing have left immigration advocates frustrated as policies that would better the lives of the state’s over 800,000 undocumented immigrants fail to advance.

At a recent rally on the steps of New York County Supreme Court, an exasperated Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s community justice unit, rattled off the names of state officials he and others had unsuccessfully lobbied to try to ban immigration arrests in state courthouses, including Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Will nobody listen?” he finally asked.

Yet, even weary activists are now finding new cause for optimism.

That early–June rally was in support of a bill introduced in the State Assembly by Long Island legislator Michaelle Solages, a Democrat. The bill proposes to block civil arrests from taking place in the state’s courthouses. A Senate version was introduced by Manhattan Sen. Marisol Alcantara. Though its future in that legislative body is uncertain, it is the first legislation of its kind in the state.

In late April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a cease-and-desist letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan threatening to sue the federal government if it did not change its enforcement practices in the state. Cuomo simultaneously signed an executive order barring immigration arrests in state facilities and prohibiting state employees from inquiring about immigration status.

Some advocates chalk this up to gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon’s growing popularity and vocal criticism of ICE agents’ arrest practices.

While a few privately grumbled that the actions were more symbolic than practical — the executive order did not apply to state courthouses, where the vast majority of ICE arrests in state facilities occur — they said that it was a step in the right direction.

The order also enacted several provisions that were included with the Liberty Act, one of the main recent legislative priorities for immigration advocates that died in the Senate. Others include so-called Green Light NY, which is another shot at the driver’s license issue, and the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition to apply for some state financial aid and the Tuition Assistance Program.

In the past year, bills have also been introduced to prohibit medical practitioners from asking about immigration status; direct the commissioner of health to seek a waiver from the federal government authorizing undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance through the state’s marketplace; and to protect farmworkers.

A bill to reduce the maximum sentence for Class A misdemeanors from 365 days to 364 in prison passed the Assembly after rallies at the state Capitol, though it hasn’t made its way through the Senate. Immigrants convicted of crimes carrying a one-year sentence are at risk of automatic deportation, so the one-day difference could spare thousands from that threat.

Lawmakers and advocates also said that across the state, nonimmigrant constituents are becoming more aware of the problems that their immigrant neighbors face on a day-to-day basis.

“I feel that people are becoming more understanding, especially as Dreamers and [Temporary Protected Status] holders are coming out and they’re being humanized.” said Assemblywoman Solages, a who is also chairwoman of the Assembly Task Force on New Americans.

The topic of driver’s licenses for the undocumented burst into general consciousness last week with the controversial detention of Pablo Villavicencio Calderón, a Queens pizza delivery worker and family man who was turned over to ICE by military police after delivering pasta to the Fort Hamilton military base in South Brooklyn. Accounts of his arrest suggest that he was detained after being unable to produce an identification beyond a New York City municipal ID, which doesn’t require proof of status to obtain.

The detention of a worker with a clean criminal record and with two small children is the sort of thing legislators believe is souring New Yorkers around the state on tough-on-illegal-immigration stances from their representatives.

“When you step out of of the chamber and you’re speaking to the general public, the conversation has changed,” said Sen. Roxanne Persaud, a Brooklyn Democrat and immigrant from Guyana. “People are really realizing ‘wait a minute, that’s really having a negative impact on my community.’” She argued that having undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses and able to get car insurance, and being less fearful of the police, would benefit everyone, not just immigrants.

Nonetheless, the increased attention has changed little so far at the State Senate level. Just two months ago, in March, the body passed a bill that would require local governments to honor ICE detainer requests and bar them from interfering with enforcement in municipal or county jails. With the vote of Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a registered Democrat who has caucused with the Republicans since taking office in 2013, the measure passed 32–29. The Assembly version never left committee.

“I think that advocates tend to view the state of New York through the lens of New York City,” said Sen. Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan, a former member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democratic senators that shared power with the Senate’s Republican caucus until it disbanded in April. Though progressive groups have long blamed the IDC for standing in the way of their legislative priorities, the independent group was always in line with the mainline Democrats when it came to immigration, and many former members were sponsors of pro-immigrant legislation.

In the absence of statewide action, New York City, home to the bulk of the state’s immigrants, has been attempting to cobble together measures usually taken at the state-level. In 2015, the city introduced a municipal identification card that gave immigrants a form of official identification. It operates a legal defense fund for detained immigrants, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. Its public health system, NYC Health + Hospitals, which receives city and state funding, is facing a financial crisis as a result of the cost of treating uninsured patients, many of whom are immigrants unable to secure insurance.

Legislators who speak out against pro-immigration policies often argue that they cost too much and that tax dollars should not be spent on undocumented people.

Sen. Tom Croci, a Long Island Republican and the sponsor of the anti-sanctuary bill, also opposes tuition credits for the undocumented. “Increasing tuition assistance, creating tax exemptions on student loan interest, and not rewarding people who are here illegally by providing them free college tuition on the backs of middle-income taxpayers, will remain a priority for me,” he said in a 2016 statement. Croci did not return requests for an interview.

Others point out that undocumented immigrants are taxpayers, too.

“Every time somebody undocumented goes to buy food, they pay taxes. Every time they go shopping for clothes, they pay taxes. If they are homeowners, they pay property taxes,” said Alcantara.

One prominent immigration policy advocate who routinely meets with legislators derided the idea that there was a legitimate claim to fiscal responsibility in opposing licenses and education funding for immigrants. “That’s a front argument. The state budget is 150 billion, with a B, dollars,” the advocate said. “The DREAM Act is a drop in the bucket.” That legislation has been estimated to cost about $27 million to implement.

Persaud’s take on opponents’ reticence is more blunt: “In my opinion, it’s just hatred.”

The senator is not particularly optimistic about convincing opposed legislators to support pro-immigrant bills. “While our Democratic majority is not leading the [senate], we know that the DREAM Act is not coming up. It’s not coming up for a vote, unless someone has an epiphany and decides it’s about time we bring it to the floor,” she said.

But the Senate’s balance of power could soon change.  

In late April, five Republican senators, including Croci, announced they were retiring from the legislative body. In an April 24 special election for an open Senate seat in Westchester County, Democratic Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer defeated her Republican opponent in a race that had been considered a toss-up. Mayer has indicated that she would support the DREAM Act and other pro-immigrant legislation.

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