New York to D.C.: We’ll Figure Out Immigration on Our Own, Since You Can’t

Policy reforms have stalled in Washington’s gridlock, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the country is willing to suffer.

Supporters of the New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform Campaign rally at Battery Park on July 14 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Aug 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

This week felt like déjà vu for the immigration activists who held hunger strikes ahead of Christmas break. The House and Senate, one of the least productive to ever set foot on Capitol Hill, left Washington to go on vacation without bringing forward a vote on reform. Again.

Activists aren’t the only ones fed up with Congress’ inaction on immigration reform. The largest states—California, New York, and Texas—have been looking for ways to take matters into their own hands when it comes to granting rights to undocumented residents.

In New York, Democratic state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Democratic state Assemblymember Karim Camara, along with a coalition of supporters, have introduced the New York Is Home Act. If passed in the next legislative session, the unprecedented bill would create a path to state citizenship for taxpaying non-citizen residents of New York who have lived in the state for three years and can provide proof of identity.

“These are individuals who are contributing every single day yet are not given the opportunity to fully participate in civic, economic, and political life,” said Rivera.

In his bustling office in the 33rd Senate District in the Bronx, I spoke with Rivera about his decision to introduce this singular bill, which capitalizes on the similar but parallel concepts of federal and state citizenship.

“We’re taking the concept of states’ rights and flipping it on its head. We’re saying if there is legislative authority that a state has that sits outside of the powers of the federal government as established by the Constitution, we’re going to use it,” he said.

While other states have extended some rights, such as driver’s licenses and tuition assistance, to undocumented immigrants and legal permanent residents, the New York Is Home Act is the most comprehensive bill yet.

If it succeeds, 2.7 million New Yorkers could gain those benefits. They would also be able to vote and run for office in state and local elections, be eligible for Medicaid, and gain human rights protections against discrimination based on their citizenship status.

“As opposed to asking what we can get from the government, we’re starting from a place of the power of what the immigrant community is already giving and making a request from there,” said Daniel Coates, a lead organizer with the advocacy organization Make the Road New York, one of the major supporters and authors of the act.

Rivera emphasized that the New York Is Home Act is “not a giveaway in the least.” Rather, the bill is a natural extension of the well-trod relationship between states and their citizens, and their obligations to one another. Immigrants who could benefit from the bill would agree to serve on juries, obey the laws of the state, and continue to pay taxes.

“If [immigrants] are all of these things—neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and fellow community members—then the logical extension of that is the bill we’ve put forward,” said Coates.

As marriage equality and medical marijuana bills steadily succeed in states across the country, the next legislative domino effect could well be spurred by the New York Is Home Act.

Rivera noted that the bill is written to serve as a blueprint for other frustrated states that are ready to ask what they can do about immigration reform rather than waiting on Congress. Advocates are hopeful that collective pressure from the states could finally incite action at the federal level.

According to Rivera and Coates, discussions with leaders in California and Texas suggest similar legislation could be introduced in the coming months. (Because these discussions are preliminary, both Rivera and Coates declined to provide further detail.)

In the next several months, the senator has his work cut out for him. Along with the organizations that helped author the bill, such as Make the Road New York and The Center for Popular Democracy, the coalition needs to keep the bill in the spotlight and garner more support to make its passage in the January session viable.

“The goal is not only to get it passed in New York but to change the conversation at the national level about the responsibility of states to their residents,” said Rivera. “This is a way to acknowledge the real contributions of millions of individuals that are living in our state, and a way for real, progressive states to move in a positive direction in acknowledging these contributions and defending the rights of residents, regardless of their immigration status.”