Citizenship Summit in Albany

I went to the New York Immigration Coalition’s Citizenship Summit yesterday. The talk of the Summit was the move by many New York Congressional Representatives who had been lukewarm supporters of immigration reform over to the “firmly committed” column. Now this does not mean that we are well on our way to reform. The other side is organizing using the Tea Parties and other conservative gatherings to identify supporters. In fact, Chung-Wha Hong of the Coalition said that the anti-immigrant groups have a list of 900,000 supporters they think they can mobilize against our push for change. She did say that we are also getting better organized and noted that a few weeks ago the immigrant rights groups generated 20,000 electronic messages to Congress calling for immigration reform.

David Hansell, Commissioner of the state’s agency dealing with immigrants, spoke of the need to confront anti-immigrant hate crimes, particularly in Suffolk County. The state is going to initiate a campaign against bias crimes like the killing of Marcelo Lucero. Hansell also debunked the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant movement which portrays immigrants as a drain on New York’s economy. “This is contrary to the facts”, he said, adding “it is in our best interests to continue to welcome immigrants and encourage their integration”. He said that, in spite of the current climate, New York State expects to receive 100,000 new immigrants every year as well as 5,000 refugees.

He didn’t just talk about citizenship. Hansell helped initiate a new state program to assist the victims of human trafficking and he is looking at ways to improve services for trafficking victims while the cases against their traffickers are going through the legal system. In the short time the program has been in place, 55 trafficking victims have been helped. New York is one of the few states with a law that not only provides penalties for traffickers, but also provides services for victims. This was a law that the New York Immigration Coalition helped guide through the legislative process and that local groups like CARECEN and Catholic Charities pushed.

Larry Frank of New York State’s Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (BRIA), one of the really great civil servants in Albany, introduced a panel of people from Utica. The first speaker called Utica the City that Loves Refugees. Utica, like many upstate cities, has faced tough economic times over the last thirty years. At the beginning of the city’s economic slide, its political leadership made the decision to try to arrest the loss of population, which has killed places like Buffalo and Rochester, by entering into an agreement with the Federal government to resettle refugees. The small city of 60,000 people is now home to 13,000 refugees, one of the highest proportions of any city in the country. The Mohawk Valley Refugee Center helps 400 refugees each year prepare for American citizenship. Elizabeth Bowers from ConMed, a medical manufacturing firm, said that when her workers get sworn in as citizens, their co-workers and supervisors often go along to support them. She said that it really expands the horizons of the native-born workers to have co-workers from all over the world.

Larry Frank’s boss, Tom Hart of BRIA, gave the Summit participants the good news that among the seven states with the largest immigrant populations, New York has the highest percentage of immigrants who are eligible for citizenship who actually become citizens. This has to have something to do with the State’s own efforts to fund community groups that prepare immigrants for citizenship.

Chung-Wha Hong emphasized that citizenship “is a piece of a broader immigrant integration agenda”. She said that “we need to ensure that immigrants are contributing their maximum to our state”.

Anti-immigrant politicians may cling to a view of the foreign-born population as a mass of “illegal aliens” who can be targetted for political points and who are too tame and powerless to strike back. But they are missing the point. Immigrants are becoming citizens in record numbers and they are voting in unprecedented percentages. And they are reading the newspapers to find out who their political friends are.