Here’s How NYC’s Latina City Council Speaker is Leading the Charge to Protect Immigrants From Trump Policies

Photo: John McCarten

Since the 19th century, New York City has held a special place at the center of America’s immigration narrative. From the oft-quoted poem inscribed in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) to Ellis Island, which served as an immigrant gateway through which more than 20 million future US citizens passed, the city has long been considered the capital of immigrant America. For Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker of the New York City Council, defending this legacy has become more pressing than ever.  As Donald Trump’s administration charts a frightening new course on immigration policy, and with just 10 months left in her tenure, Mark-Viverito is determined to protect NYC’s legacy as one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the world.

On February 16, Mark-Viverito delivered her last State of the City address, giving an impassioned speech on women’s reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, and immigration – topics that have come to define her time in office. Speaking in both Spanish and English, she began her speech, titled Who We Are, by invoking Juan Rodriguez – the city’s first immigrant – before going on to discuss NYC’s history of immigration. “Whether you were born in Mott Haven or Mexico; Sunset Park or Syria; Corona or the Caribbean – if you are here you are a New Yorker,” she said. “Esta es tu historia. This is your story. And this is who we are.”

She may not have mentioned President Donald Trump’s name once – as she had done in a recent speech where she called him a “highly insecure individual” – but her speech stood in stark contrast to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s. A few days earlier, De Blasio – who is up for re-election – gave his State of the Union speech, never once saying the words immigration or immigrants. Mark-Viverito, on the other hand, vowed resistance.

“Whether you were born in Mott Haven or Mexico; Sunset Park or Syria; Corona or the Caribbean – if you are here you are a New Yorker.”

In response to Trump’s sweeping immigration policy changes – including promises to build a wall along the US-Mexico border – Mark-Viverito reiterated that the city won’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. On top of banning ICE from Rikers – which hinders officials from deporting those charged with low-level offenses – the city has vowed not to use any city resources to help ICE locate undocumented immigrants who don’t pose any threat to public safety. The Council will also pass legislation that will prohibit ICE agents from going after undocumented immigrants on city property without a warrant or court order.

This latter initiative is a response to several reports of undocumented immigrants getting targeted in areas previously considered “sensitive locations” by ICE. Earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, a transgender woman arrived at a court seeking protection in a domestic violence case. As Reuters reports, ICE had no warrant for her arrest and supposedly acted on a tip that she’d be in court. To make matters worse, the woman’s lawyer believes the tip came directly from the Mexican national’s abuser. Meanwhile in Alexandria, Va, immigration agents surrounded a group of Latino men as they left a church-run homeless shelter and detained two of them. The NY City Council’s legislation aims to protect these especially vulnerable immigrants. And by setting up one immigrant family resource center in each NYC borough, the council pledges to support and educate immigrants.

As Mark-Viverito explained in a phone interview, these policies are a continuation of what the city’s tried to do for years. “We’ve done similar legislation in the past,” she told me. “We just explore what our legal authority is in the city and how can we expand the protections that we offer through other legislation that we already have in place… how can we look at expanding the level of coverage and protection that we offer to our immigrant communities.”

Photo: William Alatriste
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Immigration advocates – who are in the trenches everyday – also played a role in shaping the council’s policies. Her office already supports the work these organizations do, so it’s logical that they’d confer with groups like Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition to find additional ways to protect the immigrant community. In these fraught times – where even undocumented immigrants who abide by the rules stand to feel the effects of Trump’s anti-immigrant stance – people may feel compelled to take action. Mark-Viverito applauds the efforts of established grass root organizations and encourages New Yorkers to tap into the network of activists to become part of the solution.

The Speaker’s remarks also nodded to criticism of NYC’s broken windows policing, which many advocates have noted undermine the city’s sanctuary efforts on behalf of immigrants. Broken windows policing cracks down on minor crimes, like jumping a turnstile at a subway station or being in the park after dark. These arrests largely target and impact people of color, many of them immigrants. And although NYPD doesn’t ask for immigration status, it does fingerprint and ID those arrested – information ICE has access to. In her speech, Mark-Viverito acknowledged the problem with these minor infractions. “Because even minor violations or misdemeanors can trigger deportations, the Council will pass legislation creating a City alternative to the State penal law Disorderly Conduct provision,” she vowed in her State of the City address.

“Jumping a turnstile at 16 should not mark you for the rest of your life.”

This is simply the latest effort from Mark-Viverito to try to mitigate the effects of broken windows. In her 2015 State of the City address, for example, she called for issuing summons for low-level offenders, instead of jailing them and charging them with a crime. Changing tactics would mean that these infractions would have less of an impact on the lives of the offenders, who tend to be low-income people of color. “Jumping a turnstile at 16 should not mark you for the rest of your life,” she said at the time. By the time her 2016 State of the City address rolled around, NYC had taken steps to process minor legal violations without the use of a criminal system – something that MMV led the charge on.

Photo: Associated Press.
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“We’ve done a lot of work to cut down on the interaction and the engagement of people with the criminal justice system,” she told me. “The fact that Stop and Frisks are reduced almost 80 to 95 percent is significant. That was definitely a form of broken windows policing. Changing certain infractions from criminal to civil summons prevent people from getting fingerprints and prevent criminal records. That’s a way that you prevent people from being directed into a deportation system.”

Defending the work she’s done in this area, she added, “there’s a lot of steps that have been taken. There’s already been changes to the way that policing is done in the city.”

Trump is forcing Mark-Viverito to re-evaluate how she’ll participate in the growing resistance against him.

And though her speech outlined what she hopes to accomplish by the end of 2017, she’s also seriously considering her next step post-City Council. As New York’s most prominent Latina politician, some have speculated that she’ll run for mayor or partake in Puerto Rican politics. For now, she’s turning to mentors and others to help her weigh her options. But she admits that Trump taking office is forcing her to re-evaluate how she’ll participate in the growing resistance against him.

Reflecting on her accomplishments as the first Latina City Council speaker, she signals that she definitely has more fight left in her. “My hope is that the works that we’ve engaged in, the things that we’ve put in place, laws that we’ve put in place, initiatives that we’ve started is going to be a strong part of my legacy,” she said.

“And I hope that people will be able to remember me as someone – and you know I plan to continue being active and visible even after my role is completed here – [who is] an advocate for equality and justice, trying to get to the root of the systemic injustices that do exist. But some of the laws we’ve put in place, some of the initiatives, some of the policy changes we’ve been successful at enacting [have created] more equity in the criminal justice system, in the immigration system, advocating for communities that have been marginalized. That’s what I want the people to remember my legacy as.”