What would New York City’s next mayor do for immigrants?

Busy New York City street scene of diversity of pedestrian people crossing the street in Midtown Manhattan on 34th Street Herald Square.
Busy New York City street scene of diversity of pedestrian people crossing the street in Midtown Manhattan on 34th Street Herald Square.
littlenySTOCK/ Shutterstock
Busy New York City street scene of diversity of pedestrian people crossing the street in Midtown Manhattan on 34th Street Herald Square.

What would New York City’s next mayor do for immigrants?

Documented and City & State asked Democratic mayoral candidates about their plans for the city’s immigrant residents.
April 12, 2021

Co-published with Documented.

In New York City, one of the world’s leading magnets for immigration, foreign-born residents make up 37% or a little more than 3.1 million of its total population. As of 2018, immigrants contributed $232 billion to the city’s GDP and accounted for 45% of its workforce. But the inequities experienced by immigrant New Yorkers, which go far beyond just immigration issues, remain largely unaddressed. 

According to the city’s official Government Poverty Measure, which includes factors like eligibility for social safety-net benefits, New York City’s 2017 poverty rate was 19%. But after adjusting for conditions such as undocumented immigrants being ineligible for unemployment insurance, the city found that 22.1% of foreign-born residents and 28.8% of undocumented New Yorkers live in or near poverty.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, 1.8 million immigrants across the state worked in industries deemed “essential businesses” during the NY State on Pause business shutdown, with one in five noncitizen residents working as frontline essential workers in New York City, placing immigrants at the forefront of the pandemic. The public health crisis affected the lives of immigrants in a variety of ways: delivery workers face life-threatening work conditions and endure low pay while immigrant patients have refused public health care services over fears it could affect their immigration status.

Immigrants are especially vulnerable in the city’s housing crisis, as half of New York City’s working-class noncitizens lost employment amid the COVID-19 crisis, leaving them unable to pay rent. Undocumented residents subjected to eviction threats by their landlords fear going to housing court because of their status. The city has seen an uptick in homeless encampments, including in neighborhoods with high numbers of foreign-born residents, which advocates for immigrants have said indicate growing homelessness among working-class immigrants since the pandemic. 

Leaving these issues unresolved could have unintended consequences for New York City, especially as the city looks to bounce back from the pandemic. “If you ask me what the real threat to the city is, I will tell you the real threat is that we stop attracting immigrants,” Joseph J. Salvo, the city’s chief demographer for 30 years, recently told the New York Times upon his retirement. 

Last week, New York state passed a historic $2.1 billion relief fund – representing 1% of the state’s overall $212 billion budget – for undocumented workers who were excluded from federal stimulus checks or state unemployment benefits. While the fund could provide one-time cash relief for the city’s estimated 342,100 undocumented essential workers, advocates have expressed concerns over some of the requirements to access the relief fund. 

Advocates have long rallied for politicians to address immigrant-specific challenges. Comprehensive reports exist that offer broad visions of policy platforms to help New York City’s immigrants achieve greater equity in a variety of sectors including housing, healthcare, the economy and civic engagement. For example, “Dignity, Community & Power: A 2021 Vision for NYC’s Immigrant Communities” prepared by Make the Road New York, a progressive pro-immigration advocacy group, and the Cardozo School of Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic, calls for policies such as legalizing accessory dwelling units and expanding access to grants and subsidies for homeowners across the city, investing in the NYC Care program to increase public healthcare access to noncitizens and creating a cash relief program for immigrants who are excluded from government unemployment benefits based on their status or history of incarceration. Other advocacy groups for immigrants, such as the New York Immigration Coalition, have also sought support from lawmakers for campaigns in similar areas like healthcare, benefits access, and legal representation services. 

According to Hasan Shafiqullah, attorney-in-charge at Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit, which serves clients for removal defense and processing affirmative immigration benefits such as citizenship and green card applications, the city can play a big role in helping immigrant New Yorkers feel secure. “If I’m undocumented, I might not be able to differentiate between what I’m hearing from Washington and what the city is offering,” said Shafiqullah whose clients have pulled their children from public school or stopped medical treatment because of fears that it could impact their immigration status because of the federal public charge rule instituted by former President Donald Trump. Even though the policy was repealed by the Biden administration, Shafiqullah said Trump’s anti-immigration efforts have had a chilling effect on immigrant communities.

“I think the city has a lot to do to make people trust them and feel safe here again,” he added.

Some of New York City’s mayoral candidates have enthusiastically thrown their support behind a new bill in the City Council that would expand voting rights for municipal elections to immigrants with temporary working permits and permanent residents. But on the campaign trail, candidates have rarely touched on noncitizen issues beyond immigration affairs.

A review of proposals from eight frontrunners for the Democratic mayoral nomination shows that most candidates have not adopted the slate of proposals in the Make The Road/Cardozo Law report. But some candidates have touched on a few of the areas mentioned or offered other ideas of their own.

Documented and City & State received policy proposals from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio Maya Wiley, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary to President Obama Shaun Donovan, finance executive Ray McGuire, and former City Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. We also looked at their online platforms, some of which added policies related to immigrant issues following media requests. We did not receive a policy proposal from candidate Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive, but we reviewed the policies on her website. 

Here are the candidates’ proposals in five primary areas commonly prioritized by immigration advocacy groups:

Eric Adams

What he has proposed

Healthcare: Creates one-stop shop health centers in underserved communities and pairs safety-net hospitals with wealthier ones to share cost burdens. He also proposed to boost funding for NYC Cares for more outreach to immigrant communities, to enroll them in the city’s health plans for which immigrants are already eligible.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Commits to directing all city agencies to make their services accessible without putting immigrants at risk of law enforcement action and expanding already existing legal services. He supports a bill to let permanent residents and immigrants authorized to work in the U.S. to vote in municipal elections. 

What he hasn’t

Benefits access: Does not mention any supportive measures to allow immigrants to access or become eligible for public benefits that are available to other New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status.

Economy/workers rights: While Adams’ proposal includes a next-level jobs training program for workers, it does not mention expanding accessibility to these programs for undocumented workers who largely remain excluded from eligibility due to their immigration status. Instead, Adams is focused on cost-relief measures for employers through tax breaks and cost sharing support from the state which may help business sectors where immigrants are employed.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Does not propose specific civil rights protections or prohibitions against city law enforcement collaboration with ICE.

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention services to help immigrants gain residency or citizenship.

Scott Stringer

What he has proposed

Healthcare: Stringer supports children’s access to subsidized care regardless of immigration status and funding for safety-net hospitals

Civil rights and law enforcement: Create a Community Legal Interpreter Bank (CLIB) to train and dispatch interpreters to legal services organizations and supports the elimination of all cooperation between the NYPD and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Supports expanding municipal voting rights to all noncitizen residents including undocument New Yorkers. 

Barriers to citizenship: Proposes the launch of a New York City Citizenship Fund to support immigrants applying for citizenship.

Economy/workers rights: Stringer supports efforts to combat wage theft experienced by immigrant workers.

What he hasn’t

Healthcare: He does not propose investments for community-based organizations to conduct outreach on existing healthcare services available to immigrant communities.

Benefits access: Does not mention any measures to allow immigrants to access or become eligible for public benefits that are available to other New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status.

Economy/workers rights: While Stringer wants to consolidate the city’s jobs training program, he does not mention expanding accessibility to undocumented residents who are excluded from accessing such programs.

Maya Wiley

What she has proposed

Healthcare: Supports efforts to create a universal single-payer system in the state that would be accessible to all noncitizens regardless of immigration status. 

Civil rights and law enforcement: Supports funding for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the city’s public defender system for immigrants facing deportation, and commits to providing oversight for accountability on over-policing. She has expressed support for the City Council bill to expand municipal voting rights to noncitizen green card holders.

Benefits access: Wants to invest in a portable benefits program for domestic workers, many of whom are immigrants, and the creation of a Universal Community Care system providing services like benefits counseling, food pantries and adult education classes.

What she hasn’t

Economy/workers rights: Does not include measures specifically to support or increase access to resources for immigrant workers or entrepreneurs.

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention measures specifically to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

Andrew Yang

What he has proposed

Healthcare: Expands NYC Care, a main lifeline for many immigrants, by making its coverage accepted by various health insurance providers.

Benefits access: Creates a city cash relief program that would be accessible to noncitizens regardless of immigration status or experience with the criminal justice system. 

Civil rights and law enforcement: Supports expanding access to and funding for immigration legal services like the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.

What he hasn’t

Economy/workers rights: Does not include measures specifically to support or increase access to resources for immigrant workers or entrepreneurs.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Yang does not mention any prohibitions against or limiting city law enforcement cooperations with immigration enforcement agents. Hasn’t come out in favor of letting noncitizens vote in local elections.

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention any measures to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

Shaun Donovan

What he has proposed

Healthcare: Would create a public option to provide health care to uninsured, undocumented New Yorkers and expands access to city services for immigrant communities. Donovan also wants to push the state to expand eligibility for its Essential Plan, New York’s public healthcare plan for people who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Child Health Plus, to all low-income New Yorkers regardless of immigration status.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Proposes ending the city’s policy of excluding certain immigrants from city-funded legal representation based on history of criminal records, and supports expanding resources and funding for legal services for immigrants. Supports bill to let noncitizens vote in municipal elections, including undocumented residents. 

What he hasn’t

Benefits access: Does not mention any supportive measures to allow immigrants to access or become eligible for public benefits that are available to other New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status.

Economy/workers rights: Donovan wants to provide technical support for immigrant entrepreneurs but does not include measures to support protection for immigrant workers who are vulnerable to workplace abuses. 

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention any measures to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

Ray McGuire

What he has proposed

Healthcare: McGuire wants to prioritize immigrant communities in vaccine deployment and hire community members for outreach on available healthcare services. Also proposes to provide more job opportunities in healthcare for immigrants to resolve discrimination against immigrant patients. 

Civil rights and law enforcement: Supports expanding the right to counsel and increase funding for immigration legal services in the city. 

What he hasn’t

Economy/workers rights: McGuire’s proposal is focused on providing relief for small business owners, including noncitizens, like allowing free license renewals for the first year of his tenure and covering 50 percent of workers’ salary for one year, which may have a ripple effect for immigrant workers. But he does not include measures specifically to support or increase access to resources for immigrant workers.

Benefits access: Does not mention any measures to expand access to existing public programs in which some noncitizens are excluded from based on immigration status. 

Civil rights and law enforcement: Hasn’t come out in favor of letting noncitizens vote in local elections.

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention of measures to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

Kathryn Garcia

What she has proposed

Healthcare: Expand services at community health centers and wants to partner with community-based organizations to reach and educate immigrant residents about healthcare services that they are eligible for.

Benefits access: Allow equal access to city programs like government cash assistance to noncitizens regardless of immigration status.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Wants to invest in programs for legal services like the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund which pays immigration bonds for those detained who cannot afford it and supports enforcement of the already existing Protect Our Courts Act, which restricts immigration enforcement agents from conducting arrests at the local courthouses.

What she hasn’t

Economy/workers rights: Does not include measures specifically to support or increase access to resources for immigrant workers or entrepreneurs.

Civil rights and law enforcement: She does not support the City Council bill to expand municipal voting rights to non citizen immigrants.Hasn’t come out in favor of letting noncitizens vote in local elections.

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention of measures to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

Dianne Morales

What she has proposed

Healthcare: Expand interpreter services to connect noncitizens to COVID-19 vaccine information through the NYC 5000 initiative and addresses vaccine disparities in immigrant communities through a COVID-19 Equity and Data Response Unit.

Benefits access: Establish an independent city fund to ensure basic income relief for immigrant workers who are unable to access federal and state-level relief.

Civil rights and law enforcement: Expand funding for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project to include non-detained immigrants and ease the detainer law which currently requires the city’s police to turn over a detained noncitizen to ICE if they are convicted of one of 177 serious crimes within the last five years or if a judge has signed a detainer request. Morales also proposes to stop NYPD practices that target immigrants particularly undocumented workers like street vendors. Supports a bill to let noncitizens vote in municipal elections. 

Economy/workers rights: Create a Pool Benefits Fund for informal and domestic workers, many who are immigrants, to provide healthcare and other benefits, and commits to protecting all workers against wage theft, which may benefit noncitizen workers who are vulnerable to such workplace abuse.

What she is missing

Barriers to citizenship: Does not mention specific measures to support immigrants’ pathway to citizenship.

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Natasha Ishak
is a journalist covering politics, social issues, and culture in New York City. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Nation, Bklyner, and Boston Globe Magazine, among others.
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