New York State

Immigrants’ breakthrough year in Albany

State lawmakers passed a backlog of high-profile bills this year.

Sen. Luis R. Sepulveda (center) celebrates after the Green Light Bill granting was passed by the state Senate.

Sen. Luis R. Sepulveda (center) celebrates after the Green Light Bill granting was passed by the state Senate. Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

Immigration was an issue hard to escape at the beginning of 2019. The federal government was in the middle of a monthlong shutdown over funding for a proposed border wall, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo put the issue front and center as he began his third term in office on Jan. 1. “Let New York say that the federal government may shut itself down but it will never extinguish the Statue of Liberty’s torch,” he said at his inauguration ceremony on Ellis Island.

However, despite the state’s reputation as a destination for immigrants from across the world, other states offered more opportunities in some critical ways. An undocumented person could legally drive a car in Utah. A migrant farmworker was eligible for overtime pay in Minnesota. State financial aid for higher education was available to immigrant students in Oregon. None of these things were true in New York – but that was about to change.

“New York has always seen itself as a leader when it comes to immigrants, but the reality is that we have fallen behind other states when it comes to immigrant rights,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “New York state was really trying to lead from the back, so to speak.”

That would change in the subsequent months as Democrats pushed state immigration policy in a more progressive direction. With sizeable majorities in both houses of the Legislature, Democrats quickly passed the DREAM Act and a backlog of other legislation that had been blocked by Republicans when they controlled the state Senate. Other efforts aimed to limit the ways that the state exposed immigrants to federal immigration authorities. Democrats did not deliver on every immigration-related issue by the end of the legislative session, but they passed several bills this year that were far from a done deal despite one-party rule in Albany – including a proposal to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and another expanding the labor rights of farmworkers. These legislative successes, however, could come at a political cost as New York Republicans seek to stoke voter resentment to illegal immigration as part of their strategy to win back the state Senate and House of Representatives, both of which the party lost in 2018. 

The state DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to access state college aid programs, was among the earliest bills passed by the new Democratic majority. The governor’s office and lawmakers also approved a measure to cap sentences for some minor offenses at 364 days – thereby allowing those offenders to avoid deportation proceedings triggered by a one-year sentence. “(Cuomo’s) office reached out and was interested in integrating the language of that bill into the budget proposal,” Assemblyman Marcos Crespo said. “That was incredibly important because it was an issue, a bill, that would have been difficult for some members to vote on.” This year’s state budget also included $10 million in new funding for the Liberty Defense Project, a state program that provides legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation.

All of those issues were among the low-hanging fruit for newly empowered Democrats. The second half of the legislative session would test party unity as a proposal advanced to make New York the 13th state to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The issue had been a priority for the left wing of the Democratic Party ever since 2009, when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer failed to reverse a 2001 executive order issued by Gov. George Pataki that ended the decadeslong practice of effectively allowing undocumented people to get driver’s licenses. Critics of the bill said that passing the so-called Green Light bill would reward people for breaking federal immigration law, while supporters touted potential benefits to public safety that would come from allowing undocumented people to buy insurance and drive cars without fearing that a traffic stop could lead to deportation. Cuomo had signaled as early as March that he would sign the bill if it passed, but there were signs behind the scenes that he feared the political fallout. Swing district senators on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley opposed the legislation and Cuomo was believed to be quietly working to keep the bill from moving forward. 

A June 10 Siena College poll found that a majority of New Yorkers opposed the bill, but that did not stop legislative leaders, who believed that the more that people knew about the legislation, the more popular it would be. The day after the Assembly passed the bill, another poll commissioned by activists showed a majority of New Yorkers supported the bill. By the afternoon of June 17, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins knew she had enough votes to pass the bill after urging a slow but steady approach to building support. “Back in January, she said to me: ‘There’s a lot of resistance on Long Island, there’s a lot of resistance upstate,’” recalled state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, who sponsored the bill. “‘What you guys have to do is you have to educate people about the benefits of the bill.’ And so I went on a speaking tour. The advocates were doing mailers. We did exactly what she said.” After initially requesting a review by state Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, Cuomo signed the bill the same night it passed.

Democrats also took a gradual approach in expanding labor rights for farmworkers. Some Democratic lawmakers were nervous about the costs associated with making farmworkers eligible for collective bargaining and overtime pay, and Republicans were privately relishing the possibility of capitalizing on any backlash to the bill. A series of hearings held across the state aimed to tame fears that the proposal would make farming economically unfeasible, and changes to the legislation – like making farmworkers eligible for overtime after 60 hours rather than 40 – helped Democratic lawmakers build support for the bill, which passed the Legislature on June 19, the final scheduled day of the session. Lawmakers also passed a bill providing a minimum wage to downstate car wash employees earlier that month.

Long before the legislative session ended, Republicans began showing how they would use the Democrats’ immigration agenda against them. Senate Republicans claimed in January that Democrats were “betraying” voters by passing the DREAM Act. In the subsequent months, immigration found a place among the GOP’s talking points. Yet by the time the legislative session ended in mid-June, some among the GOP rank-and-file were signaling their comfort with using the issue to appeal to the alt-right. In recent interviews with Breitbart, two Republican lawmakers, Assemblyman Colin Schmitt and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, pushed a theory that Democrats were engaged in a conspiracy to let undocumented people vote. “I don’t think it’s unheard of that this has been something that continues to be advocated for by members of the Democratic Party, including a bill that was voted on by the state Senate,” Schmitt told City & State afterward. Malliotakis, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Max Rose for his Staten Island-based House seat, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Democratic lawmakers say they are under no illusions of how immigration could be used against them at a time when President Donald Trump continues to stoke anti-immigrant anger to rally his political base – including the notion that state Democrats are adopting pro-immigrant positions at the expense of native-born Americans. “This is a Republican talking point that is rooted in anti-immigrant conspiracy theories,” Democratic state Sen. Brad Hoylman said. “This is the Albany equivalent of the birther movement, if you ask me.”

But with the legislative session now over, immigrant rights activists are applauding Democrats for passing most of the immigration-related legislation they sought this year – even if some goals, like limiting the presence of federal immigration officials around state courthouses, fell short. As Natalia Aristizabal, co-director of organizing at Make the Road New York, put it: “It is the most progressive legislative session we have seen.”