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States vs. Cities: Immigration Enforcement Policy in 2011

Three years into the Obama administration and no comprehensive immigration reform in sight, immigration enforcement policy seems to be going two directions, characterized by smart policymaking at the city level and ill-advised restrictive policies in the states.

This month, legislators in New York and Washington D.C. made it clear that cities don’t have to get in the business of federal immigration enforcement. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg signed an important measure limiting the city’s role in federal immigration enforcement. The new law keeps the Department of Corrections from turning over immigrants with no criminal convictions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon their release from local jail, but makes key exceptions for known gang members or those on the terror watch list. Under this legislation, the first of its kind signed into law, local officials will no longer place immigration holds on New Yorkers without criminal histories.

In Washington, all thirteen members of the D.C. Council co-sponsored a bill which prevents the Department of Corrections from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without current or previous convictions for violent crimes. The measure further stipulates that local jails will release immigrants after 24 hours if ICE officials fail to pick them up—typically, ICE has 48 hours to retrieve immigrants from local custody. Immigrant communities in Washington and New York should feel safer knowing that local law enforcement officers will no longer be doing double duty as ICE agents; so too, should non-immigrants—fewer resources spent on non-criminals necessarily means more resources allocated toward catching criminals and identifying threats to public safety.

Cities shouldn’t participate in enforcing our outdated civil immigration laws, which are enacted and funded at the federal level. Local governments are tasked with upholding public safety and ensuring communities’ trust in city police—there is evidence that civil immigration enforcement undermines both goals. Further, there is little connection between public safety and deporting undocumented immigrants without criminal pasts. And by narrowing the population eligible for jail time, New York and Washington will save millions in jailing and other correctional costs each year.

Across the country, other localities have been taking steps to restrain costly immigration enforcement programs. In Chicago, Illinois, Arlington, Virginia and elsewhere, elected officials have passed resolutions or laws attempting to opt-out of ICE’s controversial Secure Communities program. The fingerprint sharing “partnership” engages local resources in enforcing immigration laws, so that individuals booked for local crimes have their prints automatically forwarded to federal immigration authorities. In practice, this has resulted in thousands of immigrants deported for civil immigration violations, even though they were originally charged with or convicted of for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In addition, a groundbreaking study found that the program sweeps up Latinos in disproportionate numbers, and negatively affects due process for all immigrants apprehended. Despite these concerns, the Obama administration has essentially forbidden localities from exiting the program, and plans to expand Secure Communities nationwide by 2013.

While many cities are crafting smarter policies to mitigate the impact of immigration enforcement, some states are going the other direction, cooking up costly and expansive policies. In 2011, states including South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama have attempted to tighten the screws on immigrants, passing increasingly restrictive and potentially unconstitutional omnibus laws designed to identify, deport and simply drive out undocumented families.

Alabama’s law is the most radical, broadly requiring individuals to show “proof of immigration status for ‘any transaction between a person and the state or a political subdivision of the state.’” The implications of this provision are staggering—citizens could be required to produce papers when signing up for electricity service or garbage pick-up. It also includes language requiring public schools to determine student’s immigration status and barring landlords from knowingly renting to undocumented immigrants. According to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, the new measure “is virtually impossible to enforce.” Indeed, the law goes further than other states’ measures, even Arizona’s infamous SB1070. Beyond the obvious injustice of attempting to drive workers and consumers without papers out of the state, Alabama’s law fails as a sound piece of public policy thanks to its far-reaching unintended consequences.

The legislation allows residents to show driver’s licenses as proof of immigration status; but those with out-of-state licenses or military IDs could be forced to produce other documents when picking up car tags or signing up for membership at the local pool. It’s well known that certain populations, including African-Americans and the elderly, are less likely than the general population to have citizenship documents. Further, in the aftermath of the law, there were reports that immigrant families fled the state. The Center for American Progress found that the resulting labor shortages led to serious negative economic consequences: one farmer lost an estimated $300,000. These and other reported impacts are reportedly forcing Alabama lawmakers to consider “tweaking” the law.

Fortunately, the federal government successfully filed a complaint to halt elements of Alabama’s immigration law, and ultimately the state’s district court prevented key provisions from going into effect. But the fight is far from over: court challenges were filed this year in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina to turn back similarly restrictive measures.

Politicians will continue to adopt immigration hawk stances and propose backward-thinking laws against the interests of the general populace, while smart policymakers know that it’s best to leave immigration enforcement to the feds. “Cracking down” on immigration won’t decrease unemployment, improve public schools or create safer neighborhoods; it’s time elected officials put aside silver-bullet immigration laws promising otherwise.

Posted at 2:11 PM, Nov 23, 2011 in Cities | Criminal Justice | Immigration | New York | States | Urban Affairs
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John Petro

The 99 Percent

I was among the thousands of people cramming into Foley Square Wednesday evening, observing those who had come down to show their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. I arrived at 4:30, and for the next hour roamed around the park. It had the energy of a festival, a celebration. The air was permeated by the sound of drums. Placards waved about in the air, many of them hastily written with marker on brown corrugated cardboard. And though the rally was organized by labor unions, those with union t-shirts were vastly outnumbered by those with no obvious union affiliation.
I could find no central focal point. If amplified speeches were going on, I could not hear them. Nearer to the drummers people were dancing. Standing on top of the fountain, I found it impossible to get a true sense of the size of the crowd. It was difficult to get it all within view.

This was symbolic, perhaps. The most frequent criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that there is no central organized message. However, looking out over the amorphous crowd that evening, it was very simple to identify what the movement was all about. That is, thousands were gathering here to speak out about economic injustice—injustices dealt to them, their families, and to the entire nation. There was a palpable sense that our democracy is in danger, that the voices of the many are being drowned out by the few: those with vast fortunes and a certain political agenda.

“We are the 99 percent,” the protesters chanted. In contrast, those that make the decisions that affect our lives are the other one percent. They’re the ones telling us that we’re better off if we allow corporations to pollute our air, to ship our jobs overseas, to cut corporate taxes and those on the wealthy. They tell us that we’re better off if we cut health benefits for workers, if we get rid of pensions, if we do away with the social safety net. We’re better off without high-speed rail or universal health care. These things are unattainable, we’re told, because government is out of money. If we raise taxes on the wealthiest to help pay for these things then the whole economy will fail, we’re told.

The crowd at Foley Square wasn’t falling for it.

Student loan debt was a common cause. After all, we were all told that we must go to college to get a good job. For some this is no problem; their parents can simply write a check. For others, loans are the only practical solution. Now many are out of college and are tens of thousands of dollars in debt. There are few jobs to be had and those who haven’t found one are wondering just how they’re supposed to pay all this debt off.

“The banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” the crowd chanted.

These are big, institutional problems that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. The seductive power of the Tea Party is that it offers simple, easy answers. Cut government and cut taxes. Get government out of your life and maybe someday you will be rich. The real answers aren’t going to be that easy.

Earlier that morning a Republican presidential candidate told the protesters that they ought not to blame Wall Street for the fact that they’re not rich. But no one at Foley Square said anything about wanting to become rich. For the former CEO of a fast-food pizza chain this may be a difficult idea to understand. It’s also difficult for New York City’s billionaire mayor to understand. He called the protesters “ridiculous.” This is the same mayor who expresses no concern over the growing gap between the rich and poor in his city.

The crowd at Foley Square wasn’t concerned about amassing riches. They wanted economic security and a say in their political process. They wanted to end the injustice that they see all about them, to eliminate want in the face of greed.

An hour later, looking south on Centre Street, the setting sun reflected off of the silver façade of a new luxury apartment building. A two-bedroom apartment in this building rents for $72,000 a year, a sum greater than many of the attendees’ salaries. And then the crowd began to move forward for the march down to Zuccotti Park. I walked with the chanting crowd in silence. When the march met with those encamped at Zuccotti Park there were cheers. There was dancing. Later a small group tried to storm some barricades. A white shirt officer swung his nightstick at the group. Thousands of cameras captured the moment.

Posted at 3:34 PM, Oct 07, 2011 in
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More Than Spare Change: How NYC Scams City Street Vendors

New York is home to an estimated 10,000 street vendors, the vast majority of whom are immigrants from destinations like Bangladesh, Senegal and China. Life on the job for these workers is inherently tough; most vendors work grueling hours, rain or shine, and earn incredibly low wages that they use to support families at home and abroad. But the web of rules regulating the industry makes it even more difficult for street vendors to get ahead.

Mayor Bloomberg has always been outspoken about the value immigrant entrepreneurs bring to New York, and recently announced a promising new project to assist potential business owners. Yet in many ways, our current city laws seem designed to drive this group of immigrant entrepreneurs out of business.

Often called “the smallest of small business owners,” street vendors receive an average of 50,000 tickets per year for a variety of violations, including parking more than 18 inches from the curb or less than 20 feet from a storefront. Violations of these and other rules result in staggering fines that represent a significant economic hardship to workers who make around $14,000 each year.

In 2006, the city increased the maximum fine for violations, making it so that a vendor cited for a few offenses could be fined as much as $1,000. Most vending violations fall under a graduated penalty system that increases fines for each violation within a two-year period. This means a first violation brings a fine of between $25 and $50, the second between $50 to $100 and so on. In addition, the graduated system applies to vendors even if they are cited for separate offenses. Take, for example, the case of a vendor cited for placing his table 20 inches from the curb one day, and for wearing a jacket that covers his license two months later. Under the current penalty scheme, the second violation would be treated as a repeat offense and he would be subject to a higher fine, even though it is completely unrelated.

Street vendors, who make their living selling low-cost goods, simply cannot afford to pay these fees, nor can they absorb them as a cost of business. Many are forced to lose their licenses, and instead choose to operate unlicensed and unregulated by the city.

Further, evidence shows that New York barely profits from this regulatory scheme. A recent study by the Independent Budget Office found that in fiscal year 2009, the city spent about $7.4 million on street regulation and enforcement of vending laws, while revenues from fees and fines added up to just $1.4 million. Of $15.8 million in fines levied during that period, the city only collected $900,000.

Cost issues aside, the sheer complexity of the vending regulation system also proves to be a barrier for vendors trying to stay on the right side of the law. According to the Street Vendor Project, most sellers don’t understand the maze of vending laws, and sometimes, neither do the police charged with enforcing them. The city’s rulebook does not clearly explain the rules, and it isn’t translated into some of the major languages vendors speak. Vendors also have trouble presenting their cases in front of the Environmental Control Board, an administrative court that provides neither interpreters nor court-appointed lawyers.

Two bills have been introduced in the New York City Council that would seriously improve economic conditions for street vendors throughout the city. The first bill, co-sponsored by 29 Council members, would lower the maximum vending fine to $250, such as it was before 2006. Co-sponsored by 31, the second bill amends the administrative code to ensure that vendors are subject to escalating fines only when they repeatedly commit the same offense. Reducing the fines would enable more vendors to pay off their debts to the city and hold on to their licenses.

It’s encouraging that these common-sense fixes to the system are gaining traction at City Hall. The City Council should waste no time in amending the vending regulations that impede so many street vendors trying to make an honest living. In addition, city agencies ought to invest more resources in educating street vendors about the rules they are expected to uphold. If the Mayor is serious about supporting the immigrant entrepreneurship, he should get behind the City Council’s efforts to lower the fines that too often cost street vendors their licenses and their livelihoods.

Posted at 10:51 AM, May 26, 2011 in Economy | Immigration | Labor | New York | Urban Affairs
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DMI Scholars Alumni: Where Are They Now?

This summer, the Drum Major Institute will begin its leadership pipeline program for the fifth class of DMI Scholars.

The DMI Scholars program helps bring talented young people from underrepresented communities into the field of public policy, allowing them to realize their dreams and serve as voices for their communities.

Among DMI Scholar alumni:

* 85% of DMI Scholars are students of color
* 59% are women
* 22% identify as LGBTQ
* 57% are first and second generation immigrants
* 50% come from low-income and working class families
* 28% are the first in their families to attend college

Here are a few updates on past DMI Scholars:

Joseph Thomas continues to serve as a Legislative Assistant on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and will begin law school this fall.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza is currently writing in Hong Kong for the Asian Human Rights Commission and will begin law school at Yale University this fall.

Zach Duffy was a national finalist for the Truman Scholarship this year and will be interning at Campus Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress this summer.

Tamara Joachim recently joined the Brennan Center for Justice as a Research Associate.

Daniel Wu will begin a joint Ph.D. in Social Policy and Sociology at Harvard University in the fall.

Dana El Kurd will be researching neo-liberal economic policies in the Arab world and their effect on democratization this summer as a Research Fellow at the University of Houston.

Rakim Brooks is among the first Ed Baker Fellows at Demos where he will be writing about democratic values in shaping varied social, political and economic issues.

Julia Yang recently left the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund to begin a graduate program in Social Policy at Oxford University.

Joseph Taranto continues to serve as Legislative & Budget Director for New York City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito but will also begin his Master’s in Urban Policy Analysis at New School University this fall.

Gina Chen will be working at World Business Chicago this summer, an economic development public-private partnership in her hometown of Chicago. In the fall she will travel to China to research post-earthquake community development through a Fulbright grant.

Posted at 11:23 AM, May 06, 2011 in Drum Major Institute | Progressive Agenda | Youth
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City Cops To Obama: We Don’t Want To Enforce Broken Immigration System

In a recent White House meeting, President Obama and an eclectic group of administration officials, business and law enforcement leaders, former and current elected officials and other “stakeholders” discussed current prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, one of Obama’s notable and still unfulfilled campaign promises.

According to official records of the gathering, big-city law enforcement leaders relayed their concerns that “without reform, enforcing federal immigration laws is a distraction from their important public safety and crime fighting mandates to keep their local communities safe.” In other words, using city and county resources to enforce outdated federal immigration laws compromises the ability of local police to do their jobs.

In the face of objections from both immigrant advocates and law enforcement experts, state legislatures across the country continue to consider Arizona-style laws that seek to involve local police in verifying immigrants’ citizenship status. And despite its failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama administration supports a host of programs explicitly designed to delegate immigration enforcement duties to local authorities.

287(g), the Criminal Alien Program and Secure Communities, three programs run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), leverage partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities to identify and eventually deport non-citizens. In a new report, The Cost of Failure: The Burden of Immigration Enforcement in America’s Cities, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy argues that these programs impose staggering fiscal, public safety and civic costs on the nation’s cash-strapped cities.

After examining the impact of these partnerships in major cities, we find that local immigration enforcement programs are costly for city budgets and local economies struggling to close budget gaps and preserve core services. As cities spend limited resources jailing and detaining immigrants in service of federal immigration priorities, they receive inadequate support in return. For example, one Government Accountability Office survey indicated that 62 percent of 287(g) enrolled law enforcement agencies received zero funding from the federal government for operating the program.

In addition, the report shows how local immigration enforcement can be counterproductive to protecting public safety. Using police officers to perform immigration duties and enforce civil immigration laws diverts time and resources away from criminal investigations. Local enforcement also compromises police-community relations necessary to policing city streets. When immigrants fear that contact with local police could expose them to federal immigration authorities, they hesitate to come forward to police when they are victims or witnesses of crime.

ICE maintains that immigration enforcement at the federal and local levels focuses on “criminal aliens” and immigrants who pose a threat to our public safety and national security, but evidence from cities around the country indicates otherwise. Too often, local immigration enforcement results in the deportation of immigrants that are never convicted of any crime. Since 2008, the Secure Communities program alone has resulted in the removal of over 52,000 non-criminal immigrants from the country, according to ICE figures.

It’s encouraging that the Obama administration is committed to getting immigration reform back on the Congressional agenda. Though the best way to fix the system is through legislative action, Obama can still take the advice of law enforcement experts and end the costly involvement of local police in enforcing federal immigration laws in such desperate need of repair.

Posted at 10:37 AM, Apr 27, 2011 in Cities | Congress | Immigration
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Amy Traub

Martin Luther King III Speaks Out on NYC Living Wage Campaign

43 years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. The assassination occurred as he was supporting a strike of municipal sanitation workers, standing up for the principle that “every working American should earn enough to live a decent life” in the words of his son Martin Luther King III.

In memory of his father, King III made the following statement in support of New York City’s Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which he sees as part of “a national roadmap for continuing my father’s unfinished work of economic justice.”

Every year, on the anniversary of my father’s death, people pay tribute to his life and legacy—to the ideals and principles he worked so hard to achieve, not simply for the people of his time but ultimately for the many generations that would come after him.

But exactly what he was doing the day he was killed is often forgotten. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for the creation of living wage jobs. In his view, it was both a moral necessity and a civil right that every working American should earn enough to live a decent life and not worry about basic survival. More than forty years later, we continue to fall woefully short of his vision. Far too many working people in our communities and neighborhoods across this great country still earn poverty wages instead of living wages. This is a collective failure, and we must address it together as one nation.

New York City offers a national roadmap for continuing my father’s unfinished work of economic justice. Tonight elected officials, religious leaders, labor leaders, and local community members are gathering in Brooklyn and Bronx churches for mass meetings to build the next phase of the largest citywide living wage movement in the country. In recent months, the Living Wage NYC Coalition has quickly organized and mobilized thousands of residents to push for passage of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. A majority of City Council members back the legislation. Now I urge the rest to embrace it.

People see something very wrong happening: Corporations getting richer from tax subsidies offered in the name of economic development yet making people poorer with low-wage jobs. This extreme income disparity is the result of misguided public policy, and that’s why a movement has come together around getting better policy implemented: the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would ensure that tax dollars create living wage jobs.

We need the living wage movement to succeed and spread to other parts of the country. Countless stories of the working poor today are about people making impossible choices: food or rent, clothing or electricity. When we pause over those stories, and understand their painful significance, we grasp something fundamental about a country as wealthy as ours: no working person should have to settle for surviving over living. It’s that simple.

Read the whole statement here.

Martin Luther King III is a Board Member at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, an organization founded in 1961 by Harry Wachtel, lawyer and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The organization was relaunched by Harry’s son Bill Wachtel and Martin Luther King III in 1999. The Drum Major Institute has championed New York’s living wage campaign as well as the growing nationwide fight for dignity for public employees, which King has also spoken out to support. In addition, King III serves as President and CEO of the King Center.

Posted at 11:59 AM, Apr 04, 2011 in
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NYC Should Take A Second Chance on the Census

New York’s official 2010 Census results came in yesterday far below expectations, stumping politicians and city planners alike. While the Census Bureau estimate puts New York’s population at 8.175 million, city officials expected the number to be closer to 8.4 million.

Mayor Bloomberg told the Daily News: “We don’t quite understand the numbers. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz confessed to reporters: “I have to tell you I’m flabbergasted. I know they made a big, big mistake.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went further, arguing that the Census “has never known how to count urban populations and needs to go back to the drawing board.”

What happened? Preliminary analysis finds that the undercount was located in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, including Corona, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Recent and undocumented immigrants are traditionally among the hardest to count populations; some immigrants hesitate to reveal personal information to the government, while others simply lack knowledge about the importance of the count. In addition, immigrants are more likely than native-born New Yorkers to live in overcrowded or irregular housing conditions that are particularly difficult for census workers to reach. Such challenges prompted an unprecedented outreach campaign from city agencies, businesses and community-based groups designed to boost participation among immigrant New Yorkers.

An accurate census is more than a simple population count, or a matter of civic duty. The census yields tangible economic benefits for the city, which means a significant undercount could have staggering consequences. Excluding over 225,000 residents from the census could cost New York millions in state and federal aid for schools, hospitals and other critical public services linked to population data. Private sector organizations also rely on census information; imprecise data on immigrant may discourage businesses from investing in new markets and creating jobs in growing neighborhoods.

Most importantly, the 2010 Census count serves as the foundation for population estimates that inform government and business decisions for the next decade. We can’t afford to let thousands of New Yorkers go uncounted. In many ways, Census data is at the foundation of continuing economic recovery.

Luckily, NYC has another shot at an accurate census that captures population shifts in immigrant neighborhoods. The city has until June 1st to issue a legal challenge of the figures; if successful, the challenge will result in an officially revised count to be used for future government programs that require official data, as well as population estimates until 2020. Mayor Bloomberg should take this opportunity to get the census right. A full count of recent and undocumented immigrants missed in the 2010 Census is in all New Yorkers’ economic interest.

Posted at 2:56 PM, Mar 25, 2011 in Cities | Economy | Immigration | New York
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John Petro

Why We Can’t Afford to Give NY’s Richest a Tax Break

As protesters demanding the extension of the millionaire’s tax descend on Albany, Governor Cuomo and the state senate Republican leadership have held firm on their desire to cut taxes for the state’s wealthiest. They claim that extending the taxes would force wealthy households to move out of the state or that the tax would kill jobs, but these myths have been widely discredited. Even the Wall Street Journal chimed in, showing that there is no evidence that the wealthy would move to states with lower taxes.

Lawmakers could consider giving the state’s richest residents a tax break if these were normal times and city and state budgets were flush with revenue. But that is clearly not the case today. In fact, these are tax cuts that the state clearly cannot afford.

First, as I pointed out in the New York Daily News, the choices being made by Governor Cuomo could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. With no money for transit investments, job growth in the city’s construction sector is expected to shrink by 18,000 jobs. Plus, 38,000 jobs across New York State depend on the ability of Cuomo and the legislature to fill a $10 billion gap in the budget for mass transit improvements.

Not only will these choices kill jobs, but they put the safety of New Yorkers at risk. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave New York’s infrastructure its worst grade ever. Nearly half of all bridges are structurally deficient. Our drinking water system needs $15 billion in upgrades, wastewater systems need $22 billion. Deferring needed maintenance now will just cost the state more money in the long run.

These choices may also lead to classroom overcrowding. New York City just announced that it will only construct half of the classroom space that it had planned because of budget cuts from Albany. Again, we’re prioritizing tax cuts for the rich over the critical needs of New York State.

Governor Cuomo insists that the state has a spending problem. But in the case of the state’s vital infrastructure, we have an investment problem. Our leaders cannot distinguish between “wasteful spending” and the critical investments that will create jobs, keep New Yorkers safe, and provide children the opportunity to achieve their educational potential.

Posted at 2:35 PM, Mar 23, 2011 in
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Amy Traub

Don’t Blame City Workers for New York’s Budget Woes

“Across the country, taxpayers are providing pensions, benefits and job security protections for public workers that almost no one in the private sector enjoys.” wrote Mayor Bloomberg recently in the New York Times, “Taxpayers simply cannot afford to continue paying these costs, which are growing at rates far outpacing inflation.”

The mayor’s rhetoric was calm and conciliatory, and he spoke out against the radical anti-union measures being implemented in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states. Yet Mayor Bloomberg’s overall message fed into the same set of misconceptions that have fueled outrage in the Midwest: New York is an impoverished city strained to the breaking point by the excessive compensation demanded by our overpaid public employees. We have no choice but to cut public pay and decimate employees’ retirement prospects.

There are a few things wrong with this story. First, New York City’s budget crunch - like the state’s budget problems and the budget shortfalls in cities and states across the nation - is the result of the recession brought on by excessive risk-taking on Wall Street and lax government regulation, not excessive spending or compensation for public workers.

Some cities are desperately poor and (absent the increased federal or state aid they ought to be receiving) have no choice but to dramatically cut services, lay off public workers, and lower compensation to manage the revenue shortfall caused by the recession. But New York is not one of these impoverished places. Instead, the mayor and other city leaders have made a political decision not to tap into the city’s tremendous and growing private wealth in order to help New York in its time of need. This despite the fact that there is no evidence to indicate that wealthy residents flee tax increases. (Also despite the fact that laying off public workers destroys private sector jobs.)

Now an eye-opening new report by City Comptroller John Liu crunches the numbers and casts doubt on the contention that New York City’s public employees are overpaid. Among the key findings:

  • Without adjusting for age, education, or any other demographic factors, the average full-time government worker in NYC earns 17 percent less than the average private, for-profit employee.

  • The wages of City workers on average are lower than their private sector counterparts even though City workers are more highly educated

  • City employee benefits do not offset the adverse pay differential for highly-educated City workers.

The Comptroller’s study is well worth reading in its entirety. It may just have the power to change the debate in New York, and bring a new focus to options like Councilman Brad Lander’s ingenious proposal to bring in $8 billion in new city revenue by offsetting the extension of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Posted at 11:56 AM, Mar 10, 2011 in New York
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John Petro

Cuomo Must Embrace NY’s Greatest Job Creation Engine: Mass Transit

While presenting his budget to Albany lawmakers last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo talked about the importance of creating jobs throughout the state. “We need jobs and we need revenue. Long-term, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs.” It’s a shame, then, that the governor is ignoring one of the state’s most powerful job-creation engines: mass transit.

Cuomo’s job creation strategy comes straight from the pages of the conservative playbook. Cut spending, slash government jobs, and cut taxes in order to become more “business friendly.” This approach overlooks the role of smart, targeted public investments to generate economic growth and jobs.

For an inspiring example, just look at New York City’s $2 billion investment in a subway extension to Manhattan’s far west side. Not only will the project employ thousands of construction workers, but the city’s investment is expected to generate $15 billion in private investment and the country’s fourth largest business district. That is an impressive return indeed.

Given the amazing power of transit investments to create jobs and attract private capital, it’s anyone’s guess why the governor hasn’t begun to address a fast-approaching $10 billion gap in the MTA’s capital budget. The damage that the budget gap, if left unfilled, would inflict on job creation is difficult to overstate. The most recent capital program was estimated to create 38,500 jobs a year for nine years. These jobs are found in communities all across the state, from air conditioning manufacturers in Yorkville, sheet metal in Utica, propulsion systems from Johnson City, door systems in Plattsburgh, radio antennae from Tonowanda, and the list goes on.

But Cuomo, who insists he is focused on job creation, still has not met or spoken with MTA president Jay Walder about the impending funding gap. Cuomo may be busy with budget negotiations, but funding for the capital program is due to run out at the end of the year. At this time there are no credible proposals to fund the transit investments necessary to keep the system from falling apart, never mind a plan to create a transit system that will be competitive in the 21st Century.

With no plan to fill the $10 billion gap, the state’s contractors and construction workers are worried. The New York Building Congress released data showing that 18,000 construction jobs will fail to materialize if the MTA capital program is not fully funded. That would mean ten percent fewer construction jobs in 2012 than what is currently projected.

Instead of calling for job-creating investments, Cuomo is fixated on cutting spending and has an indefensible desire to cut taxes for the state’s high-income earners. This is a costly choice. It would reduce state revenue by approximately $5 billion a year, or half of the gap in the job-creating capital program. In fact, the governor’s budget would divert $100 million from the MTA, which will likely result in the loss of more jobs for transit workers and less money for investment.

There is little money to go around these days, but Cuomo must work hard to find a funding solution. There are some innovative ideas that should be explored, such as the role of private capital in funding new transit projects. In Florida, companies like Siemens were chomping at the bit to get a chance to invest in high speed rail (until Florida’s governor Rick Scott foolishly torpedoed that plan, at least). Cuomo has spoken of creating a state infrastructure bank, but plans for the bank don’t go much further than that. Cuomo has also resisted the idea of congestion pricing, which could create a new revenue stream for transit investments while cutting traffic delay in the city.

But the first step should be preserving what we already have, and that includes the payroll mobility tax. The tax, which passed in 2009 and generates $1.5 billion for transit each year, is under fire by short-sighted lawmakers from suburban districts. They claim that the tax kills jobs, but they’ve failed to consider that the alternative would destroy even more jobs throughout the state.

Meanwhile, New York City’s biggest competitors aren’t resting on their laurels. Los Angeles is in the middle of an aggressive plan to expand mass transit. London is investing billions in new commuter rail capacity, and Chinese cities are building hundreds of miles of new subways. These investments will pay even larger dividends as energy prices continue to grow.

Today, New Yorkers cope with a third-world bus system, crumbling stations, and antiquated track signals. New research shows that new commuting patterns—between boroughs and from the city into the suburbs—have not been followed by new transit lines, cutting workers off from jobs. Decades of disinvestment on the part of Albany lawmakers have got us where we are today.

Governor Cuomo must realize that the state’s transit systems are an asset, not a liability. Investments in transit can lead economic growth and development and create tens of thousands of jobs. But the question remains: will Cuomo deviate from his conservative talking points long enough to make these critical investments?

Posted at 4:48 PM, Mar 04, 2011 in Urban Affairs
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Mayor Emanuel’s Next Move on Immigration Policy

On the campaign trail, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel faced tough criticism from opponents for his inaction on immigration policy issues. Immigration advocates, on the ground and in Congress, claimed that he stood in the way of progress on comprehensive immigration reform during his time as White House chief of staff. It didn’t help that Emanuel’s most-quoted statement on immigration calls it the untouchable “third rail of politics.”

As Chicago’s next mayor, Emanuel will have a crucial opportunity to prove his critics on immigration policy wrong. To build trust and support in immigrant communities, the mayor must deliver on campaign promises, as well as commit to new policies aimed at integrating immigrants, who represent 20 percent of Chicago’s population, into the fabric of the city. Setting an ambitious integration agenda will surely help the Mayor-elect win over critics of his national immigration record, but it will also generate significant social and economic benefits for the city as a whole.

The new mayor can begin by looking to other immigrant-friendly cities, where many of the best immigrant integration policies have already been implemented. New York’s language access policy is a perfect example. Passed in 2008, the policy directs all city agencies to provide language services in the city’s six most commonly-spoken foreign languages. Enacting a similar policy in Chicago would yield city-wide results, at a lower cost. Translation and interpretation services, for example, would enable immigrant parents to participate in local schools and encourage undocumented crime witnesses to speak up to local police.

Second, Emanuel should implement his Chicago “DREAM Act,” which was a leading campaign promise. Under the proposal, the first of its kind in the nation, immigrant students would receive loans for community colleges and four-year universities at low interest rates provided they meet certain residency and age requirements. With affordable higher education, these students can get better jobs and pay more in taxes to support Chicago’s economy. Emanuel has said he intends to fund the plan by raising $5 million from business and civic leaders.

But access to higher education is only one of many challenges immigrant families face. Mayor-elect Emanuel should consider opening a Chicago Office of Immigrant Affairs to partner with city and community leaders in identifying pressing issues for new and established immigrant groups and advancing proven policy solutions to address them. Immigrant affairs offices in New York, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere also promote civic participation and educate immigrants about their rights and responsibilities as city residents. Successful immigrant integration programming involves multiple city agencies and their partners in local communities; centralizing these efforts can help stakeholders avoid duplicating services and wasting limited resources.

Everyone wins when immigrants participate fully in city life, by buying homes, applying for small businesses or simply by accessing the vital services to which they are entitled; the city should play a role in ensuring this process happens quickly.

Political considerations likely influenced Rahm Emanuel’s weak support for immigration policy reforms during his White House tenure. But as he prepares to lead one of the country’s top immigrant destinations, Mayor-elect Emanuel will have to deal with these issues head-on. Advancing proven integration policies to welcome new immigrants and maximize their contributions to city of Chicago is an excellent place to start.

Posted at 4:53 PM, Mar 03, 2011 in Cities | Immigration | Language Access | Politics
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Amy Traub

Paid Sick Leave Advances in Philadelphia

Across the nation, the attack on workers’ rights continues to mount: in Missouri, a state senator proposed rolling back child labor laws and reducing enforcement, while legislation to limit collective bargaining rights for public workers moved forward in Ohio.

But in the midst of the grim news and tough defensive battles, some city policymakers are moving in a more positive direction: asserting that what working people hit hard by the recession need is greater protection and more recognition of basic workplace rights. Philadelphia is one bright spot.

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services voted to approve legislation guaranteeing a small number of paid sick days to every person employed in Philadelphia. An estimated two in five private sector workers in the city currently lack this right. Based on San Francisco’s successful law guaranteeing paid sick leave, the Philadelphia bill would enable low-wage employees to avoid losing wages when illness strikes and they need to care for themselves or their children.

I had the opportunity to contribute testimony at the committee hearing. I spoke after a representative from the city’s Commerce Department, who was taken to task by legislators for failing to provide hard evidence for his claim that paid sick leave would burden businesses and harm Philadelphia’s economic competitiveness. Drawing on a study I conducted last year on paid sick leave in Philadelphia, I offered data on the relative success of San Francisco’s economy in the wake of paid sick leave legislation and noted:

In places where paid sick leave has been implemented, there is a significant divergence between predictions of economic doom beforehand and the actual impact. For example, in San Francisco the restaurant industry trade group initially asserted that the policy would substantially increase small business costs and discourage employment. Yet now that the policy has been in place for a number of years, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association calls the law “successful” and “the best public policy for the least cost,” acknowledging that employees have not abused paid sick leave. A top official at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, another original opponent to paid sick leave, admitted that “it has not been a huge issue that we have heard from our members about… I don’t think it’s quite on the minds of employers.”

Rather than predicting negative outcomes once again, I suggest that looking at the concrete evidence of how this policy has operated in practice is the best way to predict the impact in Philadelphia.

To read the rest of the testimony, click here.

Posted at 2:01 PM, Mar 02, 2011 in Employment | Progressive Agenda
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Amy Traub

Cheesehead Agonistes: Why Wisconsin’s Fight Matters in New York

It was cold out, but the workers crowding the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning were fired up. New Yorkers shouted in support of public workers in Wisconsin battling their governor’s effort to destroy their unions by taking away workers’ rights to bargain and their unions’ ability to support itself through dues. “We Stand with Wisconsin Workers!” read a hand-lettered sign. But the retail employees, clerical workers, UAW members, actors, domestic workers - and yes, city and state employees - who made their way through the long security line to rally outside City Hall were also talking about New York.

At this and other solidarity rallies around the city, they were talking about New York’s shrinking middle class. About the centrality of unions - in both the public and private sectors - in fighting for good jobs capable of supporting a middle class standard of living. And about the attacks on public workers coming from both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg, While neither as vitriolic nor as existential than the assaults in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, New York’s attacks nevertheless draw their strength from and reinforce the same anti-worker trend.

That’s what makes commentaries like Bill Hammond’s recent Daily News column so absurd. Hammond asserts that public workers in New York “should thank their lucky stars that they’re dealing with nice-guy, union-friendly Cuomo rather than the Cheeseheads’ chief executive, Scott Walker.” After all, Cuomo “would never dream of attacking their right to organize or collectively bargain… [and is] going easy on them in the grand scheme of things.”

You read that right: rather than asking our mayor and our Democratic governor to support the vast majority of New Yorkers who work for a living by trying to retain jobs, preserve public services we rely on, and fight for living wages, we should be delighted that their attacks on workers aren’t worse! We should be grateful that they’re only attacking public pensions, rather than asking why they aren’t working to increase retirement security for everyone who works.

That’s precisely the twisted thinking rallies across America are working to challenge. The larger question is, who do our federal, state, and local governments really represent? Who has power in America: working people and their representatives, or the corporations and billionaires pouring money into our political system? The now-famous prank phone call from an activist impersonating right-wing billionaire David Koch to Wisconsin’s Governor Walker tells us a lot about the answer to that question in Wisconsin, but what about New York?

Bill Hammond points out that Governor Cuomo called union members “my brothers and sisters.” Yet actions speak louder than words. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post, unions function as “the linchpin of progressive change in America. Taking them off the political map isn’t about budgets. It’s about removing a check on right-wing and business power in America.” Yet Governor Cuomo has worked actively to build up corporate power in the state through the Committee to Save New York.

And then there are those persistent questions: when New York, crushed like many other states by the deep national recession caused by Wall Street, finds itself short of revenue, do we ask the millionaires who long ago recovered from the recession to chip in a bit more to keep teachers in our classrooms and snow off our streets? Or do we start attacking bus drivers for having decent retirement benefits? The answers to these questions will tell us whose side our elected representatives are really on.

Posted at 5:19 PM, Feb 23, 2011 in Labor | New York
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afton branche

State Immigration Policies Gone Wild

In the absence of federal immigration reform, state governments have taken up immigration policymaking with remarkable zeal. In 2010, every state in session considered immigration laws and resolutions. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that states passed a whopping 346 laws and resolutions addressing immigration issues. And last month alone, Fox News reported that states introduced more than 600 immigration measures.

On the positive end, several laws supported immigrant integration by funding refugee resettlement and naturalization assistance, or offering in-state tuition to undocumented youth. Of course, many other state legislatures have taken up restrictive and in some cases ridiculous immigration policies. Many laws focus on giving local police immigration enforcement powers in addition to their primary duties, while others impose voter ID schemes or enact employer verification requirements. The worst state laws attempt to turn public institutions into satellite ICE offices.

In Arizona, Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would force hospitals to verify whether a patient is in the country legally. Let’s hope that early opposition from doctors, medical professionals and immigrant advocates prevents this foolish policy from passing. But the fact that this is even on the table is frightening. In Virginia, the Democratic-led state senate successfully held off a spate of anti-immigrant laws, including one that would require local school boards to tally children “who could not provide a birth certificate or enrolled in English as a Second Language courses.”

It’s hard to figure out the legislative intent behind these measures. Do Arizona lawmakers really want to scare undocumented immigrants away from seeking treatment for contagious diseases? Do Virginia’s elected officials really want to discourage immigrant children from attending school? I think any legislator interested in a healthy or educated populace would not. But it seems that nothing is off-limits in the immigration debate. As one Virginia Democrat put it, “What’s next — they’re going to require the grocery stores to find out if you’re here legally before you can buy food?”

Too often, immigration hard-liners introduce bills intended to save money by targeting or identifying undocumented immigrants. In practice, however, restrictive policies end up draining public budgets and marginalizing legal immigrants in the process.

A powerful New York Times story highlights the impact of a recent Virginia policy that effectively cut off hundreds of legal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. Under the law, federally-issued work permits were no longer sufficient proof of residence needed to get a license. The policy shift cost one Tunisian man his limousine business. The article goes on to describe the various remedies state officials used to help legal immigrants who were wrongly denied driver’s licenses—all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Supporters of local immigration crackdowns should know that verifying an individual’s immigration status is not as easy as it sounds. Immigration law is an exceedingly complex field, wherein a person’s right to stay in the country comes down to one piece of paper or ruling from a federal judge. Hospital workers or teachers shouldn’t be trained to recognize these documents or otherwise participate in half-baked immigration enforcement schemes. This would waste time and resources better used to assist the general public.

As we wait for Congress to take on immigration reform that addresses undocumented immigration, our elected officials should stop targeting immigrants and their families, and instead focus their energies on crafting laws that truly serve the public interest.

Posted at 1:29 PM, Feb 18, 2011 in Immigration | Politics | States | public services
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John Petro

Speaker Quinn Should Reconsider Stance on Sick Leave Policy

New research adds to the considerable evidence showing paid sick leave legislation would not harm businesses in New York City. Earlier this week, a study of San Francisco employers by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that a majority (two-thirds) of employers there support the law four years after it was implemented. Support was equally strong among small businesses.

This new research sheds new light on what impact a similar bill, delayed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, would have in New York City.

When the vast majority of businesses in San Francisco say that the paid sick days hasn’t hurt their bottom line, it’s time for Speaker Quinn to take back her claim that it would kill small businesses in New York. The evidence is decidedly against her stance.

The study found that most workers don’t even use all of their allotted sick leave. The median number of paid sick days used by San Francisco employees was three. One quarter of all workers did not use a single paid sick day.

This suggests that previous cost estimates, which assumed workers would use all of their available days, are way higher than they would actually be.

Other findings from the survey, which polled 718 businesses and 1,200 workers in San Francisco:

  • Six out of seven businesses did not report any negative effect on their profitability because of paid sick leave.

  • Two-thirds of small businesses (1 to 9 employees) support paid sick leave.

  • Seventy-one percent of small business did not report any negative effect on their profitability (14 percent said “Don’t Know”).

  • Only four percent of small businesses reported that the new law worsened the predictability of employee absences, indicating that absenteeism is not an issue.

Posted at 12:48 PM, Feb 11, 2011 in
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