Latinos Give Paterson a Report Card: Good, But Not Good Enough

Governor Paterson in Harlem

Governor Paterson in Harlem. (Photo: Camera, Lights/flickr)

NEW YORK—If Governor David Paterson was applying for a job and the Latino community was hiring, his resume would be considered adequate, but not impressive, with one particularly weak point: Secure Communities.

“I think he had a very good sensitivity in relation to immigrants in general, but I think he was not well advised on the Secure Communities issue,” said U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez.

Several Hispanic leaders interviewed for this story agreed that Gov. Paterson did a good job addressing Latino issues during his almost two-year term, which began on March 17, 2008 after Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned.  Paterson leaves office at the end of the month to make way for the incoming administration of Andrew Cuomo.

The Hispanic and African American community, which had been disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws, cheered when, a month into office, on April 24, 2009, Paterson signed a bill that reformed the laws enacted in 1973 under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.  The bill approved by Paterson eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession required by the Rockefeller Laws and gave judges the power to send minor felons to treatment instead of jail.  Spitzer had promised to reform the laws, but had dragged his feet once in office.

Subsequently, Paterson came into his own as governor, making key decisions that affected immigrant communities. On May 3, 2010, he announced the creation of a pardon panel that would review cases of legal immigrants who were at risk of deportation for old, minor convictions. On December 6th, he announced pardons for six immigrants. One of them, Mario Benitez, is a 58 year-old Dominican immigrant who pleaded guilty to selling drugs in 1988 and served three years in prison. Currently he is the assistant director of finance for CUNY’s Graduate School and University Center. Latino leaders are hopeful that the governor will pardon other Hispanics later this month.

On June 16, 2010, going against the will of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Paterson ended the stop-and-frisk data debate. He signed a bill establishing that police could no longer save the names and addresses of people they stopped and frisked in the street, if they were not arrested. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, out of the 575,304 New Yorkers who were stopped by the police in 2009, 54% of were Latinos.

Then, on August 31, 2010, Paterson signed the first bill in the country that protects the rights of domestic workers. It ensures that nannies are paid at least minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) and overtime, don’t work more than a 6-day week, and aims to prevent discrimination and sexual harassment. The bill provides domestic workers with three paid vacation days a year, and it is projected to improve the lives of nearly 200,000 women, most of them immigrants, the majority Hispanics.

Finally, on December 13, 2010, the Wage Theft Protection Act was signed by Gov. Paterson.  The law will protect thousands of immigrants, many of them Latinos, who are abused by employers. Immigrant advocates who pushed this bill reported that workers often accepted poor conditions because of their immigration status, out of fear or necessity. Irregardless of immigration status, many workers were being paid below the minimum wage, weren’t getting overtime and were being discriminated against. This law will quadruple the punishment for wage theft and will protect workers who make accusations against their employers.

All of these policies, Latino leaders affirm, immensely helped the Hispanic community. But, they say, it was not enough.

It was also under Gov. Paterson that state signed the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), bringing New York State into Secure Communities, a fingerprint sharing program designed to track down undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes. Immigrant advocates say Secure Communities has been used, instead, to arrest and deport immigrants accused of minor crimes or who have not been accused of any crime.  Advocates, including members of the New York City Council and the state legislature have been asking the Governor to rescind the MOA and remove New York from the program since October.

Paterson has demonstrated very strong support to the immigrant community, according to Angela Fernandez, Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, but his decision about Secure Communities was “disappointing.”

Ana Maria Archila, co-director of Make the Road New York also thinks Paterson was badly advised and that it was a mistake for him to sign the MOA.

“Governor Paterson was an incredibly forward-looking governor for low wage workers, men and women, who do the most invisible jobs, and many of them are Latinos. He did important things for the immigration debate. But so far he has failed to use his power to push back against the increased penetration of immigration enforcement in the State, and he still can do that,” Archila said.

Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents El Barrio and who has led the fight against the presence of ICE at the Rikers Island Jail, considers the fact that Paterson has not yet removed New York from the Secure Communities program a major blot on his record.

“I think that there are certain decisions he made that benefit us [Latinos], but Secure Communities is really important and I don’t think he has helped us in the way that he could,” Mark-Viverito said.

In October, Paterson asked advocacy groups to prove to him that Secure Communities affected low-level offenders, in which case he would reconsider the program. Fernandez said they gathered the information and gave it to the governor, but even so, he didn’t take action. On December 9th, advocates staged a rally outside his offices in Manhattan, asking him again to rescind the Secure Communities MOA with the federal government.

Asked about this issue, Jessica Bassett, acting director of communications for Gov. Paterson, provided this statement:

“On Secure Communities—it is Governor Paterson’s responsibility to balance his administration’s policies on immigration with border security and the very real threat of terrorism. Given the historic destination of New York State as a target for extremists, the Secure Communities Program can be a valuable tool to help protect all New Yorkers. However, the Governor is advised that this program could unfairly target certain communities, and this is cause for great concern. The Paterson Administration is in ongoing discussions with ICE about amending the Secured Communities MOA significantly.”

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents northern Manhattan, thinks immigrant-rights advocates have already made their point.

“He has the ability to understand that yes, most of the people affected by this program are not worth being deported. And we hope that in the next days he will review how Secure Communities affects people who have committed low-level offenses. If he could leave that legacy, taking New York out of Secure Communities, that would be an important political legacy,” Rodriguez said in Spanish.

Yet even aside from Secure Communities, Angelo Falcón, political scientist and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NILP), thinks Paterson “didn’t really focus on Latino issues.”

Falcón says Latinos are by far the most underrepresented group in state government jobs, with only a 4% representation in a state where Latinos are 16% of the population, according to the 2005-2009 American Community Survey. He acknowledges there are some Hispanics in governmental positions, but most of them predate Paterson, he said.

“Until somebody really deals with that issue, I don’t think we can say that they’ve been responsive to the Latino community, because that’s so extreme, that exclusion, that I’m surprised that no one has put a lawsuit to the state,” said Falcón.

Hispanic leaders in New York recently presented incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo with a “Latino Agenda,” which lays out a 12-step plan for incorporating more Latinos into government.

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, from Hunter College’s Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, agrees with Falcón and added that when Paterson was a state senator representing District 29, which has a large Hispanic and African American population, his focus on the Latino community was “acceptable.” “Not outstanding, not extraordinary, only acceptable,” Vargas-Ramos said.

“I think everybody will say that is a very mixed picture for the governor,” Falcón continued. “He did some good things, he was in a bad situation. It’s like with Obama, in terms of the circumstances of the budget. But again, as the first African American governor, generally, he could have done much, much more for the Latino community.”

The next two weeks will seal Gov. Paterson’s legacy with Latinos. There could be another list of pardons, there could be amendments to the Secure Communities program, or there could be nothing more. Hispanics will be watching.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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