Gillibrand Vows to Take on Immigration Reform

Gillibrand's evolution: "On the Immigrant Side" read El Diario's cover on October 18, 2010

This article is based on a story by Annie Correal that appeared in the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario/La Prensa on October 18.

Last weekend, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited the offices of El Diario in Brooklyn, where she discussed her stance on immigration in the lead-up to the November 2 elections.

When Gillibrand was named U.S. senator for New York in 2009, to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, some immigrant advocates (and the editorial board of El Diario) decried the appointment, pointing to her historically conservative record on immigration issues.

As a congresswoman, Gillibrand openly opposed granting any amnesty to undocumented immigrants and supported policies allowing local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. She also came out against then-governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to give undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain driver’s licenses.

Lately, however, she has joined Democratic Senator Charles Schumer to push for comprehensive immigration reform, and make amends with El Diario’s readers. Here are some excerpts from an exclusive interview in El Diario.

Annie Correal: What do you think needs to happen in this country when it comes to immigration?

Kirsten Gillibrand: We need comprehensive immigration reform in this country. It’s an urgent crisis. It’s a moral imperative because we need family reunification…This country is based on family values….We need to be fixing the backlog [in applications for documentation] and getting the backlog down to six months, not eight years. I think you have to address the economics of immigration and I think you have to have an honest conversation in this country re: what’s the right size of immigration. Do we need 2 million or 12 million? You have to build the system that’s needed, with the right number of case managers and lawyers, and create the ability to have a flexible and efficient immigration system. […] If you’re going to have a guest worker program, you need one that could work. The last version of the Senate bill was a disaster. It was two years here, one year home, two years here. You would have guaranteed undocumented status after two years. I’d rather see a five-year visa renewable for another five years and then you are eligible for citizenship.

El Diario's 2009 cover story decrying Paterson's selection of Gillibrand to fill NY's open Senate seat.

AC: Barack Obama has continued to pursue some Bush-era policies focused on enforcement – on deportations.

I would discontinue those policies. When I was appointed senator my constituency said ‘Would you discontinue home raids?’ and I wrote a letter to (Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano saying I wanted all raids stopped until we had comprehensive immigration reform. It was […] tearing families apart and we had all kinds of stories about how it affected families and children. I think it’s wiser to do that, to have a moratorium until you have a full, comprehensive solution.

AC: Can the DREAM Act be rescued?

Yes, We could have an up or down vote on the DREAM Act as soon as the senate goes back into session. Everyone disagrees [about the DREAM Act]. You ask three different people on the Hill and they all have a different opinion, but we have bipartisan support for it, I think it’s important to address immigration on some level this year. It would be wonderful if we could have at least one achievement. It moves the ball forward for millions of young people living in this country.

AC: We’ve seen a rise in the number of hate crimes toward immigrants in New York and around the U.S. What can be done?

I think this climate of hate has to be stopped, we have to bring America together in a compassionate and understanding way. We can’t tolerate the kind of hatred and violence that’s being used against immigrant groups and […] any group perceived as different. Whether you’re an immigrant or a gay American […] We need to fight it against it at every level. I have a significant hate crime bill I’m working on, particularly for kids in school. There has to be zero tolerance for it.

AC: When you were congresswoman you opposed giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Can you explain why?

I opposed driver’s licenses. But I think an I.D., or even driver’s licenses, could be approached in comprehensive immigration reform, which is the better place to do it, as opposed to having each state make its own determinations. What we see are states like Arizona making terrible, offensive, egregious determinations about immigration that I think are hurtful. So I would prefer to do those kinds of decisions on a federal level […] The bottom line is it’s something it should be addressed on federal level not on a state by state basis.

AC: How would you respond to critics who say you changed your tune on immigration once you became senator?

I’ve always supported comprehensive immigration reform. We need to right-size immigration and address family reunification as core platforms. So I would disagree with them. They didn’t understand my record or didn’t know what I stood for.

Feet in Two Worlds New York Election coverage is supported, in part, by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.