Today, as we gather to talk about the state of immigration in this country, my thoughts immediately turn to a letter that I wrote in February to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Last July 18th, New York City made a shocking discovery. We found over 40 deaf Mexican immigrants held in cramped apartments, forced to sell trinkets on the subways and routinely tortured, starved, and sexually assaulted by their bosses. The Mexican immigrants, including 10 minors, were brought to the United States under false pretenses or threat, forced into servitude in New York and Chicago, and subjected to extraordinary exploitation. Twenty men and women were indicted on charges ranging from slavery to alien smuggling. Eighteen of these have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
It's hard to believe that such horrible abuse could happen in a country as advanced as ours. It seems like something that is not of this time and place, but as this reminds us, there will always be people looking to prey on those who are most vulnerable.
At the time, the City responded to this emergency in the way any humane city would respond. We gave these immigrants basic humanitarian aid, put them in safe quarters, and acted as swiftly as possible to prosecute the offenders. Since then, we've done our best to care for and protect these immigrants, working closely with the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI, and the INS detention staff. We've provided clothing, nutritious meals, technical advice on effective communication and deaf culture, and assistance with educational placement. But we should still be concerned about their current conditions.
Because they entered the country illegally, these immigrants fall under the jurisdiction of the INS, and are effectively considered detainees. They are not allowed to leave the motel where they are being held, and they are not allowed to receive visitors who haven't been approved. The City has begun considering arrangements to ensure that upon release from detention, the deaf Mexican victims will receive sign language and English training, job assessment and training, and housing opportunities. For us to be able to offer these support services, however, the Mexican immigrants need to have proper immigration status.
Last month, I wrote a letter to Attorney General Reno explaining the situation and urging that the United States grant these victims S-Visas or at least, on an interim basis, a discretionary parole classification. The Mexican Immigrants have suffered greatly and cooperated fully with authorities, and they deserve that opportunity.
It's incredible that even after undergoing this long and painful ordeal, they still believe in this country. And they still believe that they can better their own lives and the lives of their children if given the chance.
That's been the essence of the immigrant spirit for hundreds of years, since before New York City was a city, and before this country was a country. In every generation immigrants have rejuvenated the country and reminded us what patriotism is all about.
As Mayor of New York City, I feel particularly qualified to talk about this because no city owes more to immigration than New York. Every building, bridge, monument --everything that makes up our famous skyline and that makes New York City the most recognized city in the world -- can be traced back to the hard work and creativity of immigrants.
The Threat Posed by the Federal Immigration Law
For the last two years, American immigrants have faced an historic threat. Many of the provisions of the immigration legislation that passed Congress and was signed by the President in 1996, were harsh and unfair to immigrants.
Today, although we still have a lot of work to correct the injustice of that legislation, because we've worked so hard together the country has made a great deal of progress from two years ago.
With the support of grassroots organizations like LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), we've managed to turn that tide. Now we're not on the defensive, we're setting the tone for the debate. Now we're helping people to see immigrants for what they are -- assets, not liabilities. We should be proud of what we've accomplished for immigrants and for the American people as whole.
In many ways, we've reminded America of its best self. But what I want to talk about today is that this anti-immigrant wave is by no means defeated. In fact, we can never believe that we've fully won the fight because history has shown us that anti-immigrant sentiment never goes away. If we're not always vigilant, sophisticated, and intelligent in addressing it, it will forever threaten to alter the fundamental definition of this country.
The history of LULAC shows us this. Following the Mexican American War, nearly 80,000 Mexicans became American citizens. For generations, they were routinely subjected to overt and covert discrimination. Signs reading "No Mexicans Allowed" were commonplace. In Texas, especially, prejudice reached such a height that Mexican-Americans knew they had to respond.
LULAC arose in response to this challenge. Through aggressive, intelligent, and peaceful advocacy, you initially succeeded in stemming that tide of anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexican-Americans. But just because you reached a measure of success, that didn't mean you became complacent. You knew that a truly effective strategy does more than react to imminent threats against the rights of immigrants. The best strategy is one that constantly advances a positive, sustained, pro-active agenda that brings the nation together, whether or not it's a time of immediate crisis.
For instance, in 1954, LULAC brought the landmark case of Hernandez v. the State of Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court, to protest the fact that not a single Mexican-American in Texas had ever been called to jury duty. The Supreme Court ruled that this exclusion was unconstitutional.
LULAC councils across the nation hold voter registration drives and citizenship awareness sessions, sponsor health fairs and tutorial programs, and raise scholarship money for the LULAC National Scholarship Fund -- which has helped approximately 100,000 students go to college.
And you've been an active partner in the mobilization of the last two years -- when, once again, it has effectively been a time of crisis. The Federal Welfare Law contained many provisions that would have stripped immigrants of benefits to which they were entitled.
The law made most legal immigrants ineligible for SSI, Medicaid and federal food stamps until they naturalized, proved that they could be credited with 40 quarters of work, or earned military or veteran status. It denied SSI benefits to approximately 500,000 elderly and disabled immigrants nationwide. It also denied Food Stamp benefits for approximately 935,000 legal immigrants nationwide.
The law also barred immigrants arriving in the U.S. after the August 22, 1996 deadline from receiving most federal benefits for the first five years after entry, except for emergency Medicaid and other critical services.
These measures demanded an immediate response.
What the City Did to Restore Benefits and Fight the Rising Anti-Immigrant Tide
We saw the Federal Immigration Law for what it was: an imminent threat to the nation. We understood that if New York City -- a city that was built and continues to be built by the energy, drive and enthusiasm of immigrants -- if New York City didn't speak up, we couldn't expect anyone else to.
After all, our most recognizable monument -- the Statue of Liberty -- is synonymous with both New York City and the process of immigration. Immigration is absolutely intrinsic to what New York City is. It was, therefore, incumbent upon us to take the lead and make a difference.
That's why over the last two years New York City joined together with groups across the country like LULAC and others. In the face of tremendous opposition, we raised the public discourse from one that was couched in fear and irrationality to one rooted in the facts. We helped to bring the country to a stronger and fuller understanding of the role of immigrants and the contributions that they make to society.
The City began by filing two lawsuits against the Federal government in the fall of 1996 challenging the constitutionality of certain provisions in the federal immigration laws.
We then traveled around the country -- to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Minneapolis -- to initiate a national dialogue about the importance of immigration.
On January 9th 1997, New York City announced the establishment of the Immigration Coalition, a cross-section of individuals and organizations united to work together to mount a public education campaign against anti-immigrant initiatives.
And last summer, on June 9th and 10th, we hosted the New York City Conference on Immigration in which fifteen elected officials from 10 different states across the country came to New York City united by a common belief in the contributions and rights of immigrants. Together we signed a statement of principles which we sent to our Congressional leaders -- once again demonstrating the effectiveness and the leadership of the local governments of this nation.
Although immigration affected the different cities and counties represented at the conference in unique ways, the participants shared a common set of principles. They came to Ellis Island to remind the people of America about the importance of immigration.
In addition to all of this active advocacy work, New York City and organizations throughout the nation have helped guide hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the country through a very confusing period of time. I want to thank LULAC in particular for all the work you've done in being a calm and dependable source of information that has proven a great resource for people at a time when they could have very easily been driven to panic.
Much of this hard work has paid off. We persuaded Congress and the President to make fundamental changes to the legislation. Together our cooperation and focus yielded results.
What the Federal Government did to Restore Some of the Benefits
In the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, Congress restored SSI and Medicaid eligibility to approximately 420,000 elderly and disabled immigrants nationwide, including an estimated 68,000 living in New York City. This covers those immigrants who were receiving SSI as of August 22, 1996, and those who were in the U.S. as of that date who later became disabled.
In addition, the Balanced Budget Act extended the exemption from the bar on SSI and Medicaid for refugees and asylees from five to seven years.
And a provision in the FY 1997 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act allows states to pay for and administer its own food assistance program for immigrants who have lost Food Stamp eligibility -- a provision which has enabled New York City, among other cities, to restore these critical benefits to thousands of low-income working immigrants.
And just last Friday, in another sign that the nation is attempting to correct the flaws in the immigration legislation, House and Senate conferees reached agreement on an Agricultural Research bill that would include $818 million over the next five years for federal Food Stamp benefits for certain legal immigrants. This restoration would only be a down-payment since it falls short of the $2.43 billion provided in the President's FY 1999 budget proposal and the $3 billion needed for full restoration for all who lost Food Stamps as a result of the welfare law.
While we support the restoration in the Agriculture Research bill, we are concerned about the funding mechanism to pay for Food Stamps for immigrants, because it caps states' Food Stamp administrative costs and will have a serious fiscal impact on the City.
Finally, there is another piece of news that signals movement in the right direction. Two weeks ago, a federal judge in California overturned most portions of California's Proposition 187, which sought to restrict benefits and basic social services of illegal immigrants.
This is significant because Proposition 187, which passed as a referendum in 1994, was one of the catalysts for the nationwide anti-immigration movement and has been one of the most controversial pieces of state legislation depriving immigrants of benefits. Hopefully, the fate of Proposition 187 -- both its passage and its most recent defeat in court -- will be markers of the start and end of this most recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.
What We Must Do Now
But we can't count on this fact. We can't be sure that the tide has turned. We must remain vigilant, because there is still lots of work to be done to repair the harmful effects of the federal legislation. There are far too many immigrants that work and pay taxes but are still being deprived of the basic benefits they deserve. And there are still too many problems with the way the I.N.S. operates.
Immigrants, like native-born citizens, work and pay taxes. They contribute immeasurably to our culture, society, and economy -- working and owning businesses in larger percentages, in fact, than native-born Americans. In an attempt to save money for the federal government, it's simply unfair to target hardworking people simply because they have not yet become citizens.
Today I want to talk about some of the actions we should take now to solidify the gains we've made, correct the remaining problems in the legislation, and go further.
Naturalization is a formal step to full participation taken by immigrants who have already been contributing to our society. These immigrants work hard, pay their taxes, serve in our military, and contribute to our communities. Once they become naturalized citizens, they can then participate more fully in the civic life of the United States.
The moment a legal immigrant becomes a citizen marks the beginning of a very important relationship. The U.S. embraces the foreign-born immigrant as one of her own, offering full membership in American society, and the immigrant pledges allegiance and loyalty to the United States, and in doing so, becomes an American by choice. Without so many millions of people making this choice over the generations, America would not be the great and powerful country it is today. I know for a fact that New York City would not be the great city it is today if not for the vitality of immigrants. In a society as diverse as ours, citizenship is what holds us together, uniting many people into one nation.
To reaffirm these principles, respond to the unfair federal legislation, and leave a lasting legacy of citizenship, last year the City unveiled Citizenship New York City, an initiative which helps eligible immigrants navigate through the naturalization process. Through its five offices in New York City, Citizenship NYC has submitted 4,000 completed applications to INS since it began six months ago.
But to make further progress, we must reform the process at the federal level. Immigrants deserve a naturalization process that is fair, efficient and affordable, but also ensures that criminals cannot slip through the system.
Unfortunately, the dream of citizenship is becoming a nightmare for many legal immigrants. The INS is taking steps to raise its naturalization fees from $95 to $255. This is especially troublesome because it comes at a time when 1.7 million immigrants are waiting up to four years to naturalize.
In New York City, the number of people caught in the backlog has increased to almost 300,000 and the average wait is 24 months. This is simply unfair to the vast majority of law-abiding immigrants who have paid their fee, played by the rules, and now find themselves caught in a bureaucratic mess that places citizenship beyond their reach for years.
These immigrants are entitled to a better level of customer service. Fee increases should not even be considered until the current backlogs are reduced substantially and the naturalization process is redesigned so that it takes no longer than six months from application to oath.
Congress is currently considering many reforms to the naturalization process. We must call for a citizenship process that has impeccable integrity and deters naturalization fraud, is affordable, and takes no longer than six months from start to finish. That's the only way to honor the principles on which this country was built.
It is the responsibility of both the Federal government and the City to ensure that newcomers choosing to become citizens may do so without delay. With the demand likely to continue at record levels, additional resources for backlog reduction must be made available so that the backlog will not present a barrier for those wishing to become American citizens.
These are the challenges that we face. If we remain united and focus on our mission we will do justice to the great legacy of immigrants and we will protect the rights of immigrants, both those who are in the country already and those who plan to come here in the future.
Then we will be advancing the principles of America which are also the founding principles of this organization.
As the philosophy of LULAC states, "We believe in the democratic principle of individual political and religious freedom, the right of equality of social and economic opportunity, and in the cooperative endeavor toward the development of an American Society wherein the cultural resources, integrity and dignity of every individual and group constitute basic assets of the American way of life."
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