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Category: Politics, Immigration

A Challenge to New York’s New Senator—and to Her Supporters

| February 20, 2009


By Erica Gonzalez Senator Gillibrand’s troublesome record on immigration policy was ignored by a number of social justice organizations quick to congratulate her. Now the senator and those who support her must embrace an agenda that protects the human rights of immigrants.

When New York Governor David Paterson appointed Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate seat, he praisedher “strong record of accomplishment on the issues that matter most today.”

Outside of Albany, some of us were not so convinced. Gillibrand’s record as a Congresswoman immediately drew controversy as the news media zoomed in on her 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others correctly slammed her poor record on gun control. But they failed to criticize her deeply troublesome votes and statements on immigration.

While in the House, Gillibrand had given a thumbs-up to a series of harsh, punitive measures against undocumented immigrants. With so many families consisting of undocumented, legalized, and citizen members, these hard-line measures have wider implications, as we have seen with the devastating separation of parents and children through raids and deportation.

The New York Immigration Coalition, Assemblyman Peter Rivera, and the Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario/La Prensa quickly took Gillibrand to task. This pushed her record to the forefront of news reports. But that Gillibrand’s alarming votes weren’t reflected in early, English-language media coverage shows how the lives of immigrants are too often treated as an after-thought.

Some organizations neglected to note the contradiction between Gillibrand backing the rights of some while denying the rights of others.  NARAL Pro Choice New York and the Human Rights Campaign were among those that issued congratulatory statements on Gillibrand’s appointment. But they could have at the same time held her accountable for people caught in the middle—immigrant women and GLBT immigrants.

Gillibrand’s support of reproductive freedom and same sex marriage were certainly worth praise. But the positions she took on immigration—like opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants—would have undermined those very rights.

The reality is that undocumented immigrant women are less likely to get health services they may need out of fear that their status will be detected and trigger deportation. In other words, their decision-making is tied to immigration policies. This makes immigration reform crucial to the lives of millions of women.

Immigration reform is also connected to the movement for reproductive rights. Champions of immigrant rights and reproductive freedom face the same hostility. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health drives this point home: “It is important to recognize that many of the individuals who want to stop immigrants from accessing basic health services, including prenatal care, are the same ones who support restrictions on women’s access to abortion and family planning services.”

Immigration reform and the movement for GLBT rights are similarly related. Same sex couples are denied so many rights that heterosexuals take for granted. This discrimination becomes even more intense when one partner has immigration status issues. The intersection of sexuality and immigration, as well as ethnicity, has been painfully evident in other ways. In a recent hate crime in Brooklyn, two brothers perceived as being intimate were attacked for being Latino, immigrant and gay.

Issues of justice are always intertwined. But how they are linked should be louder and clearer from advocates of immigration reform, GLBT rights and reproductive freedom. This is critical for educating the public and the elected officials who decide policy.

Gillibrand is New York’s senator, at least for two years. She has verbally shifted away from her previous shortsighted positions on immigrants. Only time will tell whether she will rise to the challenge of effectively advocating for a state where one out of five persons is an immigrant, and where hundreds of thousands are undocumented.

Gillibrand also has an opportunity to deliver a big picture message. She, as well as other public servants, can take the lead on weaving together the issues of immigrants, women, and GLBT people as what they are—not separate interests, but matters of civil and human rights.

The new senator can begin with the most Republican voting district in New York State—the one she represented.