By Angelo Falcón
Judging by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Inaugural Address on January 1, the more than 3 million Latinos in the state don’t exist. As he pointed out notables present at the ceremony in New York City, not one Latino name that worked for the state crossed his lips. The only reference he made to immigration was to his own family’s background.
As the Governor told the media his Inaugural Address’s purpose was more to set the tone for his second term rather than providing a programmatic outline. He addressed his priorities in broad terms and cast them within a national framework. In the process, he left those of us concerned about the future of the state’s large and growing Latino community uncertain about that future while reassuring everyone else about theirs.
Latinos Most Underrepresented in State Government
The Governor talked about the issues he planned to tackle in terms of the criminal justice system, income inequality, education and so on. But the absence of Latinos in highest levels of policymaking in his government raises questions about how his initiatives would be effectively reaching this community.
According to the state’s Civil Service Commission, although making up more than 18 percent of the state population, Latinos were only 5.1 percent of the state government work force in 2014. This makes Latinos by far the most underrepresented group in state government today. This means that the Latino community’s involvement in policymaking and implementation are, by definition, minimal. This is perhaps one important reason why the Latino level of voter participation is so low in the state.
When we examine the Latino presence at top levels of policymaking in the Cuomo Administration, the situation is actually worse. Given the governor’s penchant for micromanaging the Executive Chamber, he is the major policy setter, and there are no Latinos in his inner circle.
According to the phone directory on the state government’s website, of 38 positions listed for Cuomo’s office, only one Latino is listed. And of the 59 commissioners and other titles we could identify, only 3 (or 5.1 percent) held by Latinos. These are Cesar A. Perales, Secretary of State; Arlene González Sánchez, Commissioner of the Department of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services; and most recently appointed, Roberto Velez as Commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services. A fourth, Peter M. Rivera, Commissioner of Department of Labor, has just retired.
Beyond the DREAM Act
One area where greater Latino participation in state government would make a difference would be immigration policy. While not the only issue of importance to Latinos, the federal government’s failure to adopt effective and humane comprehensive immigration reform has put pressure on states to become leaders in developing policies supportive of its immigrant communities.
However, in New York legislation to authorize the financial aid portion of the state’s DREAM Act that has not gone anywhere. Gov. Cuomo has not been consistently supportive of this legislation, despite his public support of it, and the Latinos in the State Legislature have not been able to move this bill through the state Senate. With a Republican majority now in control of the chamber, opposition to this bill will likely increase and any chance of passage will depend on whether the governor includes it in his Executive Budget, forcing the state Senate to sign onto the plan. But the fact that the Governor made no mention of the DREAM Act or immigration issues in this year’s Inaugural Address is not reassuring.
However, most troubling is the intellectual and leadership vacuum that seems to exist among the 21 Latino state legislators in regard to the immigration issue. Unable to get any traction on the DREAM Act, they have allowed the Governor and Republicans in the state to lower their expectations of what is possible. Instead of settling for crumbs and an inadequate state response to the Latino community on this issue, Latino legislators and their allies need to raise the bar and propose a more comprehensive approach to immigration in the state.
There is, in other words, a great need at the state level to go well beyond the DREAM Act. There is, first of all, the intriguing proposal by State Sen. Gustavo Rivera to extend a “state citizenship” status to the undocumented, which would provide eligible non-citizens with a number of significant rights and responsibilities, like the ability to vote and hold civil office. In addition to Rivera’s bill, there is a great need for other measures that would:
• Provide immigrants access to driver’s licenses and state IDs
• Increase resources to enforce labor standards for low-wage immigrant workers, provide English as second language
classes and job training, as well as naturalization services and legal services to the undocumented
• Protect immigrant communities by limiting the state’s cooperation with the federal Secure Communities program, which
enables local police to abuse immigration enforcement
• Enact a farmworkers fair labor practices act that would grant collective bargaining rights to farm laborers and provide for
an 8-hour work day for them, along with other basic protections
• Ensure that the undocumented have access to healthcare to the fullest extent permitted under federal law
• Eliminate unnecessary barriers in the way of immigrants receiving professional licenses and certification
• Adopt humane approaches to addressing the influx of unaccompanied minors to the state
If Governor Cuomo’s Inaugural Address this year is any indication, the Latino community is not at all on his agenda in any significant way. By maintaining a system that continues to exclude this community from meaningful participation in state government and not taking our issues seriously, Governor Cuomo is relegating the more than 3.5 million Latinos in New York to the margins. But let’s wait to hear what he has to say in his more detailed State of the State Address later this month.
Angelo Falcón, political scientist and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), has been documenting New York State government’s lack of equal employment opportunities for Latinos and other minorities since 1982. He is co-editor of Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of New York, among other books, and the author of numerous scholarly articles on Latino politics and policy issues.