"I believe that slavery is not abolished. Slavery has been transferred to my people," said Democratic candidate for mayor Rev. Erick Salgado about undocumented Latinos at a debate on August 21. "Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King fought for his people. I want to be remembered… [as] the Latino guy who spoke with an accent that stand[s] for his people as well."

Immigration reform has become a unifying force in the Latino community. A 2013 poll from Latino Decisions shows that immigration ranks as the community's top issue at 58 percent. Employment and the economy trail in second place at 38 percent. But with 625,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010, immigration reform has also become a top issue for other
immigrant communities in New York.

"Republican, Democrat, or whatever party, will have to recognize that the immigrant vote is real," said Razeen Zaman, the campaign organizer for New York State Youth Leadership Council, a volunteer organization led by undocumented youth. "Most undocumented families are mixed status families. Which means that many undocumented folks have citizens in their families who are closely paying attention to what each party will do."

Many New Yorkers have cousins, uncles, parents and grandparents who emigrated recently. In 2011, 22.2 percent of the city's population was foreign-born. And as a result, immigration activists emphasize that political candidates should be thinking about policies that defend both documented and undocumented residents.

On the radar screen

Immigration has already made it into the election narrative for the 2013 mayoral race. In another debate on September 3, just one week before Primary Day, Democratic candidates were asked, "In the face of inaction in Washington, what should the city do in regards to undocumented immigrants?"

Four out of five candidates on stage at the WNBC studio pledged to pass a municipal ID card. Anthony Weiner argued that New York needs to tackle immigration reform by breaking down "walls of discrimination wherever we find them." Bill Thompson defended his Big Apple-Big Dreams proposal, which would offer TAP grants to undocumented students. Bill de Blasio advocated for state driver's licenses for eligible undocumented immigrants. Christine Quinn called for federal and state level DREAM Acts, as well as driver's licenses and greater access to education. And John Liu upheld New York's right to reject federal intervention on immigration and become more of a "safe city" for immigrants.

In this sense, Democratic candidates and immigration activists agree that New York politicians have to step up and lead the state in immigration reform. "Politicians need to have an agenda that proactively advances citizen rights," says Zaman. "They need to talk about state level citizenship, voting access for long-term immigrant residents and other proposals that make New York safer, more democratic."

Potential for local reform

Immigration activists like Zaman insist that New York City can become a platform for advancing state and national legislation. Local policies like municipal IDs and tuition assistance for undocumented residents can position the city at the forefront of immigration reform, and send a positive message that pro-immigrant policies address community needs, specifically at a time when the federal government is stalling on immigration reform.

"It is really easy for localities to point to the federal government and say there is nothing that we can do until they act," says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. "But that's just not true. A message can be sent either good or bad. Ordinances have been passed that create barriers for undocumented immigrants ... and laws can also be passed to promote due process and inclusivity."   

Das emphasized that local leaders could push forward pro-immigrant policies that end unfair detentions. Currently, "someone who is stopped for a minor violation and booked in jail, can also be detained and deported," she said. "Stronger policies against detainers protect immigrant rights."

A 2012 report from the Immigrant Rights Clinic explains that immigrants who get legal representation and are not extradited by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to other states succeed at staying in the United States 74 percent of the time. Unrepresented immigrants who are detained by immigration authorities and transferred to other state facilities have only a 3 percent success rate.

Both activists and politicians cite Executive Order 41 as an example of city policy that can defend immigrant rights. The order classifies all information gathered by city agencies about immigration status as confidential. And it limits immigration status inquiries by law enforcement officials to cases where it might be relevant to "investigating illegal activity other than the mere status of an undocumented alien."

A role in the larger conversation

Beyond the ability to change municipal policy, the local discussion about immigration rights can have a broader effect on politics. For one thing, putting a human face on undocumented immigrants can simply remind politicians that those without papers—who also have strong interests in school, health, transit and public safety policies—are constituents.

"Whether you are a registered voter or citizen, green card holder or undocumented immigrant, you can still engage in the [political] process, still hold elected officials accountable and meet with them, talk to them about your concerns and make sure they are responsive to that," says Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization that brings together grassroots community groups, labor unions, religious institutions and social service agencies to defend immigrant rights.