From Baghdad to Brooklyn

Immigrants Brace for Backlash but Fear Alerting NYPD

Mohamad was brought to New York on a visitor's visa seven years ago by his father, who has since passed away, leaving Mohamad and his brother to support their mother in their Brooklyn apartment—and their five sisters back home in Karachi. His father feared that Mohamad couldn't help getting caught up in the political gang violence that consumes young men in Pakistan. "He said coming here I could do something good with my life instead of ending up in jail over there," Mohamad says. "All the guys back home have guns. If I get sent back, I'm afraid they're gonna kill me or I'm gonna go to jail."

Working behind the counter at a sweets shop now—lifting boxes at the grocery store is out of the question because of damage the stabbing did to his internal organs—Mohamad sometimes fears leaving his apartment, too. "It comes in my brain that maybe it's gonna happen again," he says of the assault.

Back in 1989, then mayor Edward Koch issued an executive order that prohibited city employees—cops, welfare workers, health professionals, teachers—from passing information about someone's immigration status to federal officials (unless that person was accused of committing a crime). But that order lost its teeth when Congress passed draconian immigration and welfare laws in 1996 that required such reporting. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went to court to protect the city's immigrants, arguing that the new laws were infringing on the city's right to regulate the conduct of its own workers. His challenge was dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld on appeal as courts ruled that federal laws have supremacy over local ones.

Mohamad's scar: Afraid to make a report to the police, the 20-year-old Pakistani told paramedics he'd stabbed himself.
photo: Cary Conover
Mohamad's scar: Afraid to make a report to the police, the 20-year-old Pakistani told paramedics he'd stabbed himself.

But the court of appeals acknowledged that state and local governments do have a vital need to provide confidentiality in a range of instances and suggested that a valid policy would be one that was general—not directed solely at immigration authorities, but instead concerned with the city's ability to decide how to handle information obtained in the course of official business. The Charter Revision Commission of 2001 stepped into that opening and recommended City Charter amendments—which were passed overwhelmingly—that would authorize such generalized confidentiality protections, shielding such information as health or disability, sexual orientation, whether the person is a victim of domestic violence, as well as immigration status. But these measures have yet to be enacted.

For about a year, advocates have been urging Mayor Michael Bloomberg to issue a new executive order with this more generalized language. Although he has repeatedly spoken out for immigrant rights—even supporting an amnesty for undocumented workers—the mayor has not acted. Now, more than ever, the provision is needed, advocates insist. "There is a sense of urgency within the administration and there's absolutely no reluctance to issue a policy," replies Sayu Bhojwani, the city's commissioner of immigrant affairs. "The problem is how to ensure that three or six months from now it doesn't become invalidated, that it holds up."

The City Council is more confident, and so 30 members have signed on to an "Access Without Fear" bill introduced by Hiram Monserrate in December that they think can withstand constitutional scrutiny as well as misrepresentations by anti-immigration activists (some of whom created a minor flurry last month by charging, erroneously, that police were prohibited from reporting non-citizen accused rapists to immigration authorities). Supporters are certain that after hearings— which they hope will take place in late April—the bill will eventually be passed. That's all well and good, advocates say. But immigrants bracing themselves in New York's boroughs can't afford the wait.

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