Don't Ask, Do Tell

Outcry Over New City Policy on Reporting the Undocumented Stuns the Mayor

After a month of wrangling over a new executive order issued at the end of May by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, community activists and City Council members working to safeguard immigrants' access to city services are hopeful that the mayor will revise the policy, which, they say, declares open season on the undocumented.

Sources in the administration report that the mayor was stunned by the outcry against his new policy, which, he has said, is meant to protect immigrants while complying with federal law. "The mayor is completely committed to clarification," says Sayu Bhojwani, the city's commissioner for immigrant affairs. But what form that clarification will take—an addendum to the executive order? agency-level employee guidelines? mayoral support for the City Council's Access Without Fear Bill?—she could not predict.

The Bloomberg order replaces provisions that were put in place by Ed Koch and reiterated by every mayor since, under which city employees—cops, teachers, welfare workers, health professionals—were prohibited from passing information about someone's immigration status to federal officials (unless that person was accused of committing a crime). Bloomberg's edict, Executive Order 34, aims to bring the policy into line with federal laws passed in 1996, by removing the ban on reporting information requested by the feds. Where once city workers could ask but not tell, now their instructions are reversed: Don't ask, do tell.

City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate was "shocked" by Bloomberg's executive order: "We thought we were in negotiation."
photo: Jay Muhlin
City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate was "shocked" by Bloomberg's executive order: "We thought we were in negotiation."

But the policy is trickier than it looks, critics say. Because many public services are available only to immigrants residing in the U.S. legally, city workers sometimes have to inquire about status in order to determine whether someone is eligible for a particular program. Take a woman applying for welfare. She doesn't qualify if she is undocumented. If the social worker doing the intake learns that the woman is here illegally, he is not required under EO 34 to phone immigration authorities with the news. But he may do so—even if no federal official demands the information. That alone, advocates fear, could deter immigrants from seeking assistance in hospitals, domestic violence programs, public schools, and so on.

What's more, EO 34 exempts police from even the "don't ask" stipulation. According to a literal reading of Bloomberg's directive, a cop interviewing witnesses to a robbery in a neighborhood grocery could ask them about their visas and pass the information on. As written, explains attorney Scott Rosenberg, an expert on such policies, the order "allows police to make sweeps of immigrants who are not suspected of any crime."

Whether the mayor meant for EO 34 to give law enforcement such broad powers has been a matter of rancorous debate since its surprise announcement just after Memorial Day. At a June 3 press conference at City Hall, dozens of immigrant advocates and City Council members railed against the order. On his way into the building just as the press conference was breaking up, Bloomberg carped that the participants "don't know how to read" and insisted that EO 34 "is the same policy" as Koch's.

Anti-immigration advocates happily beg to differ. In their view, says Craig Nelsen, executive director of Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, EO 34 is "a step in the right direction." (Nelsen also founded Project USA, which promotes immigration restriction and caused a stir in New York in 1999 for posting billboards around the city with such messages as "Tired of traffic? Everyday, another 6,000 immigrants arrive. Everyday!!")

FILE pressed for the congressional hearings that took place in February, where New York officials had to justify why four undocumented men accused of raping a woman in Queens were not turned over to the INS, which has now become the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. (At the hearing, John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for New York, explained that the city's "don't tell" policy never applied to those involved in crimes. Cops frequently called the INS, but immigration officials at the dysfunctional agency simply did not respond.) Nelsen brags that FILE's efforts helped bring about the change in New York law. The ultra-conservative Washington Times sees it the same way. "As a result of the crime," a recent story asserts, referring to the rape in Queens, "New York repealed its sanctuary resolutions, which had been in place since 1989."

The mayor and his deputies maintain, however, that EO 34 did no such thing (and decry as ludicrous the suggestion that FILE had any role to play in it). The administration went into aggressive damage-control mode after the June 3 press conference, holding its own briefing for members of the ethnic and community press on June 6 to try and undo what Carol Robles-Roman, deputy mayor for legal affairs, calls "the unnecessary fear some folks generated." Each city agency, she notes, puts together its own employee guidelines that are mindful of the need for immigrants to feel unafraid when they access city services. A new police patrol guide, she says, "tells officers not to inquire about the immigration status of victims or witnesses or others seeking assistance." All the new executive order does, she explains, is frame New York policy within the parameters of federal requirements. Otherwise, the city would be seen as flagrantly defying laws enacted by Congress.

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