Latinos Give Paterson a Report Card: Good, But Not Good Enough

If Governor David Paterson was applying for a job and the Latino community was hiring, his resume would be considered adequate, but not impressive, with one particularly weak point: Secure Communities.

"I think he had a very good sensitivity in relation to immigrants in general, but I think he was not well advised on the Secure Communities issue," said U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez.

Several Hispanic leaders interviewed for this story agreed that Gov. Paterson did a good job addressing Latino issues during his almost two-year term, which began on March 17, 2008 after Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned.  Paterson leaves office at the end of the month to make way for the incoming administration of Andrew Cuomo.

The Hispanic and African American community, which had been disproportionately affected by the Rockefeller Drug Laws, cheered when, a month into office, on April 24, 2009, Paterson signed a bill that reformed the laws enacted in 1973 under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.  The bill approved by Paterson eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession required by the Rockefeller Laws and gave judges the power to send minor felons to treatment instead of jail.  Spitzer had promised to reform the laws, but had dragged his feet once in office.

Subsequently, Paterson came into his own as governor, making key decisions that affected immigrant communities. On May 3, 2010, he announced the creation of a pardon panel that would review cases of legal immigrants who were at risk of deportation for old, minor convictions. On December 6th, he announced pardons for six immigrants. One of them, Mario Benitez, is a 58 year-old Dominican immigrant who pleaded guilty to selling drugs in 1988 and served three years in prison. Currently he is the assistant director of finance for CUNY's Graduate School and University Center. Latino leaders are hopeful that the governor will pardon other Hispanics later this month.

On June 16, 2010, going against the will of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Paterson ended the stop-and-frisk data debate. He signed a bill establishing that police could no longer save the names and addresses of people they stopped and frisked in the street, if they were not arrested. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, out of the 575,304 New Yorkers who were stopped by the police in 2009, 54% of were Latinos.

Then, on August 31, 2010, Paterson signed the first bill in the country that protects the rights of domestic workers. It ensures that nannies are paid at least minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) and overtime, don't work more than a 6-day week, and aims to prevent discrimination and sexual harassment. The bill provides domestic workers with three paid vacation days a year, and it is projected to improve the lives of nearly 200,000 women, most of them immigrants, the majority Hispanics.

Finally, on December 13, 2010, the Wage Theft Protection Act was signed by Gov. Paterson.  The law will protect thousands of immigrants, many of them Latinos, who are abused by employers. Immigrant advocates who pushed this bill reported that workers often accepted poor conditions because of their immigration status, out of fear or necessity. Irregardless of immigration status, many workers were being paid below the minimum wage, weren't getting overtime and were being discriminated against. This law will quadruple the punishment for wage theft and will protect workers who make accusations against their employers.

All of these policies, Latino leaders affirm, immensely helped the Hispanic community. But, they say, it was not enough.

It was also under Gov. Paterson that state signed the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), bringing New York State into Secure Communities, a fingerprint sharing program designed to track down undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes. Immigrant advocates say Secure Communities has been used, instead, to arrest and deport immigrants accused of minor crimes or who have not been accused of any crime.  Advocates, including members of the New York City Council and the state legislature have been asking the Governor to rescind the MOA and remove New York from the program since October.

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This story was produced by Feet in Two Worldsa project at Milano The New School's Center for New York City Affairs. Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.