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Expanding the Rights of Immigrants by Voting ‘Yes’ for a New York Constitutional Convention

By Cyrus D. Mehta and Sophia Genovese-Halvorson

On November 7, 2017, voters in New York will get an opportunity to decide whether to hold a Constitutional Convention in order to improve New York’s Constitution. The next opportunity to engage in this unique democratic experiment will arise in 2037.

The latest polls have shown that large numbers of voters want changes in New York’s Constitution that the legislature has failed to enact – e.g. an entitlement to healthy air and clean water, strict limits on the outside employment of legislators, independent ethics enforcement, an end to gerrymandering, making it easier to register and vote, closing campaign finance loopholes, term limits, and the expansion of immigrants’ rights and protections. At the same time, a poll is showing that New Yorkers oppose calling for the Convention.  Many reasonable people oppose voting for a New York Constitutional Convention in the age of Trump, dark money and Brexit. But when we run away from democracy itself out of fear, we will never be able to improve the rights of New Yorkers even beyond the US Constitution, including immigrants.  We have this opportunity only once every 20 years.

Some say the path forward is to replace New York’s elected representatives with others who will make the needed reforms.  However, as the late Governor Mario Cuomo observed, our elected representatives live in a cocoon of unaccountability and incumbent protection.   The system is designed to secure their reelection.  That system needs to be changed, and it will take an outside force to do it. Short of calling a Constitutional Convention, the only way to amend the Constitution, or to pass any law, is with the approval of the legislature. But as just explained, elected officials are in favor of maintaining the status quo.

There is also an understandable, but misguided, fear that certain protections, such as the labor bill of rights, the duty of the legislature to care for the needy, the right to a free public education, and the preservation of the Adirondack Park will be at stake. However, these are indeed rights and protections that were created through the Constitutional Convention process. The New York Times, while unfortunately coming out against the Convention, has called these concerns “overwrought.” The history of the Convention has not been one of stripping rights; rather, it has a rich history of creating radical advancements in human rights for all New Yorkers. The 1938 Constitutional Convention affirmed the duty of the state to aid the needy, promote public health, educate its children, and care for the physically and mentally handicapped. It is not as if a vote in favor of a Constitutional Convention would give a carte blanche to delegates to adopt any reforms of their choosing. The last state Constitutional Convention was in 1967, where voters ultimately rejected the proposed changes created by the Convention Committee. Then there is the claim that reform minded delegates won’t get elected and that the Convention will be “hack filled.”  The strikes us as having too little trust in voters who having called for a Convention to effect reform would supposedly turn around and elect people opposed to reform.  Voters in a progressive state like New York are much smarter than how they are perceived by opponents to the Convention.

The 2017 Convention Vote will again provide New Yorkers with the opportunity to continue the tradition of expanding rights in the New York Constitution, including the expansion of rights and protections afforded to immigrants. Albany had not been able to bring about any meaningful reforms for immigrants. Our “gerrymandered” elected representatives are so entrenched that only a criminal conviction, rather than votes, can dislodge them.  If we can broaden equal rights for all New York residents, including immigrants regardless of status, we will not need to rely on Albany that is in a perpetual logjam and stalemate. For example, New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles will be compelled to issue drivers licenses to all New York residents, regardless of immigration status, based on the broader equal protection clause in the New York Constitution that can be developed through a Constitution Convention.

Cyrus Mehta’s Op-Ed in The New York Daily News forcefully and eloquently advocates for expanded equal rights for all New York residents, including immigrants. It is reproduced below:

“The N.Y. constitutional convention immigrants need”

As the federal government threatens undocumented immigrants, New Yorkers have an opportunity to provide vital protections to those immigrants living in the state. On Election Day, voters can choose to convene a constitutional convention where the rights of those immigrants could be strengthened in ways that the federal government cannot erase.

It’s an opportunity we must not miss.

New York has always been a magnet for immigrants. The Statue of Liberty is here — not in Washington, D.C. — for a reason. Yet the state Constitution has never addressed the discrimination immigrants face.

It addresses only discrimination based on race and religion, not on country of origin or immigration status. Notably, it does not even prevent discrimination based on gender.

That’s a misfit for the character of our state. In 2015, more than 4.5 million foreign-born individuals constituted 22.9% of New York’s population. Only California has a higher count.

More than 3 million foreign-born immigrants live in New York City, more than in any other city in the world. They represent over 37% of the city’s residents.

Among these immigrants are an estimated 817,000 in New York State, including 575,000 in New York City, without valid federal authorization. These undocumented immigrants — who pay taxes, otherwise observe our laws, and enrich our communities — contributed $40 billion to New York’s economy and $1.1 billion to state and local taxes in 2015.

While the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution covers all persons within the jurisdiction of any state, the U.S. Supreme Court has applied a relaxed standard of review to discrimination against undocumented immigrants. As a result, laws depriving those immigrants of basic civil rights have been upheld.

An amendment to the state Constitution could prohibit such discrimination — and finally reflect the values of New York, where over the decades governors and mayors, Republican and Democratic alike, have consistently defended the rights of undocumented residents.

While it’s federal laws that mandate that undocumented immigrants be removed — subject to the executive branch’s priorities, which are at least in theory supposed to be focused on threats to public safety — the likelihood is uncertain. Even if the federal government initiates removal, proceedings can take years.

More importantly, immigration status is often uncertain. Immigrants can gain authorization to remain by falling in love with and marrying an American. More than 800,000 young undocumented people who came into the United States before the age of 16 received authorization to remain under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — an Obama-era program.

President Trump has canceled DACA, but suggested in a tweet that “Congress can legalize DACA,” and added that, if not, he “will revisit the issue.”

Basic rights should not hinge on such vagaries.

People are undocumented because the federal immigration system, desperately in need of sensible reform, has not provided meaningful pathways to legal status for many who have family or jobs in the United States. As New York will continue to be home to undocumented immigrants, it is only fair that the state Constitution provide equal civil rights to all, regardless of immigration status.

Once such equal rights are established, they will preclude discrimination against New York residents based on their immigration status.

For example, New York would have to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. That would help ensure that our roads are safe and provide a boon to those who need to drive in order to work or take their children to school.

Such an expanded protection against discrimination in our state Constitution could not be erased by the federal government.

In specific areas, federal law may preempt the states — but, under our federal system, state law governs most civil rights, such as the right to contract, to an education, to buy a home, to drive and more.

At a time when the federal government seeks to force state and local law enforcement to punish undocumented immigrants in ways that go beyond valid federal preemption and financial incentives, asserting New York’s sovereign lawmaking and enforcement rights is vital.

The first step in getting from here to there is voting yes on a constitutional convention.

(This blog represents the personal views of the authors and not necessarily those of any organizations that they may be a part of)

Preemption of Arizona Driver’s License Policy Provides Another Basis for Supreme Court to Uphold President’s Deferred Action Programs

On August 15, 2012, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program took effect, Arizona’s then Governor Janet Brewer tried everything in her book to de-legitimize DACA in Arizona. DACA would not confer lawful or authorized status, according to an Arizona executive order signed by Governor Brewer. Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division announced that it would not accept an employment authorized document (EAD) issued to DACA recipients pursuant to 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(14) with code C33 as proof that their presence was authorized under federal law for purpose of granting a driver’s license.

In 2013, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) further tried to justify its animus to DACA by revising its policy to only recognize EADs if 1) the applicant has formal immigration status; 2) the applicant is on a path to obtain formal immigration status; or 3) the relief sought or obtained is expressly pursuant to the INA. Under these new criteria, Arizona refused to grant driver’s licenses not only to DACA recipients but also to beneficiaries of traditional deferred action and deferred enforced departure. It continued to grant driver’s licenses only from applicants with EADs pursuant to 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(9), those who had filed adjustment of status applications, or 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(10), those who had applied for cancellation of removal. Under this revision, even one who received deferred action other than DACA under 8 CFR274a.12(c)(14) would now be deprived of a driver’s license.

On April 5, 2016, the Ninth Circuit in Arizona Dream Act Coalition v. Brewer held that these arbitrary classifications defining authorized status were preempted under federal law and has finally put to rest Arizona’s “exercise in regulatory bricolage.” Although the Ninth Circuit also found that these distinctions between different EADs likely violated the Equal Protection Clause, in order to avoid unnecessary constitutional adjudications, the Court also found that these arbitrary classifications under Arizona’s law were preempted as they encroached on the exclusive federal authority to create immigration classifications. The latest ruling permanently enjoins Arizona’s policy of depriving DACA and other deferred action recipients driver’s licenses, following an earlier ruling that affirmed a preliminary injunction of the same executive order.

While Arizona sought to exalt the status of an EAD that was obtained when one sought adjustment of status or cancellation of removal, the Ninth Circuit gave short shrift to such arbitrary classification. There is no difference if one receives an EAD though cancellation of removal or through deferred action as submitting a cancellation application does not signify that the applicant is on a clear path to formal legal status. Such an application could well be denied. In this regard, noncitizens holding an EAD under C9 or C10 are in no different a position than one who has received an EAD pursuant to DACA under C33. The following extract from the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is worth quoting:

Arizona thus distinguishes between noncitizens based on its own definition of “authorized presence,” one that neither mirrors nor borrows from the federal immigration classification scheme. And by arranging federal classifications in the way it prefers, Arizona impermissibly assumes the federal prerogative of creating immigration classifications according to its own design

Arizona Dream Act Coalition thus provides another basis for the Supreme Court in United States v. Texas to uphold the expanded deferred action programs as part of President Obama’s November 20, 2014 executive actions, especially the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) and extended DACA. There is simply no difference between an EAD granted under DACA as an EAD granted based on an application for relief, such as adjustment of status or cancellation or removal. Indeed, it is INA section 274A(h)(3), which provides the authority for a granting of EADs under both DACA and based on application for adjustment of status or cancellation of removal. According to the Ninth Circuit ruling, “DACA recipients and noncitizens with (c)(9) and (c)(10) EADs all lack formal immigration status, yet the federal government permits them to live and work in the country for some period of time, provided they comply with certain conditions.”

INA 274A(h)(3) provides:

As used in this section, the term “unauthorized alien” means, with respect to the employment of an alien at a particular time, that the alien is not at that time either (A) an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence, or (B) authorized to be so employed by this chapter or by the Attorney General

If INA 274A(h)(3) is discredited, as suggested by the Fifth Circuit in Texas v. USA for the purpose of justifying a grant of EADs under DAPA ,  many other justifications for providing an employment authorization document (EAD) would collapse.  The reason the EAD regulations are principally located in 8 CFR 274a is that the authority for most of them has always been thought to stem from INA 274A(h)(3). While many of the 8 CFR 274a.12(a) EADs have some specific statutory authorization outside of INA 274A(h)(3), which is why they exist incident to status, many 8 CFR 274a.12(c) EAD categories are based on INA 274A(h)(3) in just the same way that  8 CFR 274a.12(c)(14) EADs for deferred action are.  People with pending adjustment applications under 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(9), including the “class of 2007” adjustment applicants, pending cancellation applications under 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(10), pending registry applications under 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(16), all get EADs based on that same statutory authority.  Even the B-1 domestic workers and airline employees at 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(17) have no separate statutory authorization besides 274A(h)(3). Some (c) EADs have their own separate statutory authorization, such as pending-asylum 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(8) EADs with their roots in INA 208(d)(2), and 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(18) final-order EADs with arguable roots in INA 241(a)(7), but they are in the minority.  And even some of the subsection (a) EADs have no clear statutory basis outside 274A(h)(3), such as 8 CFR 274a.12(a)(11) for deferred enforced departure.  If the Fifth Circuit’s theory is taken to its logical conclusion, it would destroy vast swathes of the current employment-authorization framework.

It is thus important for the Supreme Court to uphold the Administration’s authority to implement DAPA and extended DACA as part of its broad authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion, and its authority to grant EADs under INA 274A(h)(3). While on first brush Texas v. USA is not a preemption case, the  Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States132 S.Ct. 2492, 2499 (2012), articulated the federal government’s authority  to exercise prosecutorial discretion rather elaborately, which can be deployed to preclude states from opposing this federal authority under dubious standing theories:

A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials…… Federal officials, as an initial matter, must decide whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all. If removal proceedings commence, aliens may seek asylum and other discretionary relief allowing them to remain in the country or at least to leave without formal removal….

Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime. The equities of an individual case may turn on many factors, including whether the alien has children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service. Some discretionary decisions involve policy choices that bear on this Nation’s international relations. Returning an alien to his own country may be deemed inappropriate even where he has committed a removable offense or fails to meet the criteria for admission. The foreign state maybe mired in civil war, complicit in political persecution, or enduring conditions that create a real risk that the alien or his family will be harmed upon return. The dynamic nature of relations with other countries requires the Executive Branch to ensure that enforcement policies are consistent with this Nation’s foreign policy with respect to these and other realities.

The Ninth Circuit, on the eve of oral arguments to be presented before the Supreme Court on April 18, 2016 in United States v. Texas, has provided added impetus for the upholding of President Obama’s deferred action programs. A grant of an EAD under DACA or DAPA is not any less than a grant of EAD to an applicant seeking lawful status through an adjustment of status application or by seeking cancellation of removal. All of these EADs stem from INA 274A(h)(3), which ought to be upheld as a legal basis for the executive to grant work authorization to noncitizens as part of its discretionary authority. Moreover,  it should also not make a difference whether the EAD stems from an application that would ultimately result in permanent residence, such as adjustment of status or cancellation of removal, or through a grant of deferred action. The executive branch has equal authority to grant adjustment of status or deferred action, provided certain conditions are met, from which separately ensue EADs to a noncitizen. The latest Ninth Circuit ruling in Arizona Dream Coalition could not have made this clearer.