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On Immigration, Which New York Will Rule?

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In New York State, the legacy of Ellis Island is clearly echoed today. One in five New Yorkers are immigrants, granting the state one of the most vibrant and dynamic populations in the nation.

Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that New York has become an important crossroads at the intersection of immigration and politics. 

The state's current political landscape includes true champions of immigration reform sharing the stage with those who embrace the worst aspects of the immigration debate - those who demonize immigrant communities, embrace discredited conventional wisdom at all costs, and misread public sentiment on immigration issues. 

First, the good stuff. In his recent inauguration speech, Mayor Michael Bloomberg used the occasion to call for comprehensive immigration reform, stating:

With leaders from across the country, we will assemble a bipartisan coalition to support President Obama's call for comprehensive immigration reform that honors our history, upholds our values, and promotes our economy.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has also said that "New York's immigrant communities have driven America's economic engine for generations," could serve as an example to fellow New York politicos about the benefits of immigration and the necessities of reform.

Down the road in Washington DC, New York's Chuck Schumer is hard at work crafting a long overdue comprehensive immigration reform bill, one that combines smart enforcement with the legalization of undocumented immigrants. If enacted, this landmark effort, likely to spur a Senate debate this spring, would significantly curtail illegal immigration and restore America's tradition as a nation of immigrants.

Then there's the other New York.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who is reportedly considering a primary challenge to New York Governor David Paterson, is among the most notable anti-immigrant public officials in the state. Levy's Long Island base has been the site of several anti-immigrant hate crimes.

In fact, largely because of his incendiary immigration views, the state-wide Levy candidacy is already on rocky territory. El Diario recently argued:

Steve Levy has done little to discourage nativist intolerance or prevent hate attacks. In fact, he has thrown coals into the fire.

The New York Daily News reported that Hispanic lawmakers are organizing in opposition to a Levy candidacy and have issued a statement noting that Levy's "past and ongoing policy positions on immigration have been blamed for biased-related attacks on immigrants living in Long Island and for fostering hate speech and intimidation of Hispanic students in schools."

Then there's the newcomer to New York.

Former Tennessee Representative Harold Ford is reported to be eying a primary challenge to incumbent Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D), in the New York's 2010 U.S. Senate race. As a congressman, Ford voted for the infamous Sensenbrenner criminalization bill in 2005 - the one that would have thrown undocumented immigrants, and the priests, nuns, nurses and teachers who assist them, into jail for a year.  As a Senate candidate, he tried to attack Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) from the right on immigration issues, and it failed miserably. Gillibrand, who quickly and adroitly moved away from her troubling immigration record toward a more comprehensive and progressive stance as she became a state-wide leader, is now being embraced by Latino and immigrant leaders in New York City and throughout the state.

Ford will have to adapt as Gillibrand did, or he'll end up looking like Levy.

Look, politicians are supposed to understand politics and on this issue, the facts are in. The anti-immigration wedge issue that was supposed to materialize in 2006 and 2008 failed spectacularly - as Ford personally found out. In fact, a report from America's Voice following the 2008 election found that candidates who advocated comprehensive immigration reforms won over hard liners in 20 of 22 competitive congressional races throughout the country. This is because swing voters want solutions and the hostile, anti-immigrant minority produces a lot more noise than they do votes.; I predict we'll see this trend continue if Levy and Ford ultimately decide to run.

Here's hoping that New York State follows the lead of Bloomberg and Schumer, and reject the outdated politics of Levy and Ford.

Note: Cross-posted at America's Voice.