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New York State Mulls Citizenship for Undocumented Workers

A state bill would give noncitizens benefits and voting rights
Immigration reform advocates demonstrate in New York on Nov. 12, 2013
Immigration reform advocates demonstrate in New York on Nov. 12, 2013Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

While Congress drags its feet on immigration reform, New York State lawmakers are considering an immigration bill of their own. It would grant state citizenship to some noncitizen residents—including documented and undocumented immigrants—allowing them to vote and run for office. Under the New York Is Home Act, introduced on June 16, noncitizens who have proof of identity and have lived and paid taxes in the state for three years could apply for legal status. It would qualify them for Medicaid coverage, professional licensing, tuition assistance, and driver’s licenses, as well as grant state and local—but not federal—voting rights. The responsibilities of citizenship would also apply, including jury duty. “It’s mind-boggling,” says Michael Olivas, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in immigration law and is in favor of the bill. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a serious attempt to codify so many benefits and opportunities.”

Democratic State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who’s sponsoring the legislation, sees it as a precedent. “We have a bill here that could be a model of what we need to do across the country,” he says. Rivera acknowledges the bill “certainly will not pass this session,” but compares it to early efforts to build support for same-sex marriage, a cause that took years to go from fringe to mainstream. Democratic Assemblyman Karim Camara is introducing the same bill on the other side of the Capitol; a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo said his office is reviewing the proposal.