NEW YORK – If New York is the capital of the world – because people from all over the globe live here, and because what happens here can have repercussions everywhere – then the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, wields enormous influence in all that he does. So it’s no small matter that he decided to make the invisible visible by offering a municipal ID to New York’s estimated half-million undocumented immigrants. If New York can do this, other cities can too.
New York took action because Washington wouldn’t. “If our federal government isn’t going to act, we will act,” de Blasio (D) told me in an interview at the Bronx Zoo. Republicans in Congress have, unsurprisingly, blocked reform efforts aimed at legalizing many of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. And President Barack Obama doesn’t dare act on his own.
The New York IDs will help undocumented immigrants meet basic needs like renting an apartment and opening a bank account, and, one hopes, help curtail harassment by the police. “Almost half a million of our fellow New Yorkers happen to be undocumented,” de Blasio said. “They are our neighbors; they are our friends; they are our co-workers. They need recognition, they need respect; they need to be fully part of our society.”
Introducing the ID cards was an especially bold move, given that New York is still viewed as a prime target for terrorists. De Blasio’s critics contend that issuing IDs to undocumented immigrants will make it easier for terrorists to blend in. The mayor disagrees, pointing to the continued efforts by the New York Police Department.
“We have a thousand officers devoted to anti-terrorism efforts. NYPD obviously understands terrorism,” he told me. “One of the best tools in fighting terror is information, is intelligence gathering, is relationships on the ground in every kind of community.”
But fear still lingers here, and not without reason. Last week, de Blasio had to restore calm to the city after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that his country had received intelligence indicating that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was planning terrorist attacks on New York’s and Paris’ subways. “Terrorists want us to live in fear,” the mayor said in a news conference. “We refuse to live in fear.” The city’s subway trains kept rolling.
In the nine months since he took office, de Blasio has implemented an agenda more liberal than those of his two predecessors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani. De Blasio dismantled a program that spied on members of the Muslim community: It was “counterproductive,” he explained, and kept the police from developing good relationships with the city’s Muslim population. He brought an end to the police department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which had been applied disproportionately to African-Americans and other minorities. And he implemented a public prekindergarten education program, known as universal pre-K, which launched this fall and is projected to serve tens of thousands of children each year.
Besides being very tall – nearly 6-foot-6 – the mayor is very fast. Walking through the zoo, he noted that his political capital started dwindling as soon as he took office. Perhaps that’s why he always seems to be in a hurry. He must realize, too, that his toughest task still lies ahead. De Blasio campaigned on the promise of addressing income inequality in New York, which has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the United States. As with the ID cards for undocumented immigrants, this challenge is an opportunity for New York to lead by example.
Today, City Hall; tomorrow, the White House? I asked de Blasio whether he is interested in running for president – not an uncommon ambition among New York’s mayors. He gave me perhaps the most politically correct answer: “I just started as mayor not long ago,” he said. “We have a lot to do right here.”
In other words, the world’s mayor is just getting started.