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Economy & Labor , US

NYC Immigrant Communities Have Long Been Represented by White Men. Will This Election Change That?

by Maher Sattar June 21, 2021

This piece first appeared in The Fuller Project’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Felicia Singh was in the middle of prepping for a meeting with her campaign team when she learned about the For Sale sign on the front yard of her family home. Her father had borrowed heavily to afford the taxi medallions whose prices were soaring but which New York City promised many South Asian immigrants would be their retirement tickets. Instead, city officials struggled to respond as Uber and Lyft took over the streets, and medallion value plummeted. 

Singh’s father struggled to keep up with his interest payments and declared bankruptcy. The creditors had come calling, and the 32-year-old City Council hopeful, her parents and two siblings were facing the prospect of sudden homelessness if they couldn’t raise over $100,000 in less than 90 days. 

The “For Sale” sign was an intensely personal reminder for Singh of why she’s running for office in the first place. The Fuller Project partnered with The City to profile several candidates for New York City Council who have directly been impacted by the medallion bubble, and are running as insurgent candidates looking to take on a Democratic establishment. For them it’s not a coincidence that they would be the first South Asians on a City Council that in their eyes has failed to stand up for the city’s taxi drivers, more than 43 percent of whom come from South Asia.

Related coverage: Taxi Medallion Crisis Drives Council Candidates on Road Toward a Rescue

Singh was inspired to run by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win over Joe Crowley, who had been widely expected to succeed Nancy Pelosi as Democratic party leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 2018 victories that year of Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad” signaled the start of a broader wave: Fifty-one women of color elected to Congress in 2020, more than ever before. And like Singh, many women and people of color are eyeing local office, not just in New York City but across the country.

African and Hmong refugees are running for office in Minnesota; Oklahoma elected its first Muslim-American representative, a queer Black non-binary person to its state legislature; St. Louis elected its first Black woman as mayor. Women of color have stepped up to lead in other ways too: They have a long history of mutual aid organizing in the U.S., and when the pandemic hit women were again heavily involved in setting up and running the mutual aid networks that became critical lifelines in immigrant neighborhoods when official responses fell short, including in New York

The women running in New York have gotten a boost. A change to the state’s campaign finance rules means candidates with small donors are getting more matching funds from the city than they have in years. The result is that more than 150 women are running for City Council, and are out-fundraising their male opponents. Several of the women of color running here say their immigrant neighborhoods have long been represented by white men without a genuine connection to their constituencies. 

The result is a set of contradictions: A town that loves to bill itself as a “city of immigrants” has looked the other way as its immigrants have been exploited by unscrupulous landlords during a housing crisis; Queens, the borough that is home to the most immigrants, is also the borough where ICE has been most active in New York; wealthy Trump supporters with a track record of supporting anti-Muslim propaganda and a real estate mogul are funding a Democratic super PAC that apparently exclusively attacks brown, Black, and Asian candidates.

The taxi medallion crisis encapsulates the exploitative environment this dynamic can create. New York State attorney general Leticia James accused the city of fraud, saying it intentionally inflated the value of the medallions to make money off immigrant taxi drivers hungry for a sense of security. Shahana Hanif, one of the South Asian candidates for City Council, called it “a crisis that the city manufactured itself.”

The lack of adequate response from the city has left many in despair. Instead of the plan proposed by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), which would require the city to step in and buy back medallions and sharply cap principal and interest payments on loans, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a plan NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai blasted as a “bailout for lenders” that tries to solve the loan bubble with more loans and would keep elderly drivers locked in debt bondage for the rest of their lives.

Rokshana Ali, a Bangladeshi activist in Queens who works on Singh’s campaign and attended a hearing on the medallion crisis, says the city’s response to the taxi drivers’ plight has been inadequate because drivers are predominantly immigrants, and city officials are not. “These are fathers and grandfathers crying and begging the City Council. It was really tough. I had nightmares,” she said. “This one gentleman was like ‘I’m contemplating suicide’ … and I was like, how is this OK? This is a City Council meeting. How many times do you hear people say this kind of thing here? And nobody cares, that’s what hurts the most – because it’s an elderly Puerto Rican man, he’s a cancer survivor, and he’s stuck with this medallion that he’s supposed to pay for.”

Hanif agrees that lack of representation is a crucial factor behind why the NYTWA plan has not gotten broader traction with city officials. Still, she says the medallion scandal is at least getting some attention, partly because it involves New York’s iconic yellow cabs. She argues that the voices of immigrant women, and the issues that dominate their lives, are even more marginalized in the city’s political discourse, and her platform is focused on them. 

Hanif grew up in a home where her living room served as a safe space for immigrant Bangladeshi women suffering from domestic violence. The policy most important to her is setting up a fund for survivors of domestic violence with money that would come from defunding the NYPD. To achieve this goal, she says she’s mobilizing an army of “aunties” from her community, and her campaign has been endorsed by 100 female leaders in her district. Immigrants are under-represented, she says, but so are women: There are 51 seats in New York’s City Council, and only 13 are filled by women. With the Democratic primary coming up this Tuesday, the candidates and activists pushing to change this dynamic — and voters — will find out soon whether this imbalance is starting to shift.

Reporting for an earlier version of this story was conducted in partnership with THE CITY and The Fuller Project.

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