Bill de Blasio Says City Must Lead Nation on Immigrant Rights

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray hosting this morning's Immigrant Heritage Breakfast.  (Photo: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray hosting this morning’s Immigrant Heritage Breakfast. (Photo: Ed Reed/NYC Mayor’s Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city must lead the nation when it comes to expanding immigrant rights at a breakfast this morning at Gracie Mansion marking the end of Immigrant Heritage Week.

“This is New York City in all its glory,” said Mr. de Blasio as he took stock of the crowd packed into a ballroom, describing a  “beautiful example in this room of what makes the city great.”

Mr. de Blasio cited stats showing the city’s population of foreign-born residents was 37.2 percent in 2011–the highest since 1910, more than a century ago, when 40 percent of city residents were foreign born.

“We are the ultimate immigrant city and it’s not a surprise that we’re also … the center of innovation, entrepreneurship, culture, creativity. It all directly connects to the vibrancy brought to us through the immigration experience,” said Mr. de Blasio, who was joined on stage by his wife, Chirlane McCray, who spoke extensively about her own family’s complicated immigrant history.

“One reason New York City is so welcoming is that it’s in our DNA; it’s who we are,” he said. “It’s who we’ve always been.”

Mr. de Blasio pointed to his own Italian heritage, which he said gave him a personal connection to immigration issues. He spoke, at one point, to “our brothers and sisters who happen to be undocumented,” and described the outrage he felt when Arizona passed controversial legislation that allowed officers to demand documentation from anyone they suspected to be in the country illegally.

“I thought to myself, you know, my forbearers happened to be Italian. But if you met my grandfather Giovanni he had kind of olivey skin, he was a little short, he spoke with a very, very heavy accent,” he said. “So if you’re walking down the street when that law was passed in Arizona … he could have been immediately identified as someone who was different from the mainstream.” When immigrants are mistreated he said, “It’s an affront to who we are as Americans, it’s an affront to who we are as New Yorkers.”

He then touted his administration’s efforts to introduce a city ID card that can be used by undocumented residents, arguing that it’s up to cities to make up the slack of an often reticent nation.

“If other elements of the Congress don’t see the light [on immigration reform] then it is the responsibility of all of us local level to do what we can do,” he said. “And I hope in the process, we set the pace, we set the expectation, we raise the bar,  and teach the federal government what it should have already known about a nation of immigrants. It’s our responsibility, New York City and cities all around the country, to change the environment … Often change has to come from the grassroots up, and that’s our pursuit here in this city.”

Mr. de Blasio also debuted a video touting the immigrant backgrounds of many of those in his administration: