Borough President Melinda Katz said she would opt out of responding to the 2020 Census question regarding the documented status of residents and advised the crowd at Friday’s State of the Borough address to follow suit in a speech that covered not only immigration, but also criminal justice reform.
With up to 68,000 children in Queens live in mixed status households, according to Katz, policies out of the White House administration could impact residents across the borough, citizen or not.
“For each person in each household unaccounted for, that’s less federal funding for our schools, our hospitals, our infrastructure, even less representation in Congress and the state Legislature. An undercount is something we can’t afford,” Katz said during the address at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. “One way or the other, I plan to fight this … and if the citizen question appears on the survey, I will abstain. I will refuse to answer the question. You can call it a boycott. I, Melinda Katz, an American-born citizen, will boycott the citizenship question. Because times like these compel courage by those with the privilege to do so.”
Katz has put in place the Queens Complete Count Committee, which has over 70 people signed on to go about the borough and get real numbers on the population, documented immigrant or not.
The 2020 federal census is still under review by the House of Representatives oversight committee and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will have to testify regarding his decision to add the controversial question immigration status.
Katz walked a fine line with some Queens residents when she announced that she supports the closing of Rikers Island, on the grounds that the facility is antiquated and reforms are needed, but said neighborhood residents have to be involved in the decisions regarding the placement of community jails to ensure a smooth transition.
A new justice system that is safer, more humane and less costly is something Katz advocated for on the condition that communities have their say, something residents have vocalized the need for in the past year since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an agreement had been struck with the state in February 2018 to create borough-based jails.
“The irony, however, of unveiling a citywide plan for ‘modern community-based jails’ in the absence of community input is not lost on the boroughs, certainly not here in Queens,” Katz said. “Any plan by the city – especially the siting and design of any new jails – must include meaningful community engagement and input. I am deeply disturbed by the lack of opportunity thereof for the proposal to erect a 1.9-million-square-foot facility on 82nd Avenue, and that’s from a supporter of closing Rikers.”
With a projected timeline of a decade for the closure of Rikers, Katz said there is still time to include communities and implement reforms that reduce the jail population.
Katz said the continuation of warrant forgiveness, which outgoing District Attorney Richard Brown has implemented, can prevent small offenses from evolving into a life of crime for individuals who cannot afford lawyers fees and are facing low-level offenses such as loitering.
“And what if you’ve served time and have proven that you’ve turned your life around and are making good?” said Katz, who’s also running for Queens District Attorney. “One of Governor Cuomo’s greatest accomplishments, if you ask me, is legislation he signed into law 15 months ago that allows people with two or fewer nonviolent convictions to seal their records after a decade of staying clean. As many as 600,000 people across the state are eligible under the law but only 51 individuals in Queens had taken advantage of it as of December.”
As part of Katz’s “Know Your Rights” week, generally intended for immigrants, the borough president is now working with convicted felons to seal their records which could help pave the way to helping them find jobs and prevent recidivism.
Katz also highlighted the fact that schools in Queens are at 106 capacity borough-wide and schools get fewer funds per student here than in any other part of the city.
Although the School Construction Authority is working to site new locations for facilities, Katz said it will not be enough if more funds are not added to the $11,359 spent for very student in Queens – a sharp contrast to the $14,186 spent in the Bronx.