Governor Andrew Cuomo recently appointed civil rights attorney and Democratic political activist Jenifer Rajkumar as his Director of Immigration Affairs & Special Counsel for the New York Department of State.
The former “Elected Leader” for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, who lost her 2016 bid for the New York State Assembly, took office Feb. 6, and has been busy crafting strategies to implement the Governor’s immigration initiatives.
She told Desi Talk that with the large pool of talent among Indian-Americans, they could be drivers of change by getting more involved in government.
Rajkumar’s appointment takes on added importance when immigration is a hot-button issue at the national level and front and center for the Trump administration. Gov. Cuomo is seen by some political observers, as positioning himself for a future presidential bid, and has taken on the role of bulwark against Washington’s seemingly controversial steps in immigration.
According to a Cuomo spokesperson, Rajkumar will join the Governor as a “driving force” for immigration projects in the state. “The governor has handed Jenifer the opportunity to get new Americans involved in the civic life of the state,” Mercedes Padilla, public information officer at the N.Y. Department of State, told Desi Talk.
While these are early days, Rajkumar told this she is proud to be in government after years of being a civil rights attorney and a local elected official. “Every day I get to make change and have a real opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.” she said. Some of the projects she said she is working on currently include making sure all immigrants have legal representation when needed.
“One of my priorities is to make sure immigrant families are protected especially in this climate where ICE is very active,” said Rajkumar using the acronym for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “We want families to be prepared for that.”
The successive travel bans on immigrants and refugees from certain countries, an increase in attacks on minority immigrants, and a perception that rounding up of undocumented persons charged or convicted of crimes has increased, are all issues Rajkumar would be keeping track of.
She is also meeting with several community groups representing different ethnicities and religions to get them engaged in the immigration initiatives and. “I am actively reaching out to South Asians, Indian-Americans, including Sikhs, Latinos, the Jewish community, and others. My door is open.”
Rajkumar has a resume that fits “perfectly” with her new job. She has been involved in civil rights cases for several years at the law firm Sanford Heisler LLP, focusing on class action litigation on women’s rights, gender discrimination, and workers rights; she was named in 2015 and 2016 to the NY-Metro Super Lawyers Rising Stars List, an honor given to about 2.5% of lawyers state-wide. Rajkumar has discussed public policy issues regularly as a panelist on PBS Show “To the Contrary,” and taught immigration as a professor at City University of New York’s Lehman College. In 2011, she became the first Indian-American elected District Leader in Manhattan winning with 70 percent of the vote, and was re-elected several times.
Rajkumar works closely with the Office of New Americans, a first of its kind department in the country, that has helped more than 120,000 immigrants on issues like naturalization, training, language learning etc.
She praised Cuomo was being the “agent of change” in the state on issues like same sex marriage, minimum wage, paid family leave etc., and immigration, an increasingly hot-button issue.
In November 2016, the Governor announced the creation of a Hate Crimes Task Force following a New York Police Department report showing a spike in hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities during the presidential campaign. Prior to that, a 2014 report from the New York State Division Of Criminal Justice Services, showed a 9.6 percent reduction from 2013. In 2014, more than half the attacks (53.9 percent) targeted property and not people, an overwhelming majority being Jewish properties, and perpetrators almost equally divided between whites and blacks (39.6 and 38.8 respectively, another18.3 percent Hispanic, and 18.3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander).
In 2016 however, according to the NYPD report, hate crimes spiked by 31 percent, with anti-Muslim and anti-”sexual orientation” motivations responsible for much of the increase. The week after the Nov. 8 presidential election, the number of hate crimes rose even more, the report said.
“In my job I focus on implementing the Governor’s initiatives, to keep New York as the beacon of hope and inclusivity that it is,” she said, crediting the Governor with working to protect minorities like Sikhs and Muslims from hate crimes.
A graduate of Stanford Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Rajkumar was named a 40 Under 40 Rising Star by City & State, a 2017 Queens Rising Star by the Star Network for her work organizing immigrants in Queens among other achievements. There are some 4.3 million immigrants in New York state; Some 31.2 percent of all business owners are immigrants. And around $229 billion in revenues is annually generated by foreign-born business owners according to data Rajkumar provided. “We need South Asians to drive change through the government,” Rajkumar said. “Indian-Americans and South Asians have done so well in medicine, finance, technology … It’s time to emerge in the government space – learning how to navigate that space,” Rajkumar said.