How New York's Top Latina Politician Melissa Mark-Viverito is Fighting for Women and Immigrants

How New York's Top Latina Politician Melissa Mark-Viverito is Fighting for Women and Immigrants
William Alatriste

Last week, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito gave her last State of the City address, proving more than ever what a momentous force she has been to the progressive city.

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The 47-year-old puertorriqueña is the first Latina to ever hold citywide office, and with just a few months left in her term, she has shown it's going to take a lot to walk in her zapatos.

Her latest address, where she discussed immigration, criminal justice, reproductive rights and her fierce opposition to the Trump agenda, was further proof.

We talked with Mark-Viverito about her mentioned plans to help women and immigrants throughout the city, her time as Council Speaker, what we can expect from New York’s most powerful Latina after her term and her unwavering resistance to Trump’s most dangerous policies.

While President Donald Trump has proposed defunding sanctuary cities, you're planning to add greater protections and help for immigrants in New York, including limiting cooperation between the city and ICE, creating a new Nationwide Convening of Sanctuary Cities for lawmakers to support immigrant communities, and the creation of Immigrant Family Resource Centers in each borough. Why is this important for you, especially considering the powerful opposition in the White House?

I think we've seen not only New York but other cities and states that are resisting and pushing back. It's not just us. There's strength in numbers, and that's why it's important to convene sanctuary cities. We need to push and explore legal options as cities. We need to see how legislation in other cities have been incorporated and how they're working. There's not an isolated voice out there saying what's being proposed by the administration is ridiculous; it's several strong voices. Here in New York, we want our immigrant communities to be clear about what their rights are. Federal agents are already barred from entering certain spaces and we are looking at how to expand that into private places. We want to have resource centers, safe spaces immigrants can come to to learn their rights and hear about the legal resources available to them without fear. We're doing a whole series of actions and going as far as we can go. That's my commitment.

Even more, you announced that the Council would work with four of the city’s five district attorneys to do away with outstanding warrants for the hundreds of thousands of low-level summonses that are more than 10 years old. What benefit do you think this will bring to your city?

When we talk about criminal reform, this really matters and impacts a lot of people. If someone is summoned for a non-violent offense, say drinking beer in public, and misses a court date, that summons now becomes another warrant. That’s ridiculous. You have this hanging over your head, sometimes people don't even know, and you're stopped again and then arrested and taken into prison. If someone hasn't had interactions with the criminal justice system for ten years, they shouldn't have to undergo that. We believe in second chances. And this will have impact on people. There will be benefits for those with job prospects and those who want to rent. I'm excited. It took a lot of negotiation and working to get to an agreement on 10 years. Some wanted to go 20 years or more, and we saw that as not very impactful.

You also noted that the Council will fight to protect a woman’s constitutional right to control her own body and that it will provide all women in New York City with free access to birth control. Why was this important, especially for Latinas and immigrant communities?

It's important because we have seen a constant attempt to erode women's constitutional rights to do what she wants with her own body and health, from birth control access to abortion. We believe women have a right and deserve access to this, so we're working with partner organizations to help women know where they need to go for contraception access. But it's also a statement. We've seen the attacks to Planned Parenthood. It's devastating. It's a basic form of health care, where women can affordably visit physicians and get physicals. We've seen attempts at state and federal levels to limit access to birth control, and we want to send a statement of our values and push back on the roll back of the ACA and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Would this also include trans men, many of whom still need access to such contraception?

We're open to all of that. Obviously, what I announced is what we believe, and now we will have a conversation on how we will roll it out. In talking with the advocates, we'll establish more of the details, but we're open to it.

(Photo Credit: William Alatriste)

We're talking a lot about the future. What is one of your proudest accomplishments in your three years as Speaker?

I'm just proud of the track record. When you take a look at the whole record of accomplishments, what we've done to defend immigrant communities, create a fair criminal justice system, and see how this intersects with all communities, we're trying to create better equity and justice in our city. That's really what I'm proud of, working on immigration, the Young Women's Initiative, and I'm proud of a legacy of accomplishments that made real impact on the lives of people. That's what matters.

What has been one of the most challenging parts of this job?

Oh boy. It's hard to say. Leading 50 other members, with everyone representing their own districts, while pushing forward an agenda that's progressive and inclusive, and keeping on top of the needs of your colleagues, keeping them happy, keeping them collaborative, it takes a lot of work and effort. We live in a city that's progressive and for the most part supports us. There is some resistance, but we are able to navigate it. I knew what I was getting into, so the challenges or push back, including from the press, I've been able to deal with.

There are rumors about your next steps. One that you're considering a run for office in Puerto Rico and another about a possible campaign for mayor of New York City. Is there anything you can say about either?

I've very clearly said that Mayor De Blasio is running for reelection, and that I support him. You always have to be ready for everything. I want to continue to contribute to New York City and move projects and initiatives ahead, so I'm going to continue to look at contributing outside elective roles. But you got to be ready. I keep all options and opportunities open and want to be ready.

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What is something you know for sure you'll be doing after your term is up?

I'm going to be playing a role in the resistance to this administration, which is scapegoating immigrants and Muslims as criminals. And I'm also going to help rebuild the Democratic Party. There's new leadership coming in, and we need to reclaim seats. I want to contribute to that and be part of the work. Those are two things I know for sure I'll be engaged in.