Latin Post presents "Turnout", a series that features leading Latino politicians, government leaders and advocacy groups discussing and debating the most important issues facing the Latino voting bloc.

Listen to the Full "Turnout" Interview with Melissa Mark-Viverito: 

The New York City metropolitan area is home to the second-largest Latino population in the U.S., and NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has become one of the major figures in advocating for the rights of Latinos, specifically the undocumented population.

Mark-Viverito, council member for the city's 8th District, which includes East Harlem and southern neighborhoods of The Bronx, has been vocal on the "toxic" progress by Congress and engaging Latinos to become politically motivated. Latin Post's Michael Oleaga spoke with Mark-Viverito about immigration reform, the current Republican-controlled Congress, progress within New York City and activating the Latino electorate ahead the next election:

Michael Oleaga: Latinos have made it known immigration is among their top three issues -- along with the economy and education -- yet on a national level, in Congress, there's no progress. How important is it for Latinos to have their politicians accountable for their inaction?

Melissa Mark-Viverito: "Very. They have to. It's critical, that's the only way we're going to get progress, if we hold people accountable to their actions or inactions ... we've been talking about it. We've done a lot of great work in New York City, but for the next presidential election and the congressional elections that are happening and whatever Senate seats that may be open, people should be willing to elect people out of office if they are not willing to [be] supportive of this issue."

Oleaga: What is your view on Congress, so far, when it comes to handling these major issues such as immigration reform?

Mark-Viverito: "Not a good one. I think obviously here in New York City, we have a great delegation from New York City. They're standing right on the issues, but you've got Republicans that just want to hold every action hostage for whatever reason, they want to humiliate the president, whatever they want to do. It's not a good situation, and it's holding this country back. ... All of those [New York City delegation lawmakers] are supportive of some sort of bipartisan immigration action to be taken. It hasn't happened. We have a great solid, on that, we're not in a bad place, but obviously the majority is Republican and it's leaning towards a very conservative, more tea party element and that's very toxic for this country."

Oleaga: What are your thoughts on the immigration executive action lawsuit that's trying to block President Obama's deferred action programs?

Mark-Viverito: "This is the Republican-reactionary wing that continues to try to stifle any progress. They're doing that with the Affordable Care Act as well, now we have that in the Supreme Court, and those lawsuits were funded by the Koch brothers, etc. It's anything to basically try to hold this government and this president, in particular, hostage. It's really ugly to be honest and it's just really creating difficult situations for our community and for families in our communities who are having families ripped apart. We're trying to prepare regardless of the lawsuit. I believe it will be vacated at some point -- the one regarding the immigrant executive action -- but we're trying to prepare here to have our organizations ready to provide whatever assistance is needed.

Oleaga: Since you became city council speaker, what have been some major efforts to help the undocumented immigrant population that perhaps the rest of the nation should note?

Mark-Viverito: "We've done a lot. ... [W]e did a public-private partnership, which we put a lot of million dollars into the private sector, The Philanthropic Center put about a million [dollars] so we can provide legal services to the unaccompanied minors so that every child gets representation, and we've had already some good results out of that. We've put money to provide legal services for anyone who is in the process of cases regarding deportation proceedings and that also has had favorable results because we believe that people come here to contribute positively, for the most part, and nobody should be ripped away from their family for some sort of low-level offense."

Mark-Viverito: "The [Obama] administration supposedly is doing that, as well, in terms of more targeted and selective prosecution of cases, but we've put money towards that. We've also passed legislation to limit the cooperation of city employees with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in terms of honoring detainers and that's really critical because a detainer is basically the first step in a deportation proceeding. We've taken very, very strong steps and some of that stuff is being actually looked, other cities are also looking to emulate what we've done here in New York. We're setting an example and making a strong statement."

Oleaga: What about the immigration ID [program]?

Mark-Viverito: The Municipal ID is helpful to undocumented immigrants, but it is for every New Yorker, so, the transgender community can self-identify in the cards and sometimes that's very important to the gay community. Obviously, it's very important for seniors who maybe have difficulty getting some sort of state ID. It's important for the undocumented, as well.

Oleaga: Before we look into the 2016 elections, what do you think about the Latino voter turnout in 2014? There are multiple reports stating its either the same or lower rate than 2010 midterm statistics.

Mark-Viverito: "That's a problem and that's why there's some groups out there like the Latino Victory Project that is trying to activate the Latino base and get people mobilized and energized to be more active in the upcoming elections, because we're going to be the decisive vote if we get out and then we vote. We need to make sure that voice is heard because that's going to make sure that next president is responsive to our community in a better way.

Oleaga: Here in New York City, what has been done or in the works to politically engage Latinos and the millennial population?

Mark-Viverito: "I'm not sure what level, what's happening on the ground just yet. I know there's always voter registration campaigns, but me, personally, I know I'm going to lend my voice to an organization like the Latino Victory Project to try to really get the message out there throughout the country, that this is the moment for us to step up to the plate and to make this next president, and our vote be the one that make that president, and as a result, they to respond to us and get immigration and other things done."

Oleaga: About the Latino Victory Project and motivating Latinos politically?

Mark-Viverito: "We need to create a pipeline to run people -- municipal elections, state elections, federal elections -- we need candidates. We also want to make sure we are motivating Latinos to also consider to run for office because that's the way that we also change policies ... when we have our views and our perspectives in decision-making power and decision-making roles. I'm interested in doing that here in New York City, to work and identify candidates. Many of us Latinos are leaving in the next cycle here in the City Council, so we have to make sure we have Latino candidates ready to run."

Oleaga: What would you say to Latino millennials to be engaged?

Mark-Viverito: "The easy thing to say is 'you've got to do it,' right? And 'engaged' is many different ways. People should be learning about the issues that are happening in your immediate community, going to meetings and reaching out to your elected officials. It's our civic responsibility, as members of a democracy, to be involved and we can't continue to, unfortunately, there's like a countercurrent, 'cause one of the aspects of capitalism can be selfishness and individualism, which is not a bad thing, per sé, but I think sometimes it's taken to an extreme and we have to understand we live in a community, we should be concerned about the well-being of everyone and we have to work towards that progress and you do that by becoming involved, not to be apathetic, and to be engaged and find out what is happening and how can I help. That's something that I always would hear from others as I was growing up, that 'you need to be more involved and engaged' and I figured out ways that I can do that."

"But the millennials -- they are the ones that can be the decision-makers here, too. My interest is to see them more involved, and I know there's a lot of cynicism but the only way we can change that cynicism is by making change happen and you only make change happen if you're involved."


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