Celebrating Constitution Day: Assemblyman Tom Abinanti Discusses Immigration and Naturalization with Students


Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (center) discussing immigration and naturalization with Pace students in terms of the Constitution to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Photo by Callie Anderson.

Callie Anderson, News Editor

On Sept. 17, 1787, 39 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Constitution. On Constitution Day 231 years later, 27 Pace students gathered in the Kessel Multipurpose room at an event hosted by the Student Government Association (SGA) to discuss the Constitution and its influence on foreign policy with Assemblyman Tom Abinanti.

Constitution Day celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Because the document provides the framework for the American government, one may assume that it is extremely long. However, the Constitution is less than 5,000 words. Those who attended Monday’s event were given a pocket-sized Constitution and out of the 96 pages in this book, only 14 were actually in the 18th-century document.

“The Constitution is a small document nobody ever thinks about,” Abinanti. “It is a small document, but it governs a lot. The Constitution keeps us strong as a country.”

This was the assemblyman’s third year celebrating the holiday at Pace. Last year, discussion revolved around free speech. However, this year’s conversation focused mainly on immigration and naturalization policies in light of the constant battles within federal, state, and local governments on these policies.

“Immigration has become the civil rights issue of today,” Abinanti said.

Looking to the Constitution, there is little that addresses immigration. In fact, the word “immigration” is not even in the Constitution. The document does, however, give the federal government the power to set up the naturalization process to become a citizen. Outside the 14th Amendment—which declares that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens—the Constitution says nothing else on immigration and naturalization.

Historically, state governments have wanted stricter policy on immigration while the federal government has wanted the opposite, and it became the role of the courts to find a balance between the two. Abinanti pointed out that this trend has now switched, and states—including New York—have sued the federal government because federal policy has gotten stricter.

“The national level discussion is coming down to a local level discussion,” Abinanti said, referring to the shift in federal policy.

Since New York state is home to almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants, federal policy on immigration and naturalization immediately becomes a local issue for many New Yorkers. Abinanti urged students to “get educated about the Constitution because it affects our daily lives.”

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo announced that New York would be suing the Trump administration in response to the separation of undocumented immigrant children from their parents and the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which aims to prosecute all people who enter the U.S. illegally.

In certain instances, federal agencies ask state and local agencies to help enforce federal policy on immigration including sharing people’s immigration statues. Abinanti believes states should be allowed to object.

“I think states should have the right to not cooperate,” he said.

Students and the assemblyman discussed the balance between federal powers and state powers on immigration. Giving the federal government all of the power could create some form of dictatorship, while giving states too much power could also backfire.

In his opinion, federal officials, not state or local officials, should enforce federal policy. Furthermore, Abinanti shared how he sees some federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have become an arm of President Donald Trump rather than being an independent agency.

“The way ICE follows rules is dictated by the president,” he said.

In response to President Trump’s immigration policy, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed the New York State Liberty Act in February 2017. This act would make immigration status more confidential by preventing state and local officials from disclosing people’s status, and by preventing law enforcement agencies from asking people about their status.

The Republican-controlled Senate has not considered the bill, so it has been sitting in the Senate’s Finance Committee for over a year and a half.

Abinanti’s ideal immigration policy would include reunification for all families separated at the border, a reasonable path to citizenship, and civil liberty protection for all immigrants.

“New York is open for everybody,” the assemblyman said. “New York thrives and survives because of everybody here.”

Near the end of the holiday’s celebration, Abinanti encouraged students to register to vote, get their friends to register to vote, and then actually get out to vote on election day.

“Students have the energy to move campaigns and the academic environment to challenge and entertain ideas,” he said.