New York City's commissioner of immigration affairs talks about her roots, Muslim surveillance, New York's Dream Act, and celebrating our stories.
Fatima Shama (37:47)
Fatima Shama Q&A (29:09)
Fatima Shama, commissioner of immigrant affairs for New York City, launched the Center’s new “Conversations in Leadership” series on February 29 with a spirited discussion of issues involving equitable integration of all of New Yorkers into the economic and social fabric of the city.
In her forthright observations and compelling life story, CCNY students discovered a role model whose roots echo their own. Born and raised in the modest Parkchester section of the Bronx, Shama grew up in a mixed Brazilian-Catholic and Palestinian-Muslim family that encouraged her initiative. She received her undergraduate degree from SUNY Binghamton and a graduate degree in public administration from Baruch College, and attended law school at Temple University before gravitating to public service.
Sitting in conversation with Colin Powell Program Coordinator Michael Busch, a Ph.D. candidate in international relations, Shama addressed questions including the prospects for New York’s state-level DREAM act. The bill would permit undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children to gain access to financial aid, work authorization, and the right to possess a driver’s license if they meet certain criteria. The legislation’s outcome is uncertain, Shama said, but added, “Political momentum is behind its passage.”
Shama discussed her office's efforts to encourage immigrant integration, such as NYC One Nation. The civic engagement initiative encourages immigrants to become more involved in their neighborhoods; another effort joins forces with Channel Thirteen’s StoryCorps to celebrate diversity through storytelling.
In response to a question about the surveillance of Muslims by city police, Shama balanced the New York’s need for security with the need to respect the rights of individuals. "The question is, ‘how do we ensure that we’re not crossing the line in violating civil liberties.’" Shama said. “We also need to be very mindful of how we as Americans—as individuals—stand up for our neighbors, whoever they are, to ensure that their liberties are being protected.”
Shama urged audience members to seize life’s unexpected opportunities, such as the ones that led Shama to launch a workforce development organization in the Bronx and, later, to serve as executive director of the Greater Brooklyn Health Coalition and senior policy advisor on education for the Bloomberg administration. Shama also encouraged Center fellows and CCNY students to pursue their interests in policy and public service. “You have to be in it to change it,” she stressed. “Do not fear being a person engaged in the conversation.”