In the month after Donald Trump took office, Steve Choi appeared daily on TVs around the New York metropolitan area. Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), played a leading role in the opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban and every other anti-immigrant initiative of the new administration.
His staff helped organize the hundreds of volunteer lawyers who turned out at John F. Kennedy International Airport on the first weekend of the ban, and they trained advocates across New York State to defend immigrant communities against the intensified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that started in March.
Choi has been at the helm of NYIC, the largest state-wide immigration coalition in the United States, for more than four years. He came to the coalition after years of working for immigrant communities in New York City. He started as an intern at a Korean nonprofit organization in Flushing, Queens, in 1999.
“I had a great experience in Flushing developing policy positions and leading visits to Congress. I was also working with lawyers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). I saw the practice of law as a way to help seek justice,” he recalled. “I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Choi went to Harvard Law and kept his commitment.
“I wanted to represent low-wage workers cheated by their bosses,” he says of his early career goal.
So, Choi went back to the Korean community group in Flushing, now called the Minkwon Center. He remembered that on his first day there, he and the executive director made lunch together for everyone at the center.
“I had to make the rice,” he said all these years later, “and, I quickly discovered that if the rice maker and the microwave were on at the same time, the power blew out.”
He thought about the experience as symbolic of the small nonprofit.
“What they lacked in money, they made up for in spirit and commitment,” he says wistfully.
Choi became the head of the NYIC in June 2013, the same week that the Senate passed the bipartisan Immigration Reform bill.
“I was thrust into the storm of legislation and I had to learn how to lead a coalition at the same time,” he said. “Every step we take is scrutinized, and everything we say has an impact on politicians.”
The coalition’s diversity is its strength, but it can also be a challenge. The NYIC represents communities ranging from Mexican day laborers in Staten Island, Central Americans with Temporary Protected Status on Long Island, and Nepalese refugees in Buffalo. In 2015 and 2016, the NYIC doubled in size and strength to more than 200 organizations.
“We were successfully pushing forward progressive immigration policies at the state and federal level,” he recalled.
As the presidential elections drew near, Choi said he viewed Election Day with both “hope and dread.” When Donald Trump was elected, he saw it as an opportunity to organize for the defense of immigrants. His efforts helped provide protection for immigrants targeted by the Trump administration.
He has also been particularly sensitive to the threatened position that immigrants on Long Island find themselves in. The island split its vote nearly evenly between Trump and Clinton, and half of the region’s elected officials endorsed Trump.
Some politicians on Long Island have tried to curry the favor of Trump voters by adopting anti-immigrant policies. The NYIC is trying to parry these moves by holding Long Island institutions accountable for violations of the rights of immigrants. One example of this came on Monday when the coalition filed Freedom of Information Act requests demanding documents relating to ICE cooperation with the Nassau and Suffolk Police Departments.
Steve also hopes to soon have a full-time organizer on Long Island, and he plans on devoting more coalition resources to assist the community organizations struggling to sustain the 526,000 immigrants living here.