What Cities Can Teach Us About Immigration Reform

As the federal government attempts to come to some agreement on immigration they could learn from America's cities.
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The Trump administration has prioritized reducing immigration by any and all possible means, a pursuit that literally brought the government to a standstill this weekend. While the nation tries to decipher the mixed messages coming from the White House and Congress scrambles to develop a reform agenda that will garner bipartisan support, it's easy to survey our national conversation about immigration and see only anger, dysfunction, and a fundamental disagreement about what it means to be an American.

But at the local level, things look quite different: Cities across the country are consistently, decisively, and increasingly leading with policies of migrant inclusion and integration.

There are over 244 million migrants in the world today, contributing 9.4 percent of global gross domestic product. Since most immigrants live in metropolitan regions, cities big and small recognize their stake in this debate and are spearheading policies to promote social and economic integration of immigrants and refugees. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where I serve as director of global cities and immigration, has studied the economic impact of immigration for more than 10 years, offering non-partisan solutions to address today's realities and studying how cities can remain competitive in the global economy. When it comes to immigration, these two issues intersect.

While we prepare for the next federal-level showdown over immigration policy, cities can institute practical initiatives, many of which were recently highlighted at the 2017 National Immigrant Integration Conference. Here are nine ways to do it, both inside city limits and beyond.

Create a Mayor's Office for Immigrant Affairs or New Americans

These offices provide a number of services to support immigrant integration, such as financial literacy, citizenship workshops, and access to ESL classes. New York City opened its office in 1984 but there has been a remarkable increase in the number of these offices in the last decade: Over 20 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, and Seattle, opened offices between 2008 and 2015. And the trend is expanding. Dozens of communities, such as Anchorage, Fargo, Grand Rapids, and Tulsa, were selected for the New American Economy's Gateways for Growth awards, which provides matching grants and technical assistance to develop strategic plans for immigrant communities.

Re-Assert Municipal Law Enforcement's Commitment to Public Safety

The controversial "sanctuary cities" movement is often mistaken for providing immunity to all undocumented immigrants. It does not: It simply re-asserts that cities will not use limited local law enforcement resources to enforce federal immigration laws. The reasoning behind this, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti explains in his executive directive "Standing With Immigrants: A City of Safety, Refuge, and Opportunity for All," is to enhance public safety for all residents. In L.A., police officers are prohibited from arresting anyone solely due to the person's civil immigration status, because "when people feel confident that they can come forward as a victim of or a witness to a crime, irrespective of immigration status, the police department's ability to protect and serve all is enhanced."

Develop Programs to Support Undocumented Residents

Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles created legal defense funds for lawyers and non-profit organizations to represent undocumented immigrants facing deportation. The late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced the city would cover the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals renewal application fees for residents. Chicago offers the Star Scholarship—free education at City Colleges of Chicago—to all who qualify, regardless of immigration status.

Implement Municipal ID Programs

Municipal ID cards provide everyone living in the city—immigrant or native-born, documented or undocumented—with access to important benefits like library cards, pre-paid debit cards, and public transportation. Chicago rolled out its "CityKey" card in December, which started off as an ID to help undocumented immigrants feel part of the city.

Explore Strategic Priorities With City Council Members

Several other strategies are underway that more cities can adopt, test, and, if they work, scale. Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, is looking into the possibility of offering a tax credit to companies who provide ESL courses to employees. In Akron, Ohio, immigrants are a demographic lifeline as the city loses its native-born population; the city recently released a "strategic welcome plan" to be a more welcoming place in an era of federal hostility.

Join Coalitions for Collective Action

Some meaningful actions extend beyond the city's border. Joining groups such as Cities for Action, a coalition of over 150 United States mayors, can amplify individual efforts and provide a platform to share best practices and sign on to group statements, such as the letter that urged the administration to extend TPS for Salvadorans in the U.S. Over 100 cities and counties share best practices and new ideas in Welcoming America's network, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to support inclusive communities.

Collaborate With Suburban Leaders

When it comes to attitudes toward immigration, there's a big urban-suburban divide. The 2016 Chicago Council Survey highlighted this phenomenon, with outer-ring suburban residents 15 percentage points more likely to support deportation and reject a path to citizenship. To close the gap, some city mayors, as in Boston and Chicago's Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, have begun convening metropolitan leaders to develop a regional strategy for immigration.

Push for Change at the State Level

City leaders have worked with state officials to pass state-level laws such as offering drivers' licenses or in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois, for example, followed Chicago's lead and signed the Trust Act in August of 2017.

Demand a Seat at the Global Table

Many cities signed a petition requesting a role in the United Nations' Global Compact on Migration. Mayors from New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia declared that it is imperative that municipalities be included in global cooperation, even if the country has withdrawn national-level engagement. They must now work aggressively and consistently to be present and participate.

Yes, there's still a lot that local leaders can't do: Cities may not be able to increase H-1B visa quotas, expand TPS, or grant legal status to undocumented immigrants. But with innovative local policies and collective action, they can help to create the momentum and establish norms for much-needed reforms. While the administration continues negotiating how to proceed, cities need to keep moving ahead as champions of inclusion and integration.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.