Between President Obama’s Executive Action on immigration and the upcoming presidential election, there has been a great deal of rhetoric about immigration at the federal level. Positive actions, however, are almost entirely taking place at the local and state level.
What is happening – and why is there such a disconnect?
Cities are almost overwhelmingly in favor of a more welcoming attitude towards immigrants. From the Cities for Citizenship campaign, a national initiative working to increase citizenship among eligible permanent residents, to Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative, city leaders are looking to community partnerships and other collaborative strategies to drive immigrant integration.
And while half of the states have joined a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s executive action on immigration, many local leaders in those states have come out in support of it. In early December, Cities United for Immigration Action was launched by a coalition of almost 50 mayors of cities spanning the country.
Not all news at the state and federal level is negative, though. Three years ago, Florida almost passed a bill that would have required law enforcement to check the status of anyone believed to be in the country without legal status. This May, it became one of 15 states to pass DREAM Act legislation allowing young undocumented immigrants to pay the same in-state college tuition rates as other Florida residents.
And as of January 1, 2015, California and Connecticut became the latest states to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Response was unprecedented – California had 17,000 applicants by the end of opening day and the California Department of Motor Vehicles projects some 1.4 million immigrants will seek licenses over the next three years. In Connecticut more than 6,500 undocumented residents obtained testing appointments online the first day they were available.
And in the courts, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction barring workplace raids targeting suspected illegal immigrants by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The judge said it was likely the advocates seeking the injunction would prevail in their U.S. District Court lawsuit claiming that the raids are unconstitutional and that federal law trumps two state statutes used to back them. Courts also have struck down Arizona’s human smuggling law and ban on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Two explanations immediately come to mind for the difference between local and national political attitudes towards immigration. The first is purely political – elected officials supporting or proposing legislation or other acts that they believe will boost their standings in the polls, particularly with their base. This certainly explains politicians who vocally endorse laws that have almost no chance of being either passed or brought to a vote.
The second explanation is of greater concern. Perhaps elected officials on the ground in our cities and towns see the real impact of immigrants and immigration policies on our communities. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, immigrants contribute to growth in many counties, particularly in growing regions of the country such as Sun Belt South, Mountain West, and Pacific Northwest regions. City officials in those regions can see how immigrants contribute – and how policies discouraging immigrants from fully participating in the local economy inhibit growth.
As states pursue lawsuits spurred by Obama’s executive action, and federal policymakers seek to block its enactment, we can only hope that pressure from our cities offsets and ultimately overwhelms national-level anti-immigration bias.