In his historic speech to Congress, Pope Francis hailed the welcoming values of acceptance and diversity that the United States represents throughout the world.
“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ hopeful words uplifting newcomers in the United States stand in stark contrast to the current immigration debate where many national candidates are espousing distinctly anti-immigrant, un-American positions — ideals that are contrary not only to our collective conscience, but the values upon which our nation was founded.
Beginning with the backlash against “sanctuary” city policies, the national debate now consists of offensive sound bites about “anchor babies” and attacks on the Constitution and birthright citizenship. In response to this toxic rhetoric, cities and advocacy groups are teaming up to lead a more thoughtful national discourse and taking action on the types of immigration reforms that benefit the interests and recognize the identity of our country.
From the moment President Obama’s executive actions were announced last November, Cities United for Immigration Action — a coalition of nearly 100 mayors and municipalities nationwide in support of immigration reform — began preparations to implement these programs. When baseless and politically motivated legal challenges were erected to slow down progress, these cities were among the first to demand that the programs be allowed to continue. Standing side-by-side with them were advocacy groups and coalitions like the New York Immigration Coalition, fighting for the hope and promise of relief programs for their communities.
And now, as some members of Congress attempt to capitalize on the recent attention given to the issue of sanctuary municipalities by withholding vital funding, we are leading the charge against this misguided penalization — advocating for a smart approach to immigration reform that builds trust between communities and law enforcement while providing the opportunity for all residents to thrive and participate in civic life, making cities safer and more prosperous for everyone.
The fact is that any approach focused on criminalizing immigrants is the wrong approach — public safety is actually put at risk, and all residents, citizen and non-citizen, suffer as a result. When Alabama passed its harsh anti-immigrant laws in 2011, local police found themselves overwhelmed by their immigration enforcement workloads, spending hours on routine traffic stops and embarrassing the state’s public image with high-profile arrests of Mercedes Benz and Honda employees. Local Latino communities stopped talking to the police entirely, including to report crime, and the state’s agriculture and construction industry suffered immense losses due to labor shortage. Arizona’s Maricopa County is another example; under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the county has actively tried to turn its police officers into Federal enforcement agents. But the result was devastating – response times to life-threatening emergencies, arrest rates, and other routine police work fell below standards, while serious crimes went uninvestigated.
In contrast, cities pursuing a “smart” approach — both traditional immigrant hubs like New York City, and also places like Dayton, Ohio, and Nashville, Tennessee — have experienced transformational boosts in their economy and civic life, in addition to cutting down on crime. Crime rates are in fact lower in San Francisco than other similar-sized cities without sanctuary policies. Somerville, Massachusetts, saw a 41 percent decrease in crime since instituting a sanctuary policy. New York City, with a 40 percent immigrant population, is the safest it has been in years. To underscore this message, mayors for a number of cities across the country, all of whom are members of the Cities United for Immigration Action coalition, sent a letter to congressional leadership, counteracting the divisive message of the proposed sanctuary cities legislation.
But a “smart” approach can go beyond cutting down on crime — it can truly revitalize cities and states, making them more vibrant and dynamic. Across the nation, many jurisdictions are catching on — offering undocumented immigrants routes to drivers’ licenses, professional licenses, affordable college degrees, and other opportunities that will enrich the city as a whole. Dayton, a manufacturing city that had lost 40 percent of its population after 1960, has actively welcomed immigrant newcomers to the city and experienced a reversal of fortune including impressive economic growth and the transformation of blighted neighborhoods by new immigrant residents. Nashville went from considering English-only city ordinances in 2007 to being voted the nation’s friendliest city in 2012. By establishing a citywide welcoming initiative for immigrants, Nashville has now become one of the nation’s fastest growing, job-producing cities.
We need look no further than New York City to see the benefits of a “smart” approach. With one of the highest and most diverse immigrant populations in the country, the Big Apple has chosen to embrace its immigrant diversity and the economic, cultural and social benefits of welcoming this population – not only by creating a successful policy on immigration enforcement, but also by offering a municipal ID, idNYC, that offers a wide range of free benefits to all residents, including undocumented immigrants.
Organizations like the New York Immigration Coalition help to reinforce the need for cities like New York to work with immigrant communities, provide support and resources, and build trust — further ensuring the safety of all. And by treating immigrant residents as an asset rather than a threat, New York City continues to grow and thrive as a dynamic metropolitan center.
At this moment, municipalities across the nation need to take a stand on whether or not they want to be irrational cities suffering the disastrous effects of policies that just don’t work, or heed the words of Pope Francis and become “smart” cities that are safe and thriving. Will our communities go the way of Maricopa County, or New York City? Will we heed the words of the Pope or continue with this misguided approach to shutting out the very people who are the backbone of the United States? We look forward to building a movement of more cities taking up a smarter approach to immigrant inclusion, where talent, initiative, and great ideas find ample room to grow.
Nisha Agarwal is the commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Steven Choi is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.