October 22, 2014

The Midwest Pushes Ahead on Immigration Reform

From The Chicago Sun-Times:

Despite inaction on immigration reform in Washington, local municipal and civic leaders are getting things done. Across the country, state houses, city halls and community coalitions are addressing immigration-related policies on their own, creating new ways to strengthen their communities and grow their economies.

Immigrants are a growing demographic in local communities, making immigrant integration a decidedly local concern. The federal gridlock only helps inspire local leaders to tackle what others have postponed addressing.

What’s new and novel today is the shift from enforcement-heavy local policy — such as Arizona’s draconian Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, which criminalized the failure to carry immigraiton documents and gave police authority to detain solely based on suspicion of immigration status — to a series of immigrant-friendly local policies. What’s also striking is the growing number of these local initiatives found in the Midwest, a region with a reputation for being demographically homogenous and generally resistant to change.

Pro-immigration efforts come as no surprise in a place like Chicago, with its rich history of immigration and a mayor who aims to make the Windy City “the most immigrant-friendly city in the nation.” In 2011, he established an Office of New Americans. But city-sponsored programs dedicated to immigrant integration are decidedly more pioneering in places like Indiana, where welcoming initiatives stand in sharp contrast with the state’s 2011 passage of SB590, similar to Arizona’s SB1070.

The Welcoming Center of Indianapolis promotes a successful volunteer network of Natural Helpers, established immigrants who assist new immigrants in transitioning to life in Indianapolis. And Fort Wayne’s Municipal Action for Immigrant Integration offers a “CITYzenship” program that aims to build city officials’ working relationship with immigrant communities.

Such efforts are also trailblazing in Iowa, a state infamous for the 2006 and 2008 federal immigration raids in meatpacking plants in Marshalltown and Postville. But in fact Iowa’s community colleges have expanded their English as a Second Language programs and city leaders have traveled to Mexico to learn about the origins of their largest immigrant community. The Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration offers tailored consulting to assist local communities and businesses in better engaging with immigrants and refugees.

Midwestern hospitality is reflected in large state-level immigrant initiatives in Illinois and Michigan and in smaller communities like Dodge City, Kansas — with a population just over 27,000 as of the 2010 Census — as an affiliate of Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative. Innovative regional efforts like the Global Great Lakes Network connect like-minded inter-state leaders and organizations in sharing best practices, maximizing impact and resources.

The Midwest’s embrace of its immigrant population is rooted in pragmatism. Savvy civic leaders know that immigration is increasingly a demographic lifeline for the Heartland: Census data show that over the last decade, the metro areas of the 12-state region have shed a collective 1.4 million native-born residents. At the same time, the region’s immigrant population rose 27 percent. Immigration now accounts for 38.4 percent of all metro area growth in the Midwest, with new immigrants sustaining populations, tax bases, and federal political representation, and, perhaps most critically, replacing aging native-born workers in regional labor forces. From Davenport to Duluth, South Bend to Sheboygan, many Midwestern communities are growing almost exclusively because immigrant families are choosing to call them home.

To keep things in perspective, the Midwest is still home to its fair share of restrictive policies. There is more work to be done. But the region’s level of action and commitment to immigrant integration represent a remarkable shift in rhetoric from previous years. Today, the Midwest is home to a significant number of local initiatives, working in concert with efforts in other regions: California’s governor just signed new immigration reform legislation. Atlanta’s mayor recently announced the creation of an office of multicultural affairs. Nashville just launched an Office of New Americans. And many have looked to New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs as a blueprint for best practices.

Immigration is, at its core, a local phenomenon, playing out where people actually live and work — and as such, local initiatives will continue to play a critical role in long-term immigration policy, either working in concert with a future federal reform or continuing to fill the void caused by a prolonged congressional stalemate.

Either way, the Midwestern momentum around the issue is unprecedented and notable, offering an example for D.C. policymakers as to what is possible when pragmatism prevails over partisan politics, and policy focuses on facilitating connections between people and the places they live.

Juliana Kerr is director of the Immigration Initiative for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Paul McDaniel is the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Fellow for the American Immigration Council.