On November 20th, President Obama announced that his administration is making modifications to the U.S. immigration system, an announcement formally referred to as Immigration Accountability Executive Action. These executive actions , coming after long debate but inaction in Congress, include deferred action for up to 4.9 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. who meet certain criteria, regulatory revisions to a number of visa provisions, and guidance to agencies on certain components of immigration. The media and broader discourse surrounding the President’s immigration executive actions have focused mostly on the population who may be eligible for a new and expanded deferred action programs. Less focus has been on two presidential memos that were part of the announcement. One of them, the Creating Welcoming Communities and Fully Integrating Immigrants and Refugees memo, seeks to build a federal strategy on immigrant integration by creating a White House Task Force on New Americans. The idea of a Task Force on New Americans at the federal level, and strengthening federal efforts for immigrant and refugee integration, builds upon ongoing initiatives at the state and local level across the country.
This memo is important for a couple of reasons. First, through this memo, the President is defining that the concept of cultivating welcoming and inclusive communities is important. Words and actions of mayors and governors on immigrant and refugee integration at the municipal, metropolitan, and state levels have created safe spaces for a broad cross-sector of community leaders and organizations to work together to plan and implement integration strategies, benefitting their local communities. So too does the President’s acknowledgement that immigrant communities are a dynamic, positive component of the U.S. economy and society at the national, state, and local levels. As such, the federal government should look for ways in which it can be supportive of successful and innovative state and local integration initiatives.
Second, the concept of a Task Force on New Americans at the Federal level creates additional opportunities for multiple scales of government and organizations to learn from one another and to share information about challenges, opportunities, and best practices. David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America, observed that “when we feel welcome, we are much more likely to share our talents, ideas, and inspirations with those around us…Every day, communities around the country and across the globe are recognizing that being welcoming makes them more economically competitive and vibrant places for all residents.” Indeed, practitioner networks are already occurring at local, regional, national, and international levels through initiatives like the Global Great Lakes Network, Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties program, and Cities of Migration. The potential addition of a federal level network will create additional points of intersection. One point of intersection that the task force should include is the perspective of researchers who have studied the geography of immigrant settlement in the U.S. at the city, metropolitan regional, and state levels. Understanding this geography is a crucial for implementing any new immigrant and refugee integration program.
Learning from others, particularly local initiatives and organizations who have already been involved with immigrant and refugee integration, is important. In a recent piece for The Avenue, Nicole Svajlenka, Jill H. Wilson, and Audrey Singer, of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, described the important role of community organizations in assisting in the process of implementing changes and updates to federal immigration policy. Local organizations “serve as liaisons between agencies and individuals, disseminating information for agencies and representing the interests and needs of applicants. These organizations will remain important resources for municipal actors moving forward,” they said. They also observed that city and state offices working on immigrant integration are “relatively new to the scene.” But they have an important role to play. City or state offices of new Americans or immigrant affairs, found in cities like Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City and states like Michigan and Massachusetts are important for implementing immigration policy changes, particularly concerning immigrant and refugee integration.
Furthermore, local leaders are stating their support for recent action on immigration, but also acknowledge the need for Congressional action to make for more lasting reforms. Already, mayors and governors around the country are voicing their support for immigration administrative relief. Mayors in some of the largest cities in different regions of the U.S. stated that they support these actions and are conferring with one another to discuss how their cities can better align with the White House’s announced changes. The President’s announcement is “an unquestionable reminder that improving policies to further make immigrants part of the makeup of our society can be a powerful tool for fighting inequality, because it levels the playing field for more people, and expands opportunity for all,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “In Atlanta, the economic and social contributions of immigrants continue to strengthen our city’s cultural fabric, economic growth and global competitiveness,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, whose city became a “welcoming city” in 2013, said. “As a city and a nation, we are stronger when we embrace and support the diversity and vitality of immigrant populations…The President’s decision holds great potential for our country as we welcome immigrant communities into the economic, cultural and social mainstream.” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said his city is “fully prepared to carry out every directive from the White House to support Boston’s immigrant community…We are changing the paradigm through full integration and empowering immigrants and everyone to help make our communities stronger.”
Mayors also recognized that, while needed, the President’s actions are only a first step. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock noted that the President’s announcement “is another strong move to answer the call from cities all across America, like Denver, whose demands for Washington to address this vital issue have gone unanswered…The languishing issues within this country’s immigration system demand comprehensive action, and for that, Congress must also act.” In Nashville, Tennessee, Mayor Karl Dean said, “I am proud that Nashville is a welcoming place that recognizes the many contributions of the New Americans who have chosen to make our city their home. Immigrants and refugees make Nashville stronger and more vibrant. Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but until they do, the President’s action will allow some families in Nashville to participate more fully in our community. From a local perspective, our Mayor’s Office of New Americans will work with our nonprofit partners to help immigrants access the information they need.” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said, “Here in Philadelphia, we know that immigrants have a significant impact on the growth, economic development and cultural diversity that make this a world-class city. It is imperative that we give new Americans opportunities that will allow them to succeed because the current immigration system is holding them, our city and our country back.” Mayor Nutter also recognizes that these actions are not a permanent solution: “I urge our representatives in Congress to work with our President to establish a law that addresses the problems of the current immigration system that are clear to all of us—regardless of party or status. Ultimately, the lasting reforms we need to fix this broken system must be passed by Congress.”
Leaders of national mayoral and city networks also voiced their support for executive action on immigration while noting there is still a need for Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said, “For more than a decade the nation’s mayors have called for repairs to our broken immigration system. We applaud the President’s actions today, which are consistent with the adopted policy of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. They will ensure that millions of undocumented immigrants, who want to play by the rules and pay taxes, are protected from deportation and made eligible to work. These actions will not only stabilize families and communities, they will strengthen the American economy and our national security.” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the current President of National League of Cities, said, “The use of executive authority in this manner can go a long way towards providing a fully workable solution to this crisis.” And Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, the incoming President of the National League of Cities, observed that “Cities need federal policy makers working together to go even further than the president’s action today. Without a more comprehensive approach that addresses issues like providing resources to integrate immigrant families into our cities, the problems associated with our current immigration system will continue.” Indeed, there are many aspects of the U.S. immigration system that only Congress can change through legislative action. But the actions announced this November by the White House, although certainly not perfect, are an important step forward.