Immigration Reform an Imperative for Cities and Metropolitan Areas

shutterstock_89023510Metropolitan leaders from around the country made the case for immigration reform at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program today. Over 80 percent of the U.S. population, including 95 percent of immigrants, now live in metropolitan areas; cities and towns across the country therefore have a huge stake in passing immigration reform.  In fact, panelists agreed that comprehensive immigration reform is an imperative for metropolitan areas. “We need an immigration system that is keeping with the times,” stated Audrey Singer, a Senior Fellow with Brookings.

In New York City, for example, 60 per cent of the population are either immigrants or children of immigrants, according to Fatima Shama, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Shama noted that the city took a comprehensive approach in its efforts to help immigrants reach their full potential, because immigrants of all skills and talents were important to the growth of a community. She noted that the challenges and opportunities of immigration are interrelated and cannot be dealt with issue-by-issue. For example, high-skilled immigration is critical for innovation industries in a metropolitan area. But less-skilled workers, including immigrants, are an important backbone of the essential service industries that allow a city to function. All people from all skill levels are required for maintaining a city’s vibrancy.

Inclusion is another critical element of immigration issues, one that is particularly suited to local action. Jason Mathis, Executive Vice President of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, described Salt Lake City’s approach to immigration as welcoming people who want to contribute to the community. Essentially, Mathis argued that the fundamental question that should guide immigrant inclusion is, “what type of country do we want to be?”  This philosophy led to the local level process resulting in the Utah Compact, a declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion away from enforcement-only rhetoric stemming from states such as Arizona and Alabama. He said that in the eyes of local leaders, immigration reform is not about a liberal or conservative approach. Rather, immigration reform is about pursuing what is best for their city.

Contributing a perspective from Los Angeles, Aida Cardenas, Executive Director of Building Skills Partnership in Los Angeles, discussed some of the efforts occurring in her city to facilitate language acquisition, education, and civic engagement among the immigrant population, all of which are important for immigrant integration into communities. She also stated that it is important for local leaders to come together and explore common ground around the various issues and the unique local needs of their city.

Singer noted that cities are already in the business of incorporating immigrants and their children because localities are where the effects of federal immigration policies play out. Indeed, local leaders – as the three panelists exemplified – are coming together to implement strategies that welcome and include newcomers in the life of cities. Although immigration is a federal issue, the day to day life and contributions of immigrants are a local concern and becoming more important to the immigration debate every day.

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