Immigration reform without Washington City and state policies can welcome immigrants, too.

Posted: May 05, 2010

Thousands gathered in more than 70 cities nationwide last weekend to demand that Congress enact comprehensive immigration reform. Arizona's recently enacted immigration law had galvanized the protesters, who see Washington as the antidote to anti-immigrant policy at the state level.

But immigration advocates should be careful what they wish for. Immigration is among the most unpredictable political issues in Washington. Recent history has shown that things can go very wrong for immigrants when a vocal minority is intensely opposed to immigration.

Advocates would do better to take their cause where they can be more confident of gains: cities and states that welcome immigrants regardless of their federal status.

Arizona's law amounts to a self-inflicted wound, scaring away productive, taxpaying immigrants, legal or not. Other jurisdictions - Philadelphia included - can make Arizona's loss their gain by working to advance immigrant interests in their own back yards.

Immigration advocates have civil-rights-era reflexes, assuming that Washington will naturally counter shortsighted and bigoted tendencies in the states. But in recent decades, Congress has hardly been well-disposed toward immigrants.

In 1996, when the White House was occupied by a Democrat, we witnessed the harshest immigration overhaul since the early 20th century. It vastly expanded the grounds for deportation, in many cases eliminating officials' ability to exercise discretion even in the most extenuating circumstances. As a result, long-term, legal residents of the country face deportation for trivial crimes.

In Washington, immigration advocates can't be sure that they will win legalization of the more than 10 million immigrants who are here illegally. But they can be sure that any version of comprehensive immigration reform will ramp up border enforcement. That's because more border enforcement is now part of the Democratic as well as the Republican immigration agenda. Comprehensive immigration reform would almost certainly include expanded border fencing and electronic surveillance, more intrusive employee verification schemes, and more severe deportation systems.

In any case, even President Obama has expressed doubts about whether he has the political capital to push an immigration measure through Congress in the wake of health-care reform and in the face of other pressing issues.

So advocates must explore other avenues for protecting immigrant rights. One strategy would be economic sanctions against states and localities that move too aggressively against undocumented aliens. Arizona will likely lose millions of dollars in redirected business conventions and tourist spending. Such boycotts will deter other states from following its lead.

Arizona's law - and, locally, Hazleton's anti-immigrant ordinance - have given immigration policy-making outside Washington a bad name. In fact, though, many cities and states have acted to improve conditions for undocumented aliens.

For example, undocumented immigrants enjoy in-state tuition rates at public universities in 11 states, including New York, California, Texas, and even conservative Utah. Many states extend other public benefits to noncitizens on a status-blind basis. Sanctuary laws of the 1980s and 1990s have been trumped by federal law, but dozens of cities have adopted "don't ask, don't tell" policies on immigration status. This week, New York's governor announced that the state would pardon more minor criminal convictions to insulate noncitizens from deportation.

In 2007, New Haven, Conn., became the first major U.S. city to issue identification cards to all residents, and San Francisco followed suit last year. Undocumented immigrants can use the cards to access municipal services, open bank accounts, and ease interaction with law enforcement. Beyond the practical advantages, the policy sends a strong message that a city welcomes immigrants.

Philadelphia's future with respect to immigration is at a crucial juncture. About 10 percent of the area's population is foreign-born (compared with 22 percent in 1900). That's more than the immigrant population of such declining cities as Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland, but much less than that of growth areas such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Even some places that are not traditional immigration destinations, such as Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Seattle, have twice as many immigrants as Philadelphia.

According to a recent Brookings Institution report, immigrants have accounted for more than 75 percent of Philadelphia's labor growth since 2000. The growth of immigrant communities has both reflected and fueled the city's economic turnaround.

Philadelphia should follow New Haven's lead and offer resident identification cards to undocumented immigrants. And it could do other immigrant-friendly cities one better by granting local citizenship to immigrants after some period of residence.

Citizenship is about solidarity. Regardless of their federal immigration status, those who live in our midst - as neighbors, members of our religious organizations, parents of schoolchildren, and fellow employees - should enjoy full standing in the community.

Peter J. Spiro teaches immigration law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law and is the author of "Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization" (Oxford University Press). He can be reached at peter.spiro@temple.edu.

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