WASHINGTON — With no comprehensive immigration reform legislation in sight and President Obama’s executive action giving some undocumented immigrants relief continuing to roil many Republicans on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country, the nation’s mayors have been left on the frontlines dealing with the day-to-day impacts of an incredibly complex policy issue.
“The federal government doesn’t get things done,” Steve Hogan, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado, bluntly said Tuesday during a National Journal Next America town hall gathering at the Newseum focused on demographic change in the United States and the challenges and opportunities it presents.
“We’ll deal with it,” the mayor of this sprawling Denver suburb said of the local impacts of immigration. “We have no choice.”
Hogan was one of four mayors who spoke about the intersection of immigration and city governments during the National Journal town hall, which also included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Anaheim, California, Mayor Tom Tait.
In a one-on-one question-and-answer session with Atlantic Media Editorial Director Ron Brownstein—Government Executive is part of Atlantic Media—Garcetti spoke about the economic opportunities immigration reform would provide for the nation’s second largest city.
The president’s executive action, if it survives a multi-state legal challenge, could generate $3 billion in additional economic activity in Los Angeles.
“It will be a huge boon for us,” Garcetti said.
Already, Garcetti said, 44 percent of new businesses in his city are started by immigrants. If undocumented immigrants can come out of the shadows, get on some sort of path to citizenship or legal status and actively contribute to civic life, Garcetti said that his city and many others could reap the benefits of additional economic activity.
While the nation’s mayors can take local action to improve conditions and services for undocumented immigrants, the mayors gathered at the town hall noted that they can’t do much to change the course of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill.
“Cities don’t have the luxury to determine national policy,” Garcetti said.
But as Garcetti has said previously, mayors can lead the nation on immigration policy.
As for local policy, Garcetti’s administration has been proactive in its outreach efforts to the immigrant community, which included reestablishing the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and helping undocumented immigrants navigate the complexities of the provisions of Obama’s executive order.
Los Angeles has aimed to create “one-stop shopping for government services,” making it easier for immigrants to access city services. That can be done through the schools, or, for instance, at public libraries, where librarians are trained to help immigrants to fill out paperwork and better understand what services are available to them.
"People are working anyway, people are here anyway," Garcetti said. "The Department of Education requires that we educate folks here who are undocumented anyway."
Following President Obama’s November announcement that he was taking executive action to make it easier for some undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States, a 25-state coalition sued in an attempt to block the federal order.
“I think it will have a huge chilling effect,” Garcetti said of the legal action challenging the president’s order, noting that Los Angeles has joined an amicus brief countering the multi-state lawsuit and supporting the White House executive action.
The mayor said that cities have to stand up and have their voice be heard amid all the opposition to President Obama’s executive action, noting that “some cities are larger than these states” that joined the lawsuit against the president’s order.
When asked by Brownstein whether Los Angeles would be able to move forward with its plans to assist undocumented immigrants if the multi-state challenge to the president’s executive action is successful, Garcetti said: “Absolutely. We can’t afford not to . . . It makes business sense but it also makes ethical sense.”
But trying to accommodate undocumented immigrants is not a leisurely walk through the park, even for a city the size of Los Angeles, which enjoys considerably more resources than your average municipality, or in a state like California, which has the largest population of any state and is one of the nation’s biggest economic engines.
“It requires a dedicated commitment at the municipal and the state level,” he said.
Garcetti noted that California’s new law that opened the door to undocumented immigrants getting a state driver’s license has created operational challenges for the state to manage. “The sheer numbers of people lining up to do it is a major logistical problem,” he said.
The mayors featured in the town hall included two Democrats—Becker and Garcetti—and two Republicans—Hogan and Tait.
But the immigration debate at the local level doesn’t necessarily split along partisan lines, like it often does in Congress or in statehouses.
“We treat people as people,” Tait said, regardless of their immigration status.
“Cities have to deal with the results, whatever they are,” Hogan said. “Mayors are pretty pragmatic . . . we will find ways to make our communities better.”
But many mayors have to look outside their respective city halls for solutions to effectively tackle an incredibly complex issue. “As mid-sized cities, we don’t have that many resources,” Tait said. “That’s why we work with our non-profit community.”
In Salt Lake City, Becker, who is also the current president of the National League of Cities, noted that while Utah is a considerably conservative state, the anti-immigration sentiment that “swept up from Arizona” was somewhat tempered by the coalition of business, non-profit and religious communities in the state’s largest city.
“Our goal in Salt Lake City is to be as inclusive as possible,” Becker said.
Still, he said there is “a continuous tension in the state” around the issue. While Salt Lake City has joined the amicus brief countering the multi-state challenge to President Obama’s executive action, the state of Utah has joined the litigation, which is being led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who contends that the president’s action constitutes an abuse of executive authority.
The “cloud of litigation,” Becker said, puts undocumented immigrants in his city and other cities in an awkward position since there are fears that those who try to come out of the shadows under the mechanisms laid out in the president’s executive order might end up in a future deportation if the action is stopped in the courts.
“It’s something we’re concerned about,” Becker said. In the immigrant community, “they’re asking: Can we trust the government in the long term . . .?”
While many Republican governors might be out in front challenging the White House on immigration, Garcetti said the nation’s cities, which drive much of the nation’s economic output, need to step up.
“Cities need to be the voice for all Americans,” Garcetti said.