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How Cities and States are Taking the Lead on Immigration Reform

Demonstrators protest in front of the White House in Washington in 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

As attacks on immigrants grow more vocal and more galling this election season, it can be easy to feel sickened and lose hope. Across the country, millions of hard-working immigrants are trapped in a painful limbo, confined to the shadows, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and unable to fully participate in society.

Federal efforts to support immigrants are stalled, with repeated failures to pass an immigration bill. The most promising pro-immigrant policy in years — President Obama’s executive order shielding immigrant parents and children from deportation — was turned back with a deadlock at the Supreme Court.

But if you zoom in to states and cities, the picture couldn’t be more different. When it comes to promoting immigrant inclusion and equality, they are buzzing hives of innovation, generating a variety of policies that benefit everyone by promoting dignity, inclusion and access to justice for the immigrants who drive their economies and enrich their communities.

As of this year, more than a dozen cities provide a form of municipal identification to all residents regardless of their immigration status. Without such a proof of identity, immigrants are unable to access vital services needed for daily life, such as opening a bank account, seeing a doctor at a hospital, or even collecting a package from the post office. New Haven became the first city to introduce municipal IDs in 2007, and many of the country’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have followed. New York City has issued close to a million municipal ID cards, clearly demonstrating their value to a broad swath of New Yorkers.

Sixteen states also have laws — known as DREAM Acts — that offer undocumented residents access to the same tuition rates as U.S. citizens at state colleges and universities. In Texas, nearly 25,000 students annually take advantage of the state’s DREAM Act, a law passed with the backing of Republican Governor Rick Perry.

States and cities have also helped curb the worst excesses of harsh and ineffective federal deportation policies. Since 2011, more than a dozen jurisdictions have passed laws limiting collaboration between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Knowing that detained immigrants often lack access to legal help, a number of cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago are exploring programs to provide meaningful representation to immigrants. In New York City, the country’s first access to counsel initiative has helped its clients be an astounding 1,000 percent more likely to win their immigration cases than those who lack representation.

With fears that the divisive rhetoric unleashed during this campaign cycle could persist well into the future, even more localities need to take action to welcome immigrants and to value their tremendous contributions. Sadly, there is no guarantee that a long-overdue immigration reform package will be passed by the next president, whoever wins November 8. Cities and states must lead the way.

In recent years, cities and states have led the way in defending and expanding the rights of workers, with the passage of paid sick days, higher minimum wages and fair scheduling laws in municipalities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York City, as well as states like California, Connecticut and Oregon.

They have a similar role — and responsibility — to play in protecting immigrants. Immigrants to this country have made the United States more vibrant and prosperous. Rather than turning a blind eye to the millions in this country denied fundamental benefits and services, we must work hard to realize the highest ideals of our country and to promote a better future for our immigrants and for all.

Andrew Friedman is Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy

Tags: immigration2016 presidential election