How Becoming Mayor Changed Rahm Emanuel on Immigration Reform

The former White House Chief of Staff has joined an army of state and local leaders to push for more liberal policies on the issue. Will the federal government follow their lead?

Jim Young/Reuters; Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr

Three years ago, when he was White House chief of staff, Emanuel was seen as an obstacle to liberal immigration reform in Washington. At the time, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus blamed him for a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that bars immigrants who are in the country illegally from accessing publicly subsidized health insurance. Before that, he called immigration "the third rail of American politics," warning that Democrats who tried to work on the issue would suffer heavy political losses.

Now that Emanuel has become the mayor of Chicago, things appear to have changed.

"I am committed to making Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world," he announced last summer as the city rolled out a wave of new initiatives, including helping immigrants navigate paths to citizenship, providing new scholarships for undocumented students, and formally instructing law enforcement officials not to ask anyone about their immigration status except in the case of "serious" crimes.

What does it mean for a city to stand in open defiance of federal policies on immigration, particularly when the city is led by President Obama's former chief of staff? Can city-level policies and perspectives affect the national debate about immigration reform?

Emanuel seems to think so. In April, he co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez about the barrier created by high citizenship-application fees. Over the past six months, he has released several statements lauding progress on immigration reform in Congress, always emphasizing the potential economic boon to come from improved pathways to citizenship. During a conversation with The Atlantic's Steve Clemons and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist on Monday, Emanuel's position was the same: Chicago has nothing to lose and everything to gain from welcoming immigrants to the city, and the country could learn a thing or two from this lesson.

"There's nothing like the dedication of the child of an immigrant," he said. "They know in their DNA that they're here, they're lucky, and this better not get screwed up, or your parents are going to kill you. That is a gold mine for us -- I wouldn't trade it for anything."

He mostly stuck to talking about city-level initiatives and benefits, but he admitted that what happens in Chicago won't stay necessarily stay in Chicago. Asked whether his reform efforts could reverberate in the national dialogue, he said, "What we do in the city of Chicago, we do in our self-interest. Do I think that, as a student of government and politics, what happens at the city or what happens at the state doesn't have ripple effects and people look to it? Yes, [it does.]"

Emanuel also unabashedly called Chicago a sanctuary city, a sometimes-derisive term for communities that promise powerful resources and minimal investigation of immigration status in the course of day-to-day law-enforcement activities. "We always had a sanctuary-city agreement done by mayors by executive order," he said. "That's not good enough. If somebody wants to change that, I want them to have to repeal it rather than not sign it and reauthorize it."

Chicago isn't alone in promoting policies that seem to go against the grain of federal policy. Across the country, cities and states have created initiatives that stand at odds with federal statues, from actively helping undocumented immigrants get driver's licenses to more strictly enforcing deportation policies. To some extent, though, the issues facing state and local governments are fundamentally different.

Susan Martin, a Georgetown professor and former executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration, clarified the difference in an interview, arguing that "the federal government is responsible for immigration policy, but it's the states and localities that are responsible for immigrant policy. The federal government has the responsibility for determining who comes into the country, who gets legal status, how to enforce the laws - everything with regards to admission, entry, and deportation. But the integration of immigrants takes place in local communities, so it's the states and localities that have responsibility for education policy, for a lot of public health policy, [and] for the environment in communities that either makes it easier or harder for newcomers to adapt to living in the U.S."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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