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 GutiƩrrez 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."

There's another issue tangled up in the question of how to support new immigrants: enforcement. In the same way that some communities are purposefully welcoming new immigrants, undocumented or not, other communities have tried to create stricter standards for apprehending and detaining people who are in the country illegally. One widely discussed case of this was SB-1070, the 2010 Arizona legislation that, among other things, required state law-enforcement officers to determine the residency status of anyone they deal with, whether for a routine traffic stop or a full-out arrest, if there's a "reasonable suspicion" that they're in the country illegally. Certain aspects of this legislation were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012, but not all; officers in Arizona still have the right to check the immigration status of anyone they deal with. Pieces of similar legislation in other states like Alabama have been struck down, but the legal status of this kind of enforcement approach remains somewhat murky across the country.

Especially on the topic of enforcement, certain state and local officials have had a remarkable effect on the national conversation about immigration -- take Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, for instance. Across the spectrum, Martin said, these local voices "definitely have an influence on the national conversation, and it's in two ways. One is because they can reflect the grassroots perspective and bring that in. The other thing is the difference we're seeing between the debate in the Senate and the debate in the House. House members are much more affected by how these issues play out at the local level. What they're hearing from their constituents, including the political figures in their districts, has a lot more weight."

So what's on the mind of most state and local stakeholders? Money. Ann Morse, who heads up research about state-level immigration policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures, emphasized the enormous budget burdens that fall on city and state governments, particularly because states are required to provide K-12 education and medical care to immigrants who are here illegally. "The broad trend of looking at this is largely focused around both costs and responsibilities. Typically, cost/benefit studies were done on what states can expect to incur, and they focus around the Supreme Court mandate in K-12 education and around the requirement to serve everybody in emergency rooms. Those twin costs drive state budgets, and states must balance their budgets."

On the other hand, she pointed out, there has also been a "growing recognition that immigrant workers are a key and vital part of state's economies. [The focus] shifted a bit from the illegality quotient at the state- and local-level to seeing baby boomer retirement and seeing that we need to build up growth in certain industries, notably high-tech or hospitality, and the workers are not there. Even in a high-unemployment national landscape, there are pockets of low unemployment in key industries in almost every state."

The resulting impasse looks a little bit like a game of immigration-policy chicken. Lacking power over visas and deportation, but still saddled with large bills for public services required by the federal government, states and cities are left trying to create workable solutions using every bit of power they have. "I think part of it is the 'stop us before we do something' [attitude] -- it's like stepping up to the line of authority and trying to force the other branch to act," Morse observed. At the state level in particular, she said, "it does seem like there's been a "wait and see" attitude, where we've had 1,200 or 1,500 bill introductions in the past seven years. We're now seeing quite the drop-off as states seem to be hopeful that federal action could occur."

So, what can one mayor (or one church leader or one state legislator) do? Maybe the better question is what they have to do; states and cities stand to gain the most economically and take the hardest hits fiscally depending on various immigration policies. The answer seems to be this: If immigration reform doesn't pass at the federal level, state and city officials will have to keep trying to balance their priorities with dysfunctional policies about who can enter and exit the country. As Morse said, "That's what they're trying to communicate: The status quo isn't working. By not acting, you are granting amnesty."