Welcoming New Americans?: Local Governments and Immigrant Incorporation

Welcoming New Americans?: Local Governments and Immigrant Incorporation

by Abigail Fisher Williamson

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Even as Donald Trump’s election has galvanized anti-immigration politics, many local governments have welcomed immigrants, some even going so far as to declare their communities “sanctuary cities” that will limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. But efforts to assist immigrants are not limited to large, politically liberal cities. Since the 1990s, many small to mid-sized cities and towns across the United States have implemented a range of informal practices that help immigrant populations integrate into their communities.

Abigail Fisher Williamson explores why and how local governments across the country are taking steps to accommodate immigrants, sometimes despite serious political opposition. Drawing on case studies of four new immigrant destinations—Lewiston, Maine; Wausau, Wisconsin; Elgin, Illinois; and Yakima, Washington—as well as a national survey of local government officials, she finds that local capacity and immigrant visibility influence whether local governments take action to respond to immigrants. State and federal policies and national political rhetoric shape officials’ framing of immigrants, thereby influencing how municipalities respond. Despite the devolution of federal immigration enforcement and the increasingly polarized national debate, local officials face on balance distinct legal and economic incentives to welcome immigrants that the public does not necessarily share. Officials’ efforts to promote incorporation can therefore result in backlash unless they carefully attend to both aiding immigrants and increasing public acceptance. Bringing her findings into the present, Williamson takes up the question of whether the current trend toward accommodation will continue given Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and changes in federal immigration policy. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226572796
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/21/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Abigail Fisher Williamson is assistant professor of political science and public policy and law at Trinity College.

Read an Excerpt



In 2005 the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Illinois, advertised its embrace of a growing immigrant population with billboards tagging it "DiverCity." A few years later a politically conservative mayor in Yakima, Washington — a pastor at a local evangelical church — responded to a growing Latino population by appointing the city's first Hispanic council member to a vacancy. Meanwhile the city council in Lewiston, Maine, began funding a Somali Independence Day festival alongside its traditional Franco-American heritage celebration. And Wausau, Wisconsin, hired a full-time diversity affairs director charged with supporting Hmong refugees. Why would local officials undertake these at times costly and potentially unpopular efforts to serve immigrants? Moreover, do these efforts actually help immigrants to integrate? Do they encourage established residents to accept the newcomers?

Cities today, more so than any other level of American government, are at the forefront of efforts to welcome immigrants. As a result, places labeled sanctuary cities are key villains for President Donald Trump and other advocates of more restrictive immigration policies. Trump's first immigration executive order sought to revoke federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions, a catchall term for places that limit participation in federal immigration enforcement. Rather than acquiescing to these demands, some sanctuary cities successfully challenged the order in court (Valencia 2017; Yee 2017). While sanctuary cities have become a focus of debate, cities are also speaking out in favor of immigration in other ways. Following the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and in Paris, when thirty-one state governors said they would oppose further Syrian refugee resettlement, more than half of the nation's fifty largest cities issued statements in support of refugee resettlement, and only four issued statements in opposition (Capps 2015). Many leaders in these cities raised their voices again when President Trump issued restrictions on travel from six predominantly Muslim countries (Temple 2017). Beyond speaking out, cities are taking action. At least twenty-seven cities nationwide now have designated mayor's offices to support immigrant affairs (Pastor, Ortiz, and de Graauw 2015).

Support for immigrants from large, usually politically liberal cities is not necessarily all that surprising. But as the examples from Elgin, Yakima, Lewiston, and Wausau attest, efforts to assist immigrants are not limited to large cities. When twenty-six large cities defended Syrian refugee resettlement, so did at least fifty-four smaller cities and towns, including Swisher, Iowa (population 900) (Capps 2015). Although they rarely become sanctuary cities or establish formal offices to support immigrants, small to midsize cities and towns across the United States implement a range of informal practices that tend to support rather than oppose immigrants. This book describes accommodating practices toward immigrants in small to midsize towns and cities nationwide, identifies when and where these responses are likely to arise, and illustrates that municipal efforts to welcome immigrants have both benefits and pitfalls for immigrant incorporation. Understanding local responses to immigrants is crucial as the foreign-born disperse to ever more towns and cities, as municipalities find themselves playing a central role in responding to the newcomers, and as these responses at times fail to advance immigrants' prospects or improve the public's attitudes toward their presence.

All together, immigrants and their children constitute a quarter of the US population (Current Population Survey 2013). Historically, immigrants clustered in traditional gateways like New York and Los Angeles. Indeed, a quarter of America's foreign-born population continues to reside in the state of California alone. Since the 1990s, however, immigrant populations have grown more quickly in suburbs and rural areas than in cities, as well as most quickly in the nontraditional regions of the Southeast and Midwest. This dispersion has led to a proliferation of new immigrant destinations nationwide (Singer 2004; Marrow 2005; Waters and Jiménez 2005). By 2014, more than eight thousand locales across the country had populations that were at least 5 percent foreign-born. Of the 805 places exceeding 50,000 residents, more than two-thirds were at least 10 percent foreign-born, and more than a third were at least 20 percent foreign-born (American Community Survey 2010–14).

Responses to immigrants in these towns and cities deserve our attention because they have the potential to substantially shape immigrant incorporation, a concept that encompasses both how newcomers adapt and whether established residents accept them. The mix of institutions central to incorporation has changed since the height of immigration in the early twentieth century (DeSipio 2001; Gerstle and Mollenkopf 2001; Anderson and Cohen 2005; Jones-Correa 2005; Wong 2006). Traditional civic organizations, including unions, are in decline (Putnam 2000; Skocpol 2003). Parties target consistent voters rather than mobilizing new voters (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Schier 2000). With other institutions waning in influence, municipal aid to immigrants offers a potentially crucial mechanism for incorporation. As immigration scholars John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor (2016, 4) put it, the relative warmth of a town's welcome to immigrants "can help determine whether a first location is a stepping stone or a sinkhole."

As towns and cities nationwide become home to significant immigrant populations, they find themselves grappling with how to respond to ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct groups. Because responding to immigrants can be challenging, costly, and unpopular, it is easy to imagine why local governments would seek to restrict growing immigrant populations. Local governments in new destinations have limited experience in responding to immigrants (Gozdziak and Martin 2005; Waters and Jiménez 2005; Zúñiga and Hernández-León 2005; Massey 2008; Marrow 2011). The federal government provides little direct guidance on how to incorporate immigrants, but it requires municipalities to provide the foreign-born with certain services — sometimes regardless of immigrant legal status. Over the past twenty years, the federal government has devolved additional decisions about immigration enforcement to localities (Varsanyi 2010a; Varsanyi et al. 2012; Gulasekaram and Ramakrishnan 2015). Although immigration may provide long-term economic benefits for localities (Lewis and Peri 2015), responding to immigrants can present short-term fiscal costs (Smith and Edmontson 1997; US Congressional Budget Office 2007).

In part as a result, elected leaders see that cracking down on immigration is popular among some segments of the electorate. Critics of immigration have popularized the notion that something about today's immigrants will prevent their incorporation (Huntington 2004). Immigrants today differ from historical waves of newcomers in that nearly half are Hispanic and a quarter are Asian (American Community Survey 2010–14). Owing in part to contemporary immigration policies that limit immigration from the Western Hemisphere and strengthen enforcement along the southern US border (Massey, Durand and Malone 2002), today's immigrants include 11.3 million unauthorized residents, approximately 28 percent of the foreign-born (Krogstad and Passel 2015).

An increasingly polarized Congress has not passed comprehensive reforms to address the status of unauthorized immigrants for more than thirty years. In response, some states have pursued restrictive policies against immigrants, most notably Arizona's controversial 2010 law (SB 1070). In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump made unauthorized immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, winning the presidency in part because of his enthusiasm for building a border wall, deporting unauthorized immigrants, and excluding Muslim refugees (Klinkner 2017; Sides 2017).

In this context of potential local costs, voters' demands for restriction, and a federal stalemate preventing comprehensive reform, it is not surprising that some cities have opposed immigrant settlement. At the restrictive extreme, in 2006 Hazleton, Pennsylvania, passed an "Illegal Immigration Relief Act" to "abate the nuisance of illegal immigration." According to the city council, the presence of unauthorized immigrants contributed to rising crime, failing schools, substandard health care, and diminished quality of life (Hazleton Ordinance 2006–18 [City Council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania 2006]). Yet we also see highly accommodating responses, not only in major gateways like New York and Los Angeles, but also beyond them. At the accommodating extreme, in 2007 New Haven, Connecticut, voted to develop an "Elm City Resident Card," a locally recognized form of identification to aid unauthorized immigrants. Mayor John DiStefano justified the need for the municipal ID card, describing unauthorized residents as "having children who are U.S. citizens, ... mak[ing] up a critical component of our work force, and ... shar[ing] the basic values of America" (DiStefano 2007). Highly restrictive and highly accommodating policies, like those in Hazleton and in New Haven, are newsworthy and have captured the bulk of both media and scholarly attention to municipal responses.

Focusing on the extremes of local response, however, obscures the more prevalent practices emerging in communities nationwide and leads us to emphasize variation in response rather than recognizing the broader trend toward municipal accommodation. Beyond the largest cities, very few local governments have implemented formal policies aimed at serving or excluding immigrants. Instead, local governments nationwide are adopting informal practices, many of which accommodate or even celebrate immigrants, with important implications for the future of immigrant incorporation.

This book contributes to our understanding of local government responses and immigrant incorporation in three central ways. First, by coupling investigation of four new immigrant destinations with a national survey of local government officials, I move beyond a focus on cities at the extremes of local response to examine incorporation processes more comprehensively. Second, while some scholars have examined local responses, few have considered how these responses shape immigrant political incorporation and even fewer have investigated how municipal responses shape public receptivity to immigrants. Third, the book introduces a theory to explain why local governments respond as they do — largely choosing to accommodate immigrants rather than exclude them — which also explains why these responses do not consistently achieve their incorporation aims.

Specifically, municipal responses to immigrants depend on how local officials perceive immigrants, whether as clients or outsiders, contributors or dependents, a protected class or "illegal aliens." A powerful combination of federal policies that frame immigrants as clients coupled with local understandings of immigrants as economic contributors has directed municipal responses toward accommodation. Of course, local officials do face countervailing pressures for restrictive action, particularly amid devolution of federal immigration enforcement and the increasingly polarized national debate over immigration. Even where restrictive responses arise, scrutiny from federal regulators, national advocacy organizations, and the media often brings federal civil rights regulations to bear in a way that frames immigrants as worthy of protection from discrimination, thereby reining in restriction and perpetuating the general trajectory toward accommodation.

To those who support immigration, municipal officials' distinct legal and economic incentives to accommodate immigrants may seem like good news. But the distinctiveness of these incentives can also be bad news for supporters of immigrants. Local officials often accommodate in ways that facilitate cooperative relations between immigrant elites and local elites but do not necessarily assist immigrants more broadly. Moreover, since the public does not always share local officials' incentives, some forms of municipal accommodation can spur backlash against immigrants and the officials who support them. Resentment toward immigrants and supportive officials provides an opening for anti-immigration political entrepreneurs like President Trump to attract supporters. Therefore, cities that support immigrants must attend carefully to both immigrants' advancement and their societal acceptance, in order to achieve incorporation. Before elaborating on this theory and the study's research design, I will describe federal requirements for how local governments respond to immigrants, the resultant mix of municipal responses, and existing findings about how these responses shape immigrant incorporation.

Federal Regulation of Local Government Responses to Immigration

Wherever immigrants settle in the United States, they end up within several nested jurisdictions at the federal, state, and local levels. From a historical perspective, municipal responses to immigrants are nothing new. During the nineteenth century, gateway port cities used inspection and quarantine laws to control the flow of immigrants (Rodriguez 2008; Gulasekaram and Ramakrishnan 2015). By the late nineteenth century, the federal government began to assert control over immigration policy. Today few dispute the federal government's authority over the nation's borders. Once immigrants have entered the United States, however, the question arises, Who bears responsibility for managing their incorporation?

Although direct federal guidance on local government's role in relation to immigrants is limited, a few laws and Supreme Court rulings place clear obligations on municipalities to provide certain services to immigrants with respect to education, health care, and language access. Public schools are required to serve immigrant students, including providing programs for English-language learners (ELLs), regardless of their immigration status (Lau v. Nichols 1974; Plyler v. Doe 1982). Federal regulations also require that local health providers accepting federal funds provide emergency care to those who cannot pay, including immigrants of any legal status (Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, 1986).

In areas with significant language-minority populations, recipients of federal funds typically must translate documents and provide interpreters. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits federal fund recipients from discriminating based on race, ancestry, national origin, or ethnicity, a stipulation that has been interpreted to require language access, since language is so closely tied to nationality (Lau v. Nichols 1974). A Clinton-era executive order requires that federal agencies devise plans to ensure that non-English speakers can "meaningfully access" services for which they are eligible (Executive Order 13166, 2000). The Voting Rights Act further requires that localities with large language-minority populations provide bilingual voting materials (Schmidt 2000). Local governments that do not comply with these rules may face legal or administrative action. In combination, federal educational, health care, and civil rights regulations constrain local governments to serve immigrants in key ways.

On the other hand, over the past twenty years, federal policies have increasingly involved local police in immigration enforcement. Two reforms passed in 1996 gave state and local law enforcement the right to enforce immigration law in some circumstances. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act extended the authority to arrest previously deported immigrant felons to subnational officers. The Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIAIRA) introduced the notion of deputizing state and local police to enforce immigration law through the 287(g) provision, which President Trump has revived with his first immigration executive order.

Although 287(g) is a voluntary program, local police face more direct requirements to participate in enforcement through Secure Communities, a George W. Bush–era program, expanded but then rescinded by Obama, and now reinstated by Trump. Under Secure Communities, when local law enforcement books suspects and runs their fingerprints through FBI databases, the FBI shares information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When ICE identifies unauthorized immigrants, it can issue a detainer, asking that the local agency hold suspects for two days beyond when they ordinarily would be released so that ICE can take enforcement action.


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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

Part 1 Local Government Responses to Immigrants
2 Municipal Responses across Four New Immigrant Destinations
3 Municipal Responses Nationwide: Frequent Inaction, Substantial Accommodation, Rare Restriction

Part 2 Explaining Local Government Responses to Immigrants
4 Federal Policies, National Politics, and Local Understanding of Immigrants
5 Beyond Bureaucrats: Elected and Appointed Officials’ Incentives for Accommodation
6 The Civil Rights Legacy, External Scrutiny, and Reining in Restrictive Response

Part 3 Local Government Responses and Consequences for Immigrant Incorporation
7 The Select Few: Municipal Accommodation and Elite Collaboration
8 Municipal Accommodation: Generating Welcome or Backlash?
9 Conclusion

Appendix A Case Study Methods and Interview Guide
Appendix B Municipal Responses to Immigrants Survey Questionnaire
Appendix C Municipal Responses to Immigrants Survey Methodology
Appendix D Regression Tables

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