Hide and seek
Americans have a love/hate relationship with illegal immigrants, and many local and state governments are choosing sides on the issue. Last year, 84 immigrant-related measures were signed into law in 27 states, twice the number passed one year earlier, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More attempts to limit illegal immigrants’ access to jobs, education or health care were made, of course; a total of 570 such bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2006.
Counter to those exclusionary measures, there is a small movement occurring in what are being called “sanctuary cities,” which have policies that ignore residents’ citizenship status when providing services or when the police question them as crime suspects. Larger cities are the likely birthplaces of the movement that has spread to 40 or more cities across the country.
New Haven, Conn., Mayor John DeStefano, however, sees an even more pragmatic approach to illegals in his city. “You have a population that works hard and lives among us as neighbors, and we ought to know who they are,” he told a New York Times reporter recently. DeStefano says he doesn’t want the illegals to be afraid of City Hall, much less its policemen or fire fighters who may need their help in reporting crimes, for example. Alienating illegal immigrants fosters a hide-and-seek attitude in which those who have knowledge of a crime will either say nothing or, worse, give shelter to suspected criminals.
As Congress continues to fumble through the immigration issue, it’s no wonder that local and state governments are reacting. More than 36 million immigrants already live in the United States, and possibly one-third of them are here illegally. Perversely, recent U.S. Census Bureau counts show that without the influx of immigrants, many large cities, like Boston, as well as small ones, such as Battle Creek, Mich., would be losing population. Smaller cities may sound like a good thing, but many communities rely on immigration to boost their housing markets and reinforce their economies, according to the Brookings Institution.
The immigrant population is shifting, too. Los Angeles County has lost as many as 15,000 illegals between 2002 and 2004, according to the Urban Institute. One researcher, who used census numbers to show where illegal immigrants are living, says that while they tend to reside in Democratic areas, the pattern is changing quickly. Between 2000 and 2005, the illegal immigrant population in California’s Democratic districts grew by 8 percent, compared to 36 percent in Republican areas.
The ability to move freely throughout the United States, much less across contiguous borders, is at the heart of the problem. Adding laws that only chase illegals from one community to the other will not work unless every community, or the federal government, passes similar legislation. The more practical solution is to create a guest worker program that includes harsh penalties for employers and landlords who hire or house unregistered illegals. That would recognize immigrants’ value and tax their wages and, like Mayor DeStefano says, would tell us who they are.