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On illegal immigration, more cities are rolling out a welcome mat

Tucson, a longtime foe of Arizona's 'papers, please' law, is modifying how it enforces SB 1070 to join a national trend that suggests the pendulum is swinging on illegal immigration.

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Illegal immigrants prepare to enter a bus after being processed at Tucson Sector US Border Patrol Headquarters, Aug. 9, 2012, in Tucson, Ariz.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

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The passage by conservative state lawmakers of Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB 1070 in 2010 inspired copycat measures in several other states that made them similarly hostile to illegal immigrants.

But city leaders in this desert town, in an example of a growing national trend of being more hospitable to immigrants, are pushing back against Arizona's "papers, please" law in renewed repudiation of the measure and in a nod to immigrant integration.

Tucson, in liberal-leaning Pima County, is a longtime foe of the tough immigration law designed to push out of state those in the country illegally.

But now the city council is going a step further, voting this month to change how police implement the immigrations status inquiries during law enforcement stops, a provision upheld by the US Supreme Court when it struck down most of the rest of SB 1070 in June 2012. For instance, minors may not be questioned away from an attorney or guardian, and people who report a crime can do so without fear of having their immigration status checked.

Tucson made the policy changes about a year after it declared itself an "immigrant welcoming city" and in response to more recent complaints over police treatment of immigrants in the area. The city wants to work within the confines of the state's law, but at the same time ensure that "we're not doing the work of border patrol," says Regina Romero, a Tucson City Council member.

In rolling out an official welcome mat to immigrants, Tucson finds itself in good company. Cities, towns, and counties – including formerly inhospitable places toward immigrants – increasingly embrace newcomers through community initiatives, policies, and ordinances.

Chicago, through its Office of New Americans, is implementing its plan to incorporate the city's half-million foreign-born residents and their children as a crucial part of economic growth; Dayton, Ohio, put in place programs to lure immigrant workers to breathe new life into neighborhoods of empty houses; and Chattanooga, Tenn., is helping connect its small but rapidly growing immigrant population with local agencies for seamless community integration.

"The pendulum's swinging the other way now," says Frank Bean, chancellor’s professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine.

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It is a trend that mirrors that of states passing laws benefiting illegal immigrants in growing rejection of a years-long history of unfriendliness. From January to June this year, 43 states and the District of Columbia enacted such laws or resolutions related to immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the measures seek to make life easier for immigrants or simply praise their contributions. In granting in-state tuition and driver’s licenses to people here illegally, several states were reacting to President Obama’s deferred action for childhood arrivals program. Under it, eligible young people in the country illegally are allowed to stay and work without being deported.

In early October, California passed a series of far-reaching pro-immigrant measures, including one that curbs the ability of federal authorities to deport illegal immigrants. The move came 19 years after state voters passed Proposition 187, a highly controversial ballot measure aimed at limiting services for illegal immigrants that was ruled unconstitutional.

Immigration experts say the change reflects increasing recognition that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are vital to the nation's economic well-being and overall growing acceptance of immigrants. And, given the on again, off again federal efforts to overhaul an immigration system that badly needs fixing, experts say, municipalities are choosing to address a need in their own communities.

Professor Bean says the country's shrinking US-born workforce is a big reason why municipalities are welcoming immigrants. As more baby boomers retire, the reduction in low-skilled workers becomes more obvious and "towns are noticing that they need these [foreign-born] workers," he adds.

Some view the sweeping tendency of local governments to set the tone for how immigrants are perceived as a positive sign.

"We're seeing that in a lot of communities there is a new understanding that immigrants really contribute so much to the economy," says Susan Downs-Karkos, director of strategic partnership for the Atlanta-based nonprofit Welcoming America.

The four-year-old national organization, which promotes an inclusive environment for immigrants, grew out of frustration with Tennessee's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. The feeling among immigrant-rights advocates was that not enough was being done to build support for immigrants amid rapid demographic changes.

Many residents felt threatened by the growing presence of immigrants in their midst, Ms. Downs-Karkos adds. "They didn't understand who their new neighbors were; they didn't understand how much they would actually have in common with them, that there were cultural and language barriers that got in the way of getting to know each other at a very human level."

Since its creation in 2009, the group has worked to increase understanding between the native born and newcomers in communities both with and without a history of immigration. This past summer it began recruiting cities and towns to take part in a national initiative that aims to build welcoming communities. So far, 22 municipalities have signed on. One of them, St. Louis, Miss., in September put up posters on Metro buses featuring the word "hello" in 17 different languages as part of efforts to create a welcoming environment.

To some, the trend to embrace people living in the country illegally seems dangerously defiant of federal immigration laws.

While the Department of Justice sued Arizona to keep the state from enforcing its tough immigration law, the federal government has "done nothing to hold these local communities and states accountable for policies that impede immigration enforcement," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In late October the Washington, D.C.-based organization, which pushes for reduced levels of immigration, released its own study on the proliferation of ordinances, resolutions, and other pro-immigrant activity in more than 100 communities. Although some of the actions date back several years, most were adopted under the Obama administration.

The group calls such communities "sanctuary cities," and the label casts a wide net. Gainesville, Fla., landed on the list for filing, in 2012, an amicus brief that urged the Supreme Court to strike down provisions of the Arizona law. Police departments such as the one in Columbus, Ohio, are considered havens for illegal immigrants because they won't detain people for immigration authorities "unless a warrant exists or a criminal violation was observed." And several municipalities, including Helena, Mont., made the list for passing resolutions that prohibit using city resources to enforce immigration laws.

"What is happening is that because there is a vacuum in Washington, you are having all of these local policies that reflect the interest of the communities that they represent," Mr. Mehlman says.

Local governments may be reluctant to pursue enforcement measures for fear that the Department of Justice "is going to come down on them like a ton of bricks," he adds.

Jonathan Blazer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who tracks immigration-related measures, says at least some of the local actions are reactions to Mr. Obama's "Secure Communities," a controversial deportation program that relies on fingerprints to nab criminals without legal status. Critics contend the practice also gets law-abiding immigrants deported, and support for the program has eroded in various cities.

"There's been a lot of activity at the local level to establish local policies prohibiting individuals from being detained longer than they otherwise would need to be held by the locality for the pure convenience of immigration coming and picking them up at their own time and pace," Mr. Blazer adds.

He calls the period from about 2004 to 2011 a "dark period in immigration," when enforcement by attrition and self-deportation were looked upon as the answers to addressing illegal immigration.

"It's something that didn't really work, and people are hungering for solutions at the federal level," Blazer says. "But increasingly, the localities are saying, 'we're not going to wait.' ”


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