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Mayor Emanuel's Next Move on Immigration Policy

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On the campaign trail, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel faced tough criticism from opponents for his inaction on immigration policy issues. Immigration advocates, on the ground and in Congress, claimed that he stood in the way of progress on comprehensive immigration reform during his time as White House chief of staff. It didn’t help that Emanuel’s most-quoted statement on immigration calls it the untouchable “third rail of politics.”

As Chicago’s next mayor, Emanuel will have a crucial opportunity to prove his critics on immigration policy wrong. To build trust and support in immigrant communities, the mayor must deliver on campaign promises as well as commit to new policies aimed at integrating immigrants, who represent 20 percent of Chicago’s population, into the fabric of the city. Setting an ambitious integration agenda will surely help the Mayor-elect win over critics of his national immigration record, but it will also generate significant social and economic benefits for the city as a whole.

The new mayor can begin by looking to other immigrant-friendly cities, where many of the best immigrant integration policies have already been implemented. New York’s language access policy is a perfect example. Passed in 2008, the policy directs all city agencies to provide language services in the city’s six most commonly-spoken foreign languages. Enacting a similar policy in Chicago would yield city-wide results, at a lower cost. Translation and interpretation services, for example, would enable immigrant parents to participate in local schools and encourage undocumented crime witnesses to speak up to local police.

Second, Emanuel should implement his Chicago “DREAM Act,” which was a leading campaign promise. Under the proposal, the first of its kind in the nation, immigrant students would receive loans for community colleges and four-year universities at low interest rates provided they meet certain residency and age requirements. With affordable higher education, these students can get better jobs and pay more in taxes to support Chicago’s economy. Emanuel has said he intends to fund the plan by raising $5 million from business and civic leaders.

But access to higher education is only one of many challenges immigrant families face. Mayor-elect Emanuel should consider opening a Chicago Office of Immigrant Affairs to partner with city and community leaders in identifying pressing issues for new and established immigrant groups and advancing proven policy solutions to address them. Immigrant affairs offices in New York, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere also promote civic participation and educate immigrants about their rights and responsibilities as city residents. Successful immigrant integration programming involves multiple city agencies and their partners in local communities; centralizing these efforts can help stakeholders avoid duplicating services and wasting limited resources.

Everyone wins when immigrants participate fully in city life, by buying homes, applying for small businesses or simply by accessing the vital services to which they are entitled; the city should play a role in ensuring this process happens quickly.

Political considerations influenced Rahm Emanuel’s weak support for immigration policy reforms during his White House tenure. But as he prepares to lead one of the country’s top immigrant destinations, Mayor-elect Emanuel will have to deal with these issues head-on. Advancing proven integration policies to welcome new immigrants and maximize their contributions to city of Chicago is an excellent place to start.