Leading by example: How local government shapes response to immigration policies

With the news of the senseless violence in El Paso and the recent mass roundup of undocumented workers in Mississippi, it’s impossible to ignore the often heartbreaking challenges immigrants face in the United States.

With a Congress that is either incapable or unwilling to compromise on legislation that effectively addresses the weaknesses in our current immigration policy, and a president more interested in inflaming an increasingly radicalized base for political gain, the burden of protecting at-risk populations while simultaneously enforcing the law increasingly is falling on local governments in communities across America.

The question is: how can we make the global local?

As an immigration attorney and mayor of a city blessed with a flourishing immigrant population, I have seen firsthand how action — or inaction — can impact a community. Elected representatives of local governments need to understand that immigrants are members of the community and are due the same dignity, respect, and right to safety as their native-born neighbors. Across the country, lawfully admitted aliens add to the richness of experience and promote shared values. This is not a recent development — integration is embedded in the DNA of the USA. Responsible governance requires us to make sure that recent immigrants are encouraged to engage with their communities in order to fully integrate and contribute. While critics of immigration claim that newcomers threaten to dilute some unarticulated notion of “American-ness,” the reality is that these citizens readily embrace our customs and traditions, bringing vibrancy and depth to their adopted communities.

Things become more complex when we’re asked to examine unlawful immigration and how it affects the management of a small town or city. In the face of increasing strains on services and the difficulty that comes from governing people who frequently do not want to be found, leaders are forced to make tough decisions when allotting resources or enacting policies that are fair and in keeping with the spirit of the law. In sanctuary cities, for example, we understand that even the undocumented are important members of the community, and we take pains to dexterously advise the population to ensure that everyone knows their rights and can safely raise their children.

While no one wants open borders, we need to exercise deliberate compassion when dealing with hard-working families who often toil in the shadows and contribute vital services. At the same time, we have to be mindful that this spirit of inclusion can be stunted by fear, intolerance, or simply misinformation, particularly when those sentiments are spewed by so-called leaders. And no matter how effective we are at managing complicated immigration issues, there are cities and towns in other parts of the country that actively work with ICE and CBP to limit the undocumented living among them.

The Torah teaches us to befriend the stranger, as we were once strangers ourselves. Now more than ever, we need to encourage the kind of cultural and economic vitality that comes with welcoming new neighbors. We cannot hope for addition by subtraction, and if we want to build a country that truly is first among nations, we need to show that our identity is not based on lineage, but a commitment to the principles that guide us — fairness, bravery, and generosity. The Congressional silence has been deafening, and we will remain a nation divided without decisive action in Washington. Until then, small towns must look inward to find a direction. It’s a journey that can start only at home.

About the Author
Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood, a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah there, and the author of 'Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.' He is a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.