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Cities and the Costs of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The U.S. Conference of Mayors met recently in Oklahoma City, and they put out two resolutions related to immigration. Interestingly, these resolutions are not specifically about immigration in cities per se. They put out a statement strongly opposing Arizona’s SB1070 law, supporting a court challenge, and voicing opposition to other states enacting similar laws. In another statement, the mayors leaned on the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Linking the two, the mayors recognize that states and local governments bear many of the responsibilities and costs of immigration with not enough reimbursement from the federal government. In their view, municipal leaders should “protect the well being and safety of all the people residing in their cities and to respect the rights of and provide equal services to all individuals regardless of national origin or immigration status.” However, they also realize the costs borne by municipalities for services to immigrants are largely not reimbursed by the federal government.

Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level as proposed in a recent “conceptual framework” floated by Democratic Sens. Schumer, Reid, Menendez, Feinstein, and Leahy, would further fortify the border, beef up interior enforcement, institute a biometric ID card, better regulate the future flow of workers, and register and legalize qualified unauthorized immigrants.

However, what the mayors surely know is that even if comprehensive immigration reform happens (and there is much speculation about that), cities and other municipalities will still bear the costs and responsibilities of taking care of their residents. For those places that will see a sizable share of their immigrant population legalizing (of the estimated 11 million to 12 million present in the United States), funds will be needed to build the local infrastructure to process applications, verify residency, and hold the adult education and English language classes needed to turn the unauthorized into legal residents.

And yesterday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, joined by other mayors and business leaders, went further by forming a “Partnership for a New American Economy.” The coalition will push for new immigration legislation that includes tougher enforcement, an employment verification system, increased opportunities for international students to stay and work in the United States, a streamlined process for employers to fill vacancies provided no Americans are available, a legalization program, and more funding for government and employer-sponsored language and civics classes.

The last legalization program in the 1980s included a state impact aid program designed to take some of the fiscal edge off both for administrating a legalization program and for education, law enforcement, and health care costs. Mayors may want to get in on the act to help design a local impact program to be included in comprehensive reform to ensure they are not left holding the bag.