University of Wisconsin–Madison


Written by Walker Kahn and Maria Manansala

What's the Problem?

Immigrants have been vital members of the American community since the beginning of our history, and they remain an indelible part of our nation’s social and economic fabric today. However, federal immigration policy has been designed to be punitive, rather than effective, for immigrants—regardless of documentation status. We use ICE to brutalize individual undocumented workers while we allow corporations to systematically profit from their vulnerability through illegally low pay and unsafe working conditions. Similarly, the Department of Labor tacitly enables wage theft in the H-1B visa program. Immigrants in the United states face other challenges, including prejudice and discrimination, language barriers, insufficient access to medical services, social isolation, and profound cultural differences.

As local governments strive to build strong communities where all members are welcomed, valued, and included, they must ensure immigrants' social and economic inclusion. To accomplish these goals, progressive governments can end collaboration with federal immigration authorities, support and expand the rights of immigrants in our communities and include them in our efforts to build strong local economies.

What are People Currently Doing? 

Even though local governments have little ability to influence federal policy, there are still many steps they can take to connect and integrate immigrant families into the community—efforts that benefit everyone involved. One critical step local governments can take is to publicly adopt sanctuary city ordinances or resolutions, which prevent local law enforcement from collaborating with federal immigration authorities. Collaboration between local police and entities like ICE reduces the effectiveness of law enforcement. Contrary to stereotypes, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes or property crimes than U.S. natives, and areas with more immigrants have equal or lower crime rates compared to areas with fewer immigrants. Most immigrants who are deported have no criminal history besides their immigration status. However, draconian enforcement efforts that make it more difficult for immigrants to participate in mainstream society both increase crime and reduce police effectiveness by undermining community trust and cooperation. This report by the Immigration Policy Center details how cooperation between federal immigration bureaucracy undermines the effectiveness of local police. Sanctuary cities that refuse to have local police enforce federal immigration law or cooperate with federal immigration bureaucracy include San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Chicago (please see the links to see the relevant municipal ordinances. A map of sanctuary cities and counties can also be found here. ProGov21 has a large collection of sanctuary city resources, including this SiX Action guide to sanctuary cities and right to counsel for immigrants, as well as the Immigrant Legal Resource Center’s guides to ending local collaboration with ICE and protecting immigrants from discrimination and deportation.

In addition to protecting immigrant communities from the federal government, progressive local governments should work toward their social and economic inclusion. Immigrants make up more than 13% of the U.S. population: insisting on their marginalization damages us all. Welcoming America has produced a guide to welcoming and integrating humanitarian refugees: these tools and strategies are flexible, and can be used to welcome and integrate people with diverse migration experiences.

Municipal governments can improve inclusion using ordinances or executive orders to ensure that all residents have access to city services regardless of immigration status. Ordinances passed in Hartford and Seattle can serve as models for new legislation, and Columbus provides a model executive order.

Municipal ID cards are critical tools communities can use to include and support immigrants. Proving identification is a basic necessity in American society, but many people struggle to get access to IDs. To solve this, cities like New York and San Francisco have started municipal ID programs that are open to all residents, including immigrants. Municipal IDs are valid IDs for securing all city services, including housing, and in some cases, enable holders to vote in municipal elections. This SiX Action guide examines programs enabling immigrants to qualify for drivers’ licenses.

Another critical step in ensuring immigrants have access to municipal services is providing resources in their primary language. Any government agency that directly or indirectly provides information, programs, or services to the public should be required to annually survey the language needs of their actual and potential audience and provide for both oral and written language services to meet their needs. ProGov21 has a collection of language access resources, including legislation from Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Long Beach; Saint Paul’s language access plan; a case study documenting key lessons learned from Washington, D.C.’s effort to improve language access; and a guide to improving language access in early education.

Taking it to the Next Level

Immigrants make up 17% of the US workforce and drive growth in many local economies. However, large employers often exploit the precarious status of immigrants—and increasingly immigrant children—to avoid minimum wage and workplace safety laws. Municipalities can prevent local employers from engaging in a race to the bottom by establishing local labor standards offices to enforce applicable labor laws and passing laws regulating proper safety training, discrimination, and training on sexual harassment prevention in the workplace. ProGov21’s roadmaps on Job Quality and Wages and Benefits provide introductions to local labor policy and links to more technical resources. Letting employers exploit any group of workers quickly leads to the exploitation of all workers, and local governments must act to ensure these practices do not gain a foothold.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations


Mayor's Innovation home page

Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


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