Some cities reach out to illegal immigrants

Addison, Ill. offers computer training and ESL classes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Larry Hartwig knows what it's like to have constituents ruffled – or downright angry – over their Spanish-speaking neighbors. In Addison, Ill, a middle-class town just outside Chicago where Mr. Hartwig is mayor, roughly one-third of the population is Latino.

"There's a perception that if you have a lot of minorities, it's a bad community," he says. "We have our share of tension."

But instead of taking the route of nearby communities that have enacted laws hostile to immigrants, Addison has, among other projects, set up a resource center in a Latino neighborhood that offers everything from ESL and computer literacy classes to a food pantry.

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After the federal government's failure to take action this summer, immigration law has in many ways devolved to a patchwork of wildly differing policies at the town, county, and state level.

While roughly two-thirds of immigrant-related ordinances enacted over the past 18 months have been hard on immigrants, in a handful of communities – particularly those with a longer history of immigrants – leaders are taking a different tack, and finding approaches to help immigrants integrate.

Last week, elected officials and policy experts from around the country convened in Chicago to share ideas on how to promote positive immigration measures.

"In the absence of federal policy, these localities and states almost have no choice" but to address the issue, says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law. "But they're going both ways…. There's clearly a political space for positive measures even in this difficult terrain."

In Illinois – long a traditional destination for immigrants – towns' responses cover a broad spectrum. Waukegan, a northern suburb that has seen a large influx of Latinos, decided this summer to train local police as deportation agents and enforcers of immigration law;

Kankakee, on the other hand, created a "sister city" relationship with the small town in Mexico from which many of its new residents came and created a training program to help local police understand immigrants better.

The State of Illinois, meanwhile, has a governor-created initiative to help immigrants gain citizenship – an executive order that Maryland is in the process of emulating. It's also extended in-state tuition, preschool, and children's healthcare to all Illinois residents, regardless of immigration status.

The vast majority of these integration programs do not require participants to show proof of legal residency, prompting criticism from some groups.

"Benefits are a zero-sum game," explains Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restricting immigration. "When you're giving them out, you should be giving them out to those who are here legally."

Part of the key to selling pro-integration measures is in the presentation, as Hartwig, the Addison mayor, has learned.

A "Latino empowerment" day at the high school last year, during which Hispanic students had classes replaced by a retreat on how to stay in school, had his "phones ringing off the hook" with angry constituents. In the future, he says, he'll call the program something else and hold it on a Saturday.

A state's history with immigrants, say experts, also determines how they receive these new foreign populations.

"It's not accidental that [pro-immigration measures are] happening in states or cities where you have a long history of immigration," says Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "A lot of the places where immigration is the newest, it's also most heavily undocumented immigrants, so it is really easy to fan the flames of hatred in a situation like that and it is really hard to advance practical local solutions."

Mr. Hoyt and others hope that those practical measures – especially less controversial integration measures like helping immigrants learn English – can serve as a model for other states and towns with less immigration history. But even in Illinois, local leaders of suburbs with rapid demographic change often face tough decisions.

"It is a tightrope for them," says Sylvia Puente, director of the Center for Metropolitan Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies in Indiana. "For several, it is a political risk to decide to have this conversation and where to fall down on it."

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