Act Locally, But On the Right Cause

Danbury, Connecticut Mayor Mark D. Boughton is just the latest elected official who wants to act locally to solve a national problem. If he has his way, Danbury police officers will be required to work with Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials (ICE) to round up undocumented workers living in his city.

All across the country, local governments are stepping in where they feel the federal government has failed. Last year in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, local leaders passed the "Illegal Immigration Relief Act," which penalized businesses for hiring undocumented immigrants. Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona also signed a law requiring employers to ensure that all job candidates were legal residents. These efforts try to limit immigrant access to social services, housing, and employment. Supporters claim this is the only way they can stop immigrants from overusing public goods. Critics claim they are misguided, divisive, and ultimately ineffectual.

Our immigration system is clearly broken. After last summer's failed attempt at reform, I understand why people are frustrated. We need stronger borders, a functioning guest worker program, and a pathway to citizenship for people already here. We also need to face up to the fact that many communities could not function without immigrants and that most immigrants, documented or not, are law-abiding, hard-working individuals who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children -- what generations of foreign-born Americans have always done.

Piecemeal efforts such as those proposed by Mayor Boughton are not only unfair, they are misguided. They cut off our nose to spite our face and blame immigrants for larger, more basic problems. What's really happening in a place like Danbury? The economy of this once-flourishing "hatting capital of the world" hasn't recovered from the industry's decline. And when the economy suffers, safety, education, and city services suffer as well. All of Danbury's residents, foreign and native-born alike, are reeling from high health care costs and the mortgage crisis. But Danbury's problems, and those of other fading industrial towns like it, won't be solved by getting rid of illegal immigrants (In fact, in many cases, immigrants revitalize such communities). They are due to much larger structural economic problems around the globe.

The economy is another arena in which the federal government has failed to act effectively. So, if citizens want to act locally in response, why not get at the real problem? Instead of spending precious local resources to penalize mostly hardworking individuals, why not direct them toward alleviating social problems that affect all of us? It costs a lot of money and time to raid factories. Why not use those same dollars to make health care more accessible and housing more affordable?

Again, these problems can't be solved entirely by local cities and towns. But it seems to me that Mayor Boughton has his priorities wrong. If he really wants to make Danbury better, act locally to ameliorate the true roots of what's bothering all of us and what is really at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment.