Sanctuary City and Immigration in Iowa

imagePart Two of a series on labor and immigration in Iowa

While the idea of Sanctuary City is no panacea, it would be a step toward recognizing that seeking the welfare of one is seeking the welfare of all.

Last week, as part of the Martin Luther King Junior Human Rights Week, a group of citizens in the labor and faith communities presented an event at the Iowa City Public Library on immigration and the idea of making Iowa City more welcoming to immigrants by becoming a Sanctuary City. On Monday, February 1 at 7:00 PM, the University of Iowa Graduate Social Work Student Association and the Social Work Student Association in collaboration with the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and the Iowa City Human Rights Commission will make a different presentation on the subject of refugees and immigrants. Why the attention to immigration?

The media face of immigration is well known in Iowa, the home of two visible immigration raids by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) at the meatpacking plants in Marshalltown and Postville. We have also seen lawmakers in Des Moines take up English only and prevailing wage legislation, partly in response to immigration issues. That immigration reform in Iowa and the United States is needed is something upon which people of diverse backgrounds agree. How to reform immigration and the detrimental effects ICE raids have on communities is an active topic of discussion in Iowa.

Locally, the story we hear in the community is more granular and personal. There is an increase in the number of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. Parts of Iowa, especially university centers are international communities. We find landlords rent to immigrants more often and schools enroll more immigrant children. People who work in social safety net organizations like free medical clinics, food banks and neighborhood centers see a large number of immigrant clients. Public Health workers in Northwest Iowa require some staff members to speak Spanish to work effectively with immigrant communities. An increasing number of churches are being founded by immigrants. These are some of the things we see.

The problems caused by a flawed immigration system are many. Native born workers have seen a decline in standard of living. Businesses want access to inexpensive labor provided by immigrants. Undocumented workers compete with native born/naturalized workers on an uneven playing field for jobs. Guest workers and work visa programs replace permanent jobs with temporary jobs without benefits or the legal protections guaranteed to most U.S. workers. Undocumented immigrants are most likely to receive abuse and mistreatment in social situations and in housing and employment. There is a language barrier and skin color may be different. Non-Christian religious backgrounds result in discrimination and mistreatment. All of these are symptoms. So what can we do?

According to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, “At the start of 2010, immigrant communities across the country are taking direct action demanding immediate and decisive action by President Obama to stop criminalizing immigrant families and workers, stop detentions and deportations, and put an end to the devastating separation of families and communities.” In April of last year, AFLCIO/Change to WIN expressed the desire of many labor groups to provide all workers, regardless of immigration status, “full and complete access to the protection of labor, health and safety, and other laws.”

Some in the faith and labor communities believe we should seek common ground. United States immigration law and enforcement are flawed and that there should be legal reform to facilitate immigration. For practical reasons, the law should limit immigration. Worker exploitation is an issue and steps should be taken to avoid such exploitation. Crimes against immigrants should be prosecuted as “hate crimes.” Compliance with existing law is a place where people can come together. At the same time there are polarizing issues regarding immigration, notably the idea of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The idea of Sanctuary City may be a way to address the issues surrounding our flawed immigration system.

A Sanctuary City is a place where a formal sanctuary policy is written that may have been passed by a local government body in the form of a resolution, ordinance or policy. In Sanctuary Cities, sanctuary policies instruct city employees not to notify the federal government of the presence of undocumented immigrants living in their communities. The policies also would end the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Some examples of Sanctuary Cities are Takoma Park, Maryland; Sacramento, California; Worthington, Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois; and Columbus, Ohio.

By declaring a Sanctuary City and creating a sanctuary policy, communities become more welcoming to immigrants and address the fear of authorities, language and culture barriers, racism and worker exploitation that often cause friction between immigrants and others in Iowa society. While the idea of Sanctuary City is no panacea, it would be a step toward recognizing that seeking the welfare of one is seeking the welfare of all. It is worth considering.

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