From Joanna Lucio, author of Public Administrators and Noncitizens, from our September 2016 issue.
In 2006, I arrived in Phoenix, AZ to the chants of “si, se pueda!” as immigrants and their supporters participated in peaceful protests for immigrant rights. Marches along the streets of major cities have been a common occurrence around the country in the face of failed national immigration reform and controversial state and local policies. Unable to participate through voting in most locales, immigrants have given voice to their frustrations through these protests. Local governments, who have the most frequent everyday interaction with immigrants, have responded to this cry in a number of ways, ranging from passing sanctuary ordinances that were meant to be protective of immigrants to passing their own versions of immigration policy that placed restrictions on housing and employment for undocumented immigrants. Regardless of the side they have taken, it is clear that local governments play a pivotal role in immigration policy as both developers and implementers. In this election year, immigration has rocketed to the top of the national debate. Whether the concern is security and safety or a path to citizenship, local public administrators are at the center of these conversations. Yet they are rarely given attention in the heated exchange of views.
Public administrators often do not have the capacity to distinguish between the types of residents within their jurisdictions when they are picking up trash, delivering human services, or providing public safety assistance. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have opinions and feelings about their non-citizen constituents. In fact, those feelings might matter more than formal policies in some ways because how they feel might influence their actions towards residents. Specifically, the extent to which local public administrators encourage civic participation by non-citizens might be reflective of their thoughts on immigration. Moreover, their relative responsiveness to immigrant needs can also be influenced by their attitudes towards immigration in general. Further, the degree to which immigrants feel welcomed and part of communities could also be influenced by public officials’ feelings and attitudes. With projected immigrant population increases in cities around the country, my research explores the opportunities and challenges public administrators face, and how their attitudes and feelings can contribute to immigrants’ experiences in place-making. Following an Arizona state-wide immigration conference I co-hosted in 2007, I sent a survey to local government public administrators across Arizona. Respondents predominately worked in city management, public safety, and human services. I asked questions related to public officials’ attitudes toward immigrant participation in local government and their responsiveness toward immigrant constituents.
Living in cities with larger immigrant populations or believing that immigration contributes to problems for a city can influence public officials’ views of immigrant participation. Most of my respondents agreed that there was a large immigrant presence in their towns, and the biggest concerns they had regarding the problems posed were related to social services and crime. Participatory-minded officials did not see immigrants as causing as many problems. They might be more engaged with residents and understand their needs better as well as better understand the true nature of problems in their cities. Conversely, those who are less participatory-minded might not be open to external input and not as in tune with their cities’ problems or needs.
Many local governments actively reach out to immigrants. Most officials told me that they at least occasionally sought contact with documented immigrants and nearly half said they occasionally reached out to undocumented residents. Overwhelmingly, cities in Arizona continued to have bilingual documents and resources on hand to help with non-English speaking residents in spite of a law declaring English the official language of Arizona. These results underscore the idea that local officials must use their discretion to carry on with their day-to-day work in spite of state policies. Not surprisingly, many local officials indicated that state policies placed administrative and financial burdens on their departments.
Most of the officials I studied believe immigrants are their constituents as much as anyone else, although only about half included undocumented immigrants in that equation. They also acknowledge that meeting the needs of undocumented residents was more difficult than documented residents. Officials were also less likely to want undocumented residents to participate in local government. This is important, considering that citizenship status is not readily apparent and profiling could lead to tactics of overt exclusion. Public administrators who value public participation might be more likely to be more inclusive of non-citizens and therefore provide spaces and opportunities for more diverse exchanges in their communities. These exchanges could lead to an increased understanding of immigrant needs, could be beneficial for public health and safety outcomes, and could build stronger communities. Local public administrators have an opportunity to encourage immigrants to have a voice in their communities, yet they face challenges doing so because of negative public perceptions and state policies that complicate their relationships with immigrants and the organizations that represent them. My research clearly shows that local public administrators are a valuable source of detailed knowledge and perceptions of immigrants in our communities. Any effort to craft public policy without tapping into this resource will be deficient.