Deadlock on immigration frustrates mayors

INDIANAPOLIS – Jorge Elorza was headed to Indiana to meet with the country’s mayors when he heard news of a U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked in an immigration case, dooming a plan to shield millions of people from deportation.

For Elorza, mayor of Providence, R.I., the news from the court June 30 felt deeply disappointing. It puts into jeopardy thousands of residents of his city, which he proudly describes as “a potpourri of different cultures.”

By the next day, he was having another thought, as well, in light of the partisan gridlock that has squelched efforts to reform immigration laws in Washington, D.C.

“From the perspective of a mayor, there are three major political parties,” said. “There are Republicans, there are Democrats, and there are mayors. And mayors don’t have the time to be ideological.”

It was a sentiment echoed by others at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting here, where Elorza, a Democrat, previously was scheduled to lead a session on cities’ role in immigration reform.

The planned content of that conversation changed with a one-sentence announcement by the eight-member Supreme Court, which noted its tie vote. The result was to let stand a lower court’s ruling to block President Barack Obama’s November 2014 executive action on immigration reform.

Obama’s plan, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, would have allowed immigrants in those categories to remain in the United States and apply for work permits provided they’d been here at least five years without a criminal record.

The president also had expanded a 2012 policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which covered those brought to the United States as children.

More than 4 million people stood to benefit from his plan.

The mayors’ conference, a non-partisan group of more than 400 city leaders, supported Obama’s plan. The organization filed a brief with the Supreme Court that, in essence, said immigrants are a vital part of their communities.

Critics of Obama’s immigration plan saw it another way, arguing that he violated the constitutional separation of powers by creating a plan without consent of Congress.

For Elorza, a Harvard University law school graduate who taught law before he was elected mayor in 2014, the result was a victory of ideology over pragmatism.

Obama issued the executive order, Elorza notes, because Congress was itself in a decades-long deadlock on immigration reform. Yet, cities had been absorbing millions of immigrants moving to the United States illegally.

During that time, those undocumented immigrants built lives and raised children who are citizens, owing to their births in the United States.

“If we want those children to have every opportunity to live out their dreams and fulfill their potential, we have to acknowledge and engage their parents,” he said. “We have to bring them out the shadows.”

The decision, he fears, will do just the opposite and drive those immigrants back into the shadows.

It’s an experience that he knows. Elorza said his parents fled Guatemala in 1975, during a period of political violence, and settled in the United States illegally.

Elorza was born here and grew up watching his parents live in fear of being deported.

“So the whole idea of living in the shadows, I have lived it and seen it,” said Elorza, now 39.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the Supreme Court’s tie — and Congress’ long inaction — irks other mayors, as well.

He said they’ve seen up close how a long broken immigration system tears apart families and holds back economic growth by keeping a substantial number of residents from fully participating in the economy and community.

Buttigieg’s city has six college campuses, including the University of Notre Dame.

He said he’s met college students, some born here and others who arrived as babies, whose parents were deported because of their immigration status.

“These kids are as American as you or I are,” said Buttigieg, a veteran of the Afghanistan war. “It injures my pride as an American that we can’t do better for them.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.