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White House

Mayors Preview Immigration-Reform Fight

(Fawn Johnson)

photo of Niraj Chokshi
January 17, 2013

If a Thursday session to talk about immigration issues is any indication, the Obama administration can expect to hear from dissatisfied mayors as it pushes for a broad reform of the laws.

A handful of mayors complained to officials that they have received mixed signals on federal immigration policies. And while reform may be in the offing, there are problems with current policies that need to be addressed.

“We’re all going to be living under the existing system for some period of time, it seems to me, and I just don’t feel a lot of warmth from Homeland Security,” John DeStefano, the longtime mayor of New Haven, Conn., said during a panel that was part of the multiday U.S. Conference of Mayors in the nation's capital. In 2007, federal agents arrested dozens of undocumented immigrants in New Haven, just days after the city approved a plan to provide them with identification cards, a move intended to make it easier to do things like open bank accounts.

DeStefano’s comments came in response to Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Alejandro Mayorkas, who said a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo provided clarity on enforcement. There is still no clarity, DeStefano said, noting what he described as “arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement of [ICE’s] own so-called standards.”

New San Diego mayor and former longtime California state Rep. Bob Filner also took issue with the way administration officials characterized the current state of affairs. The frustration with long waits at the border is not an occasional one, as Matthew Rooney, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs, put it. “It’s every day,” Filner argued.

“The level of abstraction here is incredible,” he said, following comments by Walter Bastian, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Western hemisphere. “You’re pleading with us to help. I mean every one of us here would say, ‘Hey, listen to us.’ We’re there, we know the problems, you should be talking to us. Don’t plead with us to help you.”

Filner and several other mayors implored the federal officials to involve them in immigration reform. The agency representatives, for their part, also asked the mayors to reach out to them and were receptive to the criticisms.

“As I think everyone knows when one is running large institutions and making significant change that that type of change doesn’t occur overnight and hopefully progress is achieved with time,” Mayorkas said.

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