How Becoming Mayor Changed Rahm Emanuel on Immigration Reform

Emma Green, The Atlantic

July 16, 2013

Three years ago, when he was White House chief of staff, Emanuel was seen as an obstacle to liberal immigration reform in Washington. At the time, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus blamed him for a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that bars immigrants who are in the country illegally from accessing publicly subsidized health insurance. Before that, hecalled immigration “the third rail of American politics,” warning that Democrats who tried to work on the issue would suffer heavy political losses.

Now that Emanuel has become the mayor of Chicago, things appear to have changed.

“I am committed to making Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” he announced last summer as the city rolled out a wave of new initiatives, including helping immigrants navigate paths to citizenship, providing new scholarships for undocumented students, and formally instructing law enforcement officials not to ask anyone about their immigration status except in the case of “serious” crimes.

What does it mean for a city to stand in open defiance of federal policies on immigration, particularly when the city is led by President Obama’s former chief of staff? Can city-level policies and perspectives affect the national debate about immigration reform?

Emanuel seems to think so. In April, he co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez about the barrier created by high citizenship-application fees. Over the past six months, he has released several statements lauding progress on immigration reform in Congress, always emphasizing the potential economic boon to come from improved pathways to citizenship. During a conversation with The Atlantic‘s Steve Clemons and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist on Monday, Emanuel’s position was the same: Chicago has nothing to lose and everything to gain from welcoming immigrants to the city, and the country could learn a thing or two from this lesson.

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