Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
State and city leaders are at odds on refugee immigration—another example of a growing gulf on civic priorities.
The deadly attacks in Paris may be shaping the debate over immigration in the U.S. Since Friday, a number of governors from across the U.S. have pledged to do what they can to stop Syrian immigrants from relocating within the borders of their states, despite the fact that Syrians are fleeing the same kind of violence that was visited upon Paris and Beirut last week.
Meanwhile, mayors from some of the largest U.S. cities are welcoming Syrian immigrants with open arms. It’s another example of the growing gulf between city and state leaders on civic priorities ranging from climate change to the minimum wage.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner declared Monday, for example, that Illinois will “temporarily suspend” immigration from Syria. “Our nation and our state have a shared history of providing safe haven for those displaced by conflict, but the news surrounding the Paris terror attacks reminds us of the all-too-real security threats facing America,” he said in a statement.
Yet Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed back against Governor Rauner’s claims that immigration represents a grave security threat. “My one word is, security and our values go hand in hand,” the mayor said during an appearance at the French Consulate. "The United States government is in the vetting process, but our values are one in which we remind ourselves that we are an open, welcoming society.”
Mayor Emanuel was one of 18 mayors to put his name to a September letter to President Barack Obama asking for even more Syrian immigrants to relocate to the city. All of the letter’s backers are members of the Cities United for Immigration Action coalition, which supports immigration as a positive good.
“As the mayors of cities across the country, we see first-hand the myriad ways in which immigrants and refugees make our communities stronger economically, socially and culturally,” the letter reads. “We will welcome the Syrian families to make homes and new lives in our cities.”
Conflicting priorities on immigration popped up across the country today. Texas Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to President Obama requesting that he scrap the federal Syrian resettlement program altogether, even though the mayors of Houston and Dallas and the counties of Dallas and El Paso are party to the pro-immigration coalition.
Not all governors took a stand against immigration, of course. Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, and Tom Wolf, governor of Pennsylvania, said that they will keep working with the federal government to settle Syrian immigrants. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican who supports immigration, said that his state is “postponing” the settlement of Syrian immigrants until officials can review security protocols. Detroit in particular stands to gain a great deal from Syrian immigration.
Some expressions of doubt crossed the partisan divide. New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan is the lone Democratic state leader so far to come out against Syrian immigration. After Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (a Republican) said that he would not let Syrian immigrants into his state, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (a Democrat) told reporters that he also wanted to find out more about how the federal government was screening immigrants.
Mayor Walsh later issued a statement clarifying his position. “As a city and as a country it is not our custom to turn our backs on people who are in need and who are innocent,” he said.
The matter may be entirely academic. As the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration president Lavinia Limon explained to the Chicago Tribune, governors have no authority to refuse immigrants from entering into their states once they’ve been admitted into the country by the federal government.
The governors of Wisconsin, Arkansas, Louisiana, and beyond may claim that they will not allow Syrian immigrants in, but the final say belongs to the feds.