Here we go again. It seems like an eternity since immigration reform was part of the national dialogue: Back in 2006-2007, George W. Bush was president, and Senator Ted Kennedy was leading the push for a bipartisan immigration reform package in the Senate with the collaboration of Senator John McCain of Arizona. Their proposal ultimately failed, and the 2008 presidential campaign halted all forward movement to reform our outdated immigration system.
Now the issue is back front and center, but much has changed in the past four years, and no one should be surprised that discontent and frustration have led the Arizona legislature to pass a draconian (and certainly unconstitutional) anti-immigration law that harkens back to the late 18th century — more specifically to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In Arizona, any law enforcement official can now demand "papers" from anyone suspected of being in the state illegally — i.e., anyone with brown or brownish skin tone.
Here in Memphis, where tens of thousands of immigrants reside, mostly Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America, there are clear and compelling reasons to adopt the exact opposite approach of our distant neighbors from Arizona. Memphis, like many cities its size, faces serious challenges including a dwindling tax base, a projected demographic decline, and industrial development that has flat-lined over the past five years.
The Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., recently reported a close correlation between economic growth (in metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix) and growth in immigrant share of the workforce. Memphis should begin an aggressive campaign to embrace legal immigrants in a clear and purposeful repudiation of Arizona-style myopia and meanness.
In Memphis, an inexpensive, five-part program could be coordinated that would help attract immigrants to our city: "Welcoming Memphis" would encourage immigrants and their families to make Memphis their home, and local businesses could help support an aggressive ad campaign, locally and internationally, designed to show Memphis as a diverse, tolerant, and cosmopolitan city that offers affordable housing, safe schools, and job opportunities.
The campaign would feature five key initiatives:
1) Increased funding for English Language Learners programs in schools, to help children of immigrants quickly integrate into our public school population and achieve academic success together with their peers. The funding would support teachers, teachers' aides, and after-school programs.
2) An innovative scholarship fund for qualified, hard-working immigrant students to attend college at one of the many excellent Memphis universities. This effort would encourage young immigrants who live in our community to study locally and would bring new immigrants from abroad to our city. In exchange, these individuals would be expected to commit to a year or two of service in our public schools as counselors, teachers, or administrators.
3) Creation of a "clearinghouse" by partnering with local immigration law firms, whereby Memphis businesses and other hiring entities could receive much needed legal and technical support in hiring high-skilled immigrant and temporary workers through current employment-based visa programs.
4) Explicit rejection of any and all attempts to turn local law enforcement officials into federal immigration officers. All residents of Memphis should feel comfortable reporting crimes to local police officials and participating fully in society without fear of reprisals based on their immigration status.
5) Facilitating access to job training. Our city government could develop innovative, inexpensive partnerships with local unions, community colleges, and technical schools to help willing and able immigrants to move into apprenticeship trade programs.
With strong, visionary leadership and a minimal financial investment and collaboration between government, schools, and businesses, Memphis has the opportunity to lead by attracting and encouraging work-eligible immigrants to contribute to our city.
At a time of hostile, dehumanizing Arizona-style anti-immigrant rhetoric (and laws), Memphis can offer leadership in stark contrast to the law-enforcement-only model displayed in other communities.
A Welcoming Memphis initiative can generate greater economic prosperity and help build a more culturally vibrant city, while welcoming, embracing, and uplifting our immigrant brothers and sisters.
Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College; Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney.