Being ‘welcoming’ requires more than an ordinance

By Editorial Board

The Chicago City Council passed the aptly titled “Welcoming City Ordinance” on Sept. 13 to make the city friendlier for undocumented immigrants. The ordinance stops police officers from holding undocumented immigrants for immigration authorities in most circumstances. The city is not actively protecting undocumented immigrants, but resources will

not be used for the purpose of detaining and deporting. This is a step in the right direction, but there’s much more that needs to be done to truly make Chicago a welcoming city.

Other cities have passed similar sanctuary laws, including Washington and San Francisco, while some have passed laws that put police in a more active role in immigration enforcement, like Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 law that allows police to stop people and request proof of citizenship based on suspicion alone.

“I want to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a July 2011 statement.

Promising to not detain immigrants whose only offense is their immigration status is a good start, but the immigrant experience in Chicago is more complicated

than that. To be the “most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” it’s going to take a little more than passing an ordinance. A wage and benefits gap needs to be closed.

Undocumented workers make up 5 percent of the labor force in the Chicagoland area, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development in 2002, the last year the data was available. However, the lack of any legal status leaves undocumented immigrants with very little ability to fight for fair wages. The study found that even when undocumented workers obtained additional education and work experience, their wages were still lower than average.

Without legal documentation, most of these immigrants don’t have access to government safety nets such as

unemployment checks.

Chicago has always been an immigrant city. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, make up 21 percent of Chicago’s population, according to the 2010 census. And a 2008 Pew Hispanic study found that an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. immigrant population is undocumented. Like it or not, undocumented immigrants are a vital demographic of Chicago. The money that undocumented immigrants spend in the city generates 31,000 jobs, according to the U of C study. They may not be here legally, but they contribute to the city in much the same way that citizens do and according to the study, as many as 70 percent pay taxes.

The “Welcoming City Ordinance” is mostly a symbolic clarification of an already existing, but unwritten, practice. Of course, becoming a legal sanctuary for undocumented immigrants makes Chicago more immigrant-friendly, but foundational issues need to be addressed before we can call Chicago a welcoming city.