Public Safety & Justice

The Immigration Challenge

Some bureaucracies know how to solve human problems. Some don't.
by | September 2005
 

Arguments about border security go on all the time at the federal level, but there isn't a lot of talk about the grunt work of meeting the needs and difficulties created by massive influxes of newcomers. That work falls, for the most part, to cities and counties.

As huge numbers of immigrants come into the country and take up residence far from the coasts, communities everywhere are struggling to find effective ways to cope with the burden. Lately, public policy scholars have started asking an interesting question: What kind of local government does best when confronted with massive immigration?

The answer may surprise you. It turns out that it matters less what city an immigrant moves to than what sorts of agencies he interacts with. Cities or counties run by liberal politicians may be slightly more generous or more responsive to foreign-born newcomers than more conservative places, but the real difference, according to a pair of recent academic studies, is between regulatory agencies, such as planning and housing departments, and those that provide direct services, such as schools and libraries. The service agencies do a more thorough job.

"These client agencies build relationships with individuals," says Michael Jones-Correa, of Cornell University, who studies immigrant populations in suburban counties around Washington, D.C., "and are much more likely to be proactive in hiring translators and allocating funds to respond to demographic challenges."

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Paul G. Lewis, of the Public Policy Institute of California, posed similar questions and came up with similar conclusions. Elected officials, planners and those running job-assistance programs are slower to respond to the new challenges posed by immigrants. Law enforcement, they found, presents a mixed picture.

Police must try to foster communication and trust among immigrant groups in order to do their jobs, but the nature of their work-- arresting law-breakers--makes this difficult. Language barriers take their toll as well. "Although police departments in immigrant destination cities overwhelmingly subscribe to the community policing ideal," the California authors conclude, "for most, the 'cop on the beat' is still one riding in a police car."

Broadly speaking, the general political culture of a city or county may take quite a long period of time to adjust to foreign-born residents, but individual agencies sometimes act faster, according to their own internal sense of mission. "The bureaucracy," says Jones- Correa, "is the forgotten actor." How agencies respond to the conditions and needs of immigrants is "internal to the bureaucracies, rather than a product of the political process."

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