Leppert Supports Immigrant Office Mayor Has a Few Questions Amid Heavy Lobbying for Agency

This story originally published on July 3, 2007.Tom Leppert's mayoral victory was less than a week old when the lobbying intensified from an unusual camp: immigrants. They wanted an office of immigrant affairs, dedicated to assimilating immigrants, legal and illegal, into the city of Dallas. There's urgency, they argued: Congress' decision not to revamp the nation's immigration system heightens the need for cities to take action. In Dallas, one of four people is foreign-born. At a victory reception held by Latino groups for the new mayor Thursday, Mr. Leppert said he is committed to opening an office of immigrant affairs. "All I want is to make sure we have a clear direction," said Mr. Leppert, a former construction firm CEO. "Who does it serve and how are we going to measure its success?" Houston, Boston and New York have such offices. And the National League of Cities operates an immigration task force. Last week's defeat of a massive immigration overhaul proposal will probably place more heat on cities and states with high immigration to deal with a variety of issues from day labor sites to bond programs for new schools to proposals to crack down on those who provide services to those in the U.S. illegally. Groups such as Numbers USA are calling for more deportations of illegal immigrants or "attrition through enforcement and self-removal." Mr. Leppert said he was disappointed by the immigration bill's demise in the Senate. "The frustration level for all groups on this issue is increasing," Mr. Leppert said. "...When the federal government fails to deal with the issue, no one wins.'' City Council member Steve Salazar suggested an office of immigrant affairs last year, but his proposal was tabled. Mr. Salazar, the U.S.-born son of a legal immigrant from Mexico, said he's working on its revival. Claudia Herrmann, an immigrant who heads one of the largest Mexican hometown or homestate associations in the Dallas area, is also bending Mr. Leppert's ear. Four days after Mr. Leppert's victory, Ms. Herrmann wrote him a three-page proposal on how she believes an office of immigrant affairs should work. "We applaud that you have recognized the need to create a Dallas Office for New Americans," it read, "to help immigrants from different countries as well as international refugees to adjust to their new life in Dallas.'' Ms. Herrmann, president of Casa Ciudad de Mexico, said the push for the office would increase because of the Senate's failure to address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. "You have to deal with the people already here," Ms. Herrmann said. "It would take an army to deport everyone, and you would have economic chaos if you did. It is extremely important that the city of Dallas has an office attending to the needs of immigrants - and immigrants from all over the U.S." Social services The proposed office could focus on connecting the foreign-born to social service agencies in the city, Ms. Herrmann said, and on teaching immigrants about basic services, such as how 911 works for emergencies and how to use the Dallas Public Library. "One of the major things that this office would have to work on is to let the immigrants know about all the resources to learn to speak and write English and about educating their children and about knowing the laws so that they can obey the laws," she said. Mr. Salazar said the proposed office would be similar to those in other cities, with a big emphasis on encouraging legal permanent residents to apply for U.S. citizenship. Mr. Salazar's father, the late Pedro Salazar, recited his naturalization oath and pledge of allegiance with his son at his side in 2003. "That was one of the best days of my life," the son said. The foreign-born make up 27 percent of Dallas' population, according to 2005 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Immigrants come from El Salvador, India, Vietnam, South Korea, China, Canada. But the majority, 72 percent, come from Mexico. The next highest group, Salvadorans, make up 4 percent of the foreign-born total. In recognition of the increase in numbers of Mexicans, Dallas last year began accepting the Mexican consular card as a form of identification for such services as paying a water bill or obtaining a library card. In Houston - where the foreign-born population is 29 percent, according to 2005 census estimates - former Mayor Lee Brown established the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in 2001. Among its charges are to assist, organize and support citizenship workshops and voter registration. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg established the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs in 2004. And in 1998, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino established the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians. Chicago established its City Commission on Human Relations, which includes an advisory council on immigrant and refugee affairs, in 1947. There are other efforts to assimilate immigrants into the area. The Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce runs a center in Old East Dallas that provides social services and business support to all immigrants and U.S. citizens. DFW International Community Alliance, an umbrella group of ethnic and immigrant associations, has prepared guides for "newcomers" on education, health services and basic financial services, said Anne Marie Weiss, president of the community alliance and a proponent of an office. And the many hometown and homestate associations from Mexico help bridge the gap for Mexican immigrants, including Casa Guanajuato, which has the deepest roots in the city of Dallas. Not in budget The city began its budget process two weeks ago, and the budget does not currently fund an office of immigrant affairs. But Mr. Salazar said he would introduce a proposal for an office later this month. The cost is yet to be determined. The proposed budget is scheduled to be finalized at the end of July. It then goes through a series of town hall meetings. "It is like making sausage right now," said city spokesman Jose Luis Torres. The chief expense for the Houston office - the $56,000-a-year salary of the director - comes out of federal community development block grants, said Frank Michel, a city spokesman. Others said they're prepared for financing snafus. "If they say there's no money, we can get some funding from the private sector," said Roberto Chavarría, a leader from the Mexican homestate association of Michoacán. The changing demographic DNA of Dallas was vividly apparent at the victory party Thursday for Mr. Leppert. Mexican association leaders mingled in clusters with other Spanish-speakers, while native-born Mexican-Americans swapped stories in English or Spanglish over cheese and wine. And Mr. Leppert has been a quick study of the different camps, attending a lengthy mayoral debate hosted by Mexican homestate associations, as well as one sponsored by the local Hispanic chamber of commerce. In Dallas, Latinos are more likely to be foreign-born than native-born, which is not true for the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Census. The success of the proposed office will need the vote of a "multi-ethnic coalition" and the office must be for all immigrants, including those from Africa and the Caribbean, said Clif Miller, a political and marketing consultant. "All immigrants are not Hispanic," he said.  Continue reading...

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