May 17, 2022 - Economy

Mayors seek a bigger voice in immigration debate

Illustration of a microphone wearing a mayoral sash.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Mayors from around the world have converged on the United Nations this week to propose ways to make cities more hospitable to immigrants and refugees — and to seek more money for their efforts.

Why it matters: Cities are on the front lines of immigration, but mayors feel they've been crowded out of discussions. A new group called the Mayors Migration Council hopes to make their voices heard in national and international circles — and highlight the actions that cities are taking to welcome and assimilate newcomers.

Driving the news: The United Nations meets this week to review progress on a set of guidelines for immigration that were established in 2018 — which mayors weren't involved in crafting.

Members of the Mayors Migration Council are on hand to deliver a new report that highlights 70 city-based initiatives for immigrants and refugees. Examples include:

  • Barcelona, Zurich and Braga (in Portugal) have set up formal welcome programs for Ukrainians.
  • Milan has a green jobs program for migrants.
  • Bogotá has opened nutrition centers for immigrant children from Venezuela.
  • Kampala, Uganda offers cash aid to migrants affected by COVID-19.
  • The mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu, has set up five initiatives, including a "Dreamers' Fellowship," which prepares undocumented immigrants for jobs, and a health care fellowship, which places African and Caribbean professionals in local hospitals.

The big picture: The founders of the Mayors Migration Council — who include Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — are trying "to change business-as-usual in how the international system operates, so that cities are more included in the conversation," Vittoria Zanuso, executive director of the council, tells Axios.

  • 70% of displaced people seek refuge in urban areas, and 20% of international migrants go to just 20 cities, the group says.
  • Ignoring the arrival of newcomers or trying to push them back won't change the reality on the ground.

At the United Nations this week, "the key message that mayors will bring is, we were very much able to lower red tape to accommodate the COVID crisis" and help refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere, Zanuso says.

  • "Visas were expedited, COVID testing was available to undocumented people, a lot of decisions were made quite fast."

Of note: Climate migrants are a major focus of the group. Last year, 15 U.S. mayors wrote an open letter to President Biden to urge him to include the urban dimension in a White House report on the impact of climate change on migration — and they succeeded.

  • The resulting document honored their request and recognized the Mayors Migration Council.

Follow the money: The mayors arrived at the United Nations with outstretched hands: It takes money to resettle refugees and migrants in cities, and most international aid goes to nations rather than local entities.

  • The group created the Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees to channel international philanthropy to cities.
  • "It is at the city level that the most important needs of migrants and refugees are met, from housing to health care to employment," said Erias Lukwago, Lord Mayor of Kampala and a founder of the Mayors Migrant Council.

The bottom line: While aiding immigrants may be seen as a progressive cause, Zanuso says the council is bipartisan. "Mayors are doing this not only because it’s the fair thing to do, but also the smart thing to do," she said. "They know that they need to welcome and protect migrants, regardless."

  • "Either they do it well, or they just overlook it — don't manage it, and just pay the costs for that," she said.
  • "I think there’s a lot of pragmatism in what they are doing."
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