Politics & Government

Charlotte becomes the first city in U.S. to sign immigration compact

Charlotte City Council voted unanimously Monday to pass an immigration compact, becoming the first city government in the U.S. to adopt this statement of support for the city’s immigrants.

The vote was little more than a footnote at the conclusion of a heated, four-hour meeting on a noise ordinance, but council members said it was a key step — if a largely symbolic one — as Charlotte tries to play catch-up in serving its rapidly growing immigrant population.

“We are committed to advocating for common-sense and comprehensive immigration reforms that strengthen our economy and attract talent and business to our city,” the compact says.

The document is a “values statement” that lacks concrete policy changes — in part, to avoid a rebuke from Republicans in the state legislature on the divisive issue of immigration. But city leaders say it will start a conversation and improve communication with Charlotte’s immigrant residents who have been skeptical and even afraid of government outreach — regardless of their legal status.

“We’re really reinventing the paradigm,” said city council member Matt Newton, who represents the city’s heavily immigrant east side. “What we’ve realized is that many members of the immigrant community are hardworking, productive members of the city of Charlotte, but they also are living in a state of fear from the standpoint of government.”

Following a wave of mass arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in February, leaders in the city’s immigrant communities blasted city council for what they called a slow, insufficient response.

In the following weeks, Mayor Vi Lyles assembled an ad hoc committee that held eight listening sessions for immigrants across the city in March. At those sessions, residents made a range of requests — from driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants to immigration reform and more accessible local government.

Federico Rios, the city’s immigrant and integration manager, said the compact looks to address the last of those demands.

“It is a product of us hearing community,” Rios said, “and if nothing else, a testament to a time when we heard community.”

In broad and sometimes vague language, it outlines five principles: advocacy for federal immigration reform; support for immigrants’ role in the local economy and workforce; support for all families and children; an inclusive law enforcement strategy; and leadership opportunities for immigrant residents.

The compact does not address legal status — and that was intentional, said Emily Yaffe, an international relations specialist in the city’s office of Housing & Neighborhood Services.

“Our job is to serve our residents,” she said. “If you live here, you’re a resident.”

While state legislatures and business, civic and religious leaders in other states — including Iowa, Florida, Utah and Texas — have signed onto nearly identical compacts, no city has issued its own document before Charlotte.

The city has had a rocky history with left-leaning moves toward inclusivity: It was Charlotte’s own non-discrimination ordinance in 2016 that sparked Republicans in the state legislature to ban such ordinances through House Bill 2, which drew national criticism.

City council member Larken Egleston said the committee, which he chaired, was looking to avoid repeating that series of events.

“We tried to address the needs and concerns as best we could within the confines of our authority,” he said. “We were

wary of promising something we couldn’t deliver, or getting outside of the lanes that we operate in.”

That’s why the committee did not, for instance, say it would keep ICE, a federal agency, outside the city — it has no jurisdiction to do so.

But that also means the compact must be brought up for it to have a concrete effect: Yaffe said the principles in the document can act as a kind of sieve or compass when the council is considering legislation that impacts Charlotte’s immigrant residents.

In Utah, for example, the state’s compact was used to push back on DUI laws that set a higher standard for drivers who had foreign licenses. Legislators pointed out a higher standard would unfairly impact immigrants — and thus, fail to meet the principles set out in Utah’s compact.

Still, some immigrant leaders question whether the compact will fully address the concerns brought to the ad hoc committee. Those listening sessions also resulted in plans to improve racial equity in city government and offer services in languages besides English.

“Now, the question is: How do we turn values into true initiatives and actionable items?” said Jorge Millares, who is running for an at-large seat on city council.

As a member of the city’s community relations committee, Millares was drafted to attend all eight of the committee’s listening sessions.

Rios, the immigrant and integration manager, said the compact was only the beginning.

“This is a jumping off point,” Rios said. “We’ve been able to take the momentum of what has amounted to some difficult times in the community. I hope people take from this that their voice has been heard.”

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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