Originally published by The Washington Post
Liz Cedillo-Pereira knew she’d face challenges when she went to work for the city of Dallas as the first director of the Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs.
The Dallas Morning News reports but at a time when President Donald Trump regularly labels some unauthorized immigrants as “bad hombres” or worse, and as Dallas and other Texas cities face the realities of Texas’ new anti-sanctuary cities law, she’s really got her work cut out for her.
“We’re in challenging times, but these are times of opportunity, too,” said Cedillo-Pereira, who became the first person in her newly created post in March. “From the mayor, the city manager to the City Council, people are more motivated to understand the circumstances of those outside their communities.”
Dallas is one of more than two dozen cities that have established offices to assist immigrants, according to the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the nonprofit Welcoming America. Many more cities or counties have initiatives that focus on immigrants.
Cedillo-Pereira stepped into the city post with the blessings of Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, and the new city manager, T.C. Broadnax. She has a reputation as an indefatigable advocate of immigrants. She also worked nearly two years for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under then-ICE director Sarah Saldana, a former U.S. attorney for North Texas.
The 46-year-old attorney is running the office as Dallas copes with more stringent immigration enforcement from the Trump administration, the new state law targeting “sanctuary cities,” and Dallas’ struggle with whether to issue city IDs for noncitizens and others who want them.
About a quarter of Dallas residents are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The Census Bureau doesn’t ask if someone is in the country unlawfully.
Now, Dallas police don’t routinely ask about immigration status, saying it’s a federal matter and that asking would have a chilling impact among people who are witnesses or victims.
In May, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed what’s called the nation’s toughest immigration law. It takes effect Sept. 1 unless litigation stops it.
The new law targets so-called sanctuary cities policies down at the local level. Among other things, it prevents cities, counties and universities from prohibiting their law enforcement officers from asking about immigrant status.
Cedillo-Pereira is making joint appearances with Dallas police officers to discuss the importance of immigrants working with the police to solve crime.
Some immigrant parents are already so fearful of a possible police encounter that they’re afraid to drop kids off at schools. Cedillo-Pereira said she tries to reassure them that an ICE policy on “sensitive locations” would prevent an arrest at a school, church and a hospital. “That policy was created in the Obama administration and exists still,” she says.
Cedillo-Pereira says her federal experience gave her a solid grasp of key immigration enforcement policies. She was special adviser to the head of ICE in the Obama administration.
But Barack Obama was derided as the “deporter-in-chief” for the record number of deportations that happened during his administration.
That might make some immigration activists uneasy because of widening worries about immigration detentions. Liz Magallanes, a local immigration activist, says simply, “We are exploring the new relationship.”
Magallanes said she is encouraged by the city’s position against the sanctuary cities ban. “Liz has been a champion in the past, but it’s unclear what (the immigrant affairs office) can do,” she said.
Cedillo-Pereira says she’ll work hard to build trust with immigrants. She says she’s ready to see what she can accomplish, such as promoting citizenship for an estimated 129,000 authorized immigrants in the Dallas area with at least five years of legal residency — the general requirement needed to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Citizenship is particularly important to fully integrate immigrants into the U.S., Cedillo-Pereira says. Even immigrants with legal status can be deported if they run afoul of the law.
On Oct. 7, a workshop to help immigrants understand the process for gaining U.S. citizenship will be held at the Dallas Public Library’s main branch.
“In this climate, where so many fear deportation and removal, that is one safe way to secure yourself and your family,” Cedillo-Pereira says.
One new initiative being considered by Dallas is a municipal identification card. Unauthorized immigrants can’t get Texas driver’s licenses, so the city ID could help them by providing a recognizable way of identifying themselves.
The card could be issued to all residents of the city of Dallas, including people living in the country illegally, Cedillo-Pereira said. The cards could potentially be used to access city services and for discounts.
Chicago and New York are among cities that already have local identification cards.
Some worry, though, about how the information gathered under a municipal identification would be used. Could the database be used by the federal government, for example?
Josephine Lopez-Paul, the lead organizer of Dallas Area Interfaith said a “trusted” third-party vendor should manage the information.
Others dislike municipal identifications. “That is a program that crosses the line,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Washington, D.C., Center for Immigration Studies. The group promotes more restrictive immigration policies.
“It is an effort to legitimize the presence of people here illegally. Merchants and banks get pressured to use them, but that puts them in a difficult position because they really don’t know who they are dealing with.”
But Vaughan said she supports immigration assimilation initiatives, especially those promoting citizenship.
Cedillo-Pereira’s job is shaping up as part defense and part public relations. She wants immigrants and refugees to be recognized for their contributions, particularly to the economy as business owners.
That’s why she showed up recently at Tasby Middle School in Vickery Meadow, a neighborhood full of immigrants and refugees. A program known as Eagle Scholars helps to push those children onto a path of success and ended the latest summer program highlighting the dream companies of students.
Cedillo-Pereira was also at the annual back-to-school fair for low-income families in early August. Officials feared immigrant families might be afraid to attend, and overall family attendance was down to about 30,000 from 35,000 the previous year.
“We know we can’t resolve all the issues out there but certainly we can address those issues as they come at us,” she said.
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