At a conference on the past, present and future of immigration in the United States hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said that modern day nativists in the U.S. are blind to their own ancestry.
“This is what angers me so much about the third-generation immigrants: It’s that their immigrant story is the only real, good true one,” he emphasized. “They” – meaning native-born Americans – “didn’t want us here either,” he said, referring to his own Irish immigrant ancestors. “When the Irish came here in the 1890s, we were all undocumented.”
Kenney spoke alongside with his colleagues Bill de Blasio and Greg Stanton, of New York City and Phoenix, respectively, at the event, called “Strength of the Union,” and featureing a number of other speakers. The trio represent three big, Democratic cities that have opened their doors to immigrants through sanctuary city policies.
But Philadelphia’s mayor stood apart for having been roasted by regional and national conservative commentators for defending his city’s pro-immigrant policies.
Pennsylvania Republicans in particular have seized on the city’s refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities as a campaign issue, painting the policy as an invitation for foreign criminals to flood the Keystone State. Facing a tough reelection battle, Republican US Sen. Pat Toomey had personally sponsored a bill intended to strip the city of federal funds as punishment, a move perceived by some as a way to shore up his law-and-order credentials.
“They want to make it into this weakness thing, this crime-ridden thing,” Kenney said of Republican efforts to dismantle the policy.
The mayor of PA’s largest city said his critics had had backwards.
“In South Philadelphia, the Indonesian population that moved there in the 1990s … wouldn't call the police because they were afraid,” he recalled for the approximately 40 people in attendance. “You cannot police effectively when the citizens are afraid of police. If we don’t break those barriers here, you're never going to make cities safe.”
Kenney said that modern nativists flocking to Donald Trump under the banner of law-and-order policies were masking their own racist anxieties, fueled by concerns about demographic changes.
“If these were white, European undocumented immigrants, we wouldn't be having this discussion – this is about brown people,” he said. “The people that say they want to take their country back: From whom? The black guy living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? If anything, it was the Native Americans’ country before we took it.”
The mayor said he wanted more integration between immigrant groups and city government, not less, in the long run.
“Philly does not have one Latino police captain – that would make a huge difference,” he said. “When people go to a desk at [City Hall], someone should be able to speak their language and give them a little understanding; give them a little less fear.”