Exclusive Interview with Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks with Univision News’s Julia Saenz about the city’s new Office of New Americans, Illinois’s version of the DREAM Act, the federal debt ceiling and his political future.
Emanuel: Windy City is looking to chart a ’different course’ on immigration
During his six-year career in Congress and time as President Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel was not known as a enthusiatic supporter of immigration reform. But he stressed that he’s working to make Chicago the country’s most “immigrant-friendly city” with a series of initiatives designed to aid newcomers to the U.S.
By delivering results for the Latino and immigrant communities, Emanuel said, he can get them more engaged in the political process than they were in the last election.
This week, Emanuel announced the establishment of an “Office of New Americans” that will be run out of his own office. It’s designed to ensure access for immigrants to Chicago’s city services like libraries, schools and business licensening offices and make information available to immigrants in their native tongue.
Emanuel would not say how much money the city is spending on the office, but stressed that it would not add to the cash-strapped city’s budget deficit.
He also championed the passage of the Illinois DREAM Act, which establishes a state-run education fund for the children of undocumented immigrants. The fund will paid for by private donations and Emanuel said the Office of New Americans will help implement the law in Chicago.
By establishing a policy of openness toward new immigrants, Emanuel said that his city and the state of Illinois are loooking to contrast themselves with states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Alabama, which have passed or are considering passing laws that crack down on illegal immigrants.
“The political statement is that as other states are going a different way on immigration, we here in Illinois chose a different course,” he said. “We passed a bill that’s different than what Arizona is doing, than what … Florida is doing, or Georgia’s doing, or Alabama’s doing. We’re going in a different direction.”
Emanuel, the son of a father who emigrated from Israel, stressed that an open policy toward immigrants is the right thing to do both morally and economically. But there is political opportunity in such a policy.
Latinos are becoming a larger part of Chicago’s population, albeit at a slower pace than the national growth rate. While the amount of people in the city fell over the past ten years, the Windy City’s Latino population grew by 3.3 percent, according to Census figures.
Regardless, most city politicians have yet to truly tap into their potential as a voting bloc. Only 42 percent of Chicago’s registered voters participated in the February mayoral elections and according to reports, Latino’s voted in fewer numbers.
Latino political groups are also fighting a proposed state legislative redistricting map they say dilutes their voting power by dispering then in majority-white and -black districts.
Emanuel said that it would be unproductive to assign blame to him or anyone else about the lack of progress on immigration reform at the national level, an issue that political observers say could lead to a drop in ethusiasm for Obama amongst Latinos. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised he would get an immigration bill during the first year of his presidency.
Instead, he expressed confidence that he and other public officials could get Latinos more involved by making advances and keeping their promises on immigration policy moving forward.
“I think sitting around and trying to point fingers, even though I disagree with the accusations, is really not a constructive thing,” he said. “My view is, ‘how do we make progress? What do we got to do?’”
Failing to raise the debt ceiling ‘not an option’
Even though Emanuel is knee-deep in city issues, such as finding a way to close a budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars, he still is thinking about the nation’s fiscal woes.
Asked how a city like Chicago would feel the effects if the federal government fails to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and stave off a default, Emanuel responded that the scenario is ”not an option.”
“I don’t think that’s really a way to look at it, because that’s not an option,” he said with a chuckle. ”It’s not a viable option to not fulfill your obligations.”
Democrats and Republicans have still not arrived at a deal, but talks between the two sides have intensified to find an acceptable deficit-reduction deal.
Emanuel, who gained the reputation as a skilled dealmaker in Washington, expressed confidence that Obama and Congress could work out a compromise before Aug. 2, the deadline to raise the limit.
“This should not be the Congress that doesn’t cooperate and trying to figure a way to work it out and I have all the confidence that they will work something out with the president of the United States,” he said. “Because the alternative is not an alternative.”
He dodged, though, when asked if he would have already gotten a deal done if he was still in working as Obama’s right-hand man.
Mayor for life?
Despite his national political profile and years of experience in D.C., Emanuel said he has no desire to return to work in the nation’s capital.
“I love this job. In fact, it’s far better than I originally thought,” he said. ”I cannot think a greater use of my intellectual and physical resources than to apply it to a city that I think is the greatest city in America.”
During his time in Congress, many thought that the ambitious Emanuel could have become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. But he repeatedly stressed that he does not have his eye on another national office, including the presidency.
Asked if thinks he wants to be mayor for the rest of his political career, he responded:
“Not I think. You can say I know, OK? Conclusion. I love this job, I don’t want to do anything else.”