In a fiery speech at City Hall Wednesday night, Mayor Martin J. Walsh reaffirmed Boston's status as a so-called sanctuary city for people living in the country illegally, the same day the nation’s newly inaugurated president made it a first-week priority to clamp down on immigration and beef up border security.
“Cities are the engines of opportunity, drivers of innovation, and safety nets for the vulnerable,” Walsh said in the final State of the City address of his first term. “Cities are also gateways for new Americans, like my mother and father and 28 percent of Bostonians today. We don’t just welcome immigrants in Boston, we help them thrive. And we won’t retreat an inch.”
Without mentioning him by name Walsh was challenging President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday ordered the construction of a wall along the country's southern border, announced his intent to hire thousands of new immigration enforcement agents and deputized local authorities to crack down on unauthorized immigrants with criminal records.
When questioned by reporters, Walsh said City Hall itself would be a refuge for immigrants, if necessary.
"If the people want to live here, they'll live here. They can use my office, they can use any office in this building," Walsh said. "Any place they want to use, they'll be able to use in this building as a safe place.”
Advocates say immigrants are a vital part of the economy, whether they are in the country legally or not. At least one in seven Massachusetts residents is foreign-born, a figure that has grown at a rate of more than 27 percent over the last decade, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders who support immigration reform that was founded by Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch.
The Partnership for a New American Economy also estimates almost 40 percent of the students earning master’s or doctoral degrees in science and technology fields from Massachusetts research universities in 2013 were born outside the United States. They say almost half of engineering Ph.D.s in the state andtwo-thirdss of MIT patents were earned by non-citizens, painting a portrait of a highly skilled labor pool that could help satisfy demand for more science and technology grads in the state.
But while the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition estimates Boston’s immigrants pay more than $116 million in taxes, some studies have shown undocumented workers can be a net negative on state and federal coffers because they sometimes get more in government services than they contribute in taxes.
While experts continue to debate the ultimate economic impact of illegal immigration on the national scale, local activists are ramping up their defense of foreign-born Bostonians, who number more than 1 million.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, commended Walsh on his speech.
“I think the mayor really understands,” Millona said. “He’s standing up for his city and the rights of the workforce.”
Other advocacy groups and labor unions have organized protests around the Boston area in response to President Trump’s executive orders.
“We will use our collective power in the days and months ahead to fight for a better future for our families, prevent deportations, and protect immigrants, Muslims and refugees,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, a labor union whose local chapter had scheduled a rally Thursday afternoon at Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial.
To Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the first week of the Trump presidency foreshadows a long fight for immigration advocates.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” she said.