For Mayor Elorza, immigration issue is personal

 PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When he was a kid, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza didn’t play Little League or join the Boy Scouts.

Although he was born in the capital city, his parents, Aurora and Jorge, and his older sister came to the country illegally from Guatemala, traveling through Mexico and the Texas desert before eventually making their way to Rhode Island. The family feared that signing him up for youth programs could raise flags about their immigration status.

Elorza’s parents and sister would eventually earn their citizenship through a one-time amnesty program set up by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1986, but his childhood experience has shaped his views now that he’s leading a city that runs the risk of losing millions of dollars in federal grants if the Trump administration labels Providence a sanctuary city.

Now Elorza, a Democrat in his first term, is vowing to stand by undocumented immigrants in the city, agreeing that those who commit serious crimes should be deported, but arguing that the majority of residents in Providence illegally are hardworking, honest individuals like his mom and dad.

“My parents’ story, it’s an improbable story, but it’s a classic immigrant story too,” Elorza told Eyewitness News Thursday. “So many people have their own story, their family story of overcoming these kinds of challenges.”

Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that threatens to strip sanctuary communities of federal funding, but didn’t specifically define what constitutes a sanctuary city. Elorza maintains that Providence fully complies with federal immigration law, but doesn’t “go out of our way” to work with immigration officers.

Elorza said Trump “couldn’t be more wrong” about the way he thinks of immigrants, infamously describing some Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists.” The mayor said he wants to give immigrants “reassurance” that they can find a better life in the United States.

He also acknowledged he has been disappointed with some of the local rhetoric regarding immigrants, particularly with the suggestion that they rely heavily on public assistance. He jokes that for a long time his mother refused to use an ATM card at the grocery store because she didn’t want anyone to think she was using an EBT card.

“They’re proud people,” he said.

Elorza, who serves as a co-chair of the Immigration Reform Task Force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, isn’t alone. Mayors from across the country, including Boston, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, have pledged to protect undocumented residents who haven’t committed any crimes other than being in the country illegally.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution last week asking Trump and Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform and DREAMers, young people who were brought to the country through no fault of their own. The administration has wavered about how it will handle younger undocumented immigrants and Trump has said he wants to focus on deporting criminals.

“I think what’s important for the current generation of immigrants to keep working hard and stay focused on work and providing for their families,” Elorza said. “And over time, they’ll become integrated. And they’ll be part of this next generation that will continue this great legacy of immigrants contributing to our country.

When asked if he fears Providence will lose federal funds, Elorza said doesn’t think the Trump administration knows how it will handle sanctuary cities at this point.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Elorza said. “But I have no doubt that we’re going to be fine.”

When it comes to his family, Elorza talks proudly about his first trip to Guatemala: after he graduated from the University of Rhode Island, his whole family took a trip to the country. He said he’s visited the country several times, including a trip during his stint as mayor. Guatemala City is now a sister city with Providence.

“My family came to give my sister and I a better chance,” Elorza said. “Never in their wildest dreams could they imagine that I would be sitting in this office as mayor now.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan