In this Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 photo, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano speaks during an interview in his office at City Hall in New Haven, Conn.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Already known as a refuge for people from other lands, New Haven is tightening its embrace of newcomers as its mayor seeks to extend voting rights to illegal immigrants and other noncitizens, a policy challenge that comes shortly after attacks on "sanctuary cities" by Republican presidential candidates.
The Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, helped illegal immigrants come out of the shadows four years ago when he launched a first-of-its-kind program to give them city resident cards. Despite crackdowns elsewhere, he has forged ahead with proposals that he says are designed to find common ground in a diverse city.
"We're a place of differences," he said. "We're a place that sees a strength and places a value on welcoming folks from all over."
Dozens of American cities including New York, San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., take a hands-off approach to pursuing illegal immigrants. While advocates say they are rightly distancing themselves from a broken immigration system, critics accuse them of flouting federal law as "sanctuary cities" — a label not all of them accept.
Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has vowed to cut off federal funding for such cities. One of his rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pushed a bill this year that would have prohibited cities from acting as "sanctuaries" for illegal immigrants and allowed local law enforcement to become more involved in immigration enforcement. Mitt Romney has said he opposed sanctuary cities as Massachusetts governor and, as president, he would "find the right approach" to ending them if legally possible.
President Barack Obama has resisted calls from some Republicans to crack down on sanctuary cities. As a Democratic candidate in 2007, he said the U.S. government should address the issue by providing a rational immigration system, not by withdrawing funds from cities that shelter noncitizens.
More than 70 cities and states nationwide bar police from asking community residents who have not been arrested to prove their legal status, according to the Immigration Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization. For many, including New Haven, the goal is to make immigrants comfortable reaching out to police for help.
Those policies, however, do not prevent state or local police from reporting foreign-born criminals to the Department of Homeland Security.
New Haven, the home of Yale University, is a port city of 125,000 residents with a history of embracing liberal politics and social change. It was a hotbed for civil rights protests in the 1960s and, more than a century earlier, the city where African captives from the slave ship Amistad were jailed before winning their freedom in the 1840s.
The city has an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 illegal immigrants, resettles some 200 refugees annually and hosts roughly 2,000 noncitizens associated with Yale.