Supervisory board plans new office for immigration affairs


County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Nora Vargas / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

During his campaign for county supervisor in 2018, the now chairman of the supervisory board, Nathan Fletcher, pledged to create an immigrant affairs office.

Once elected, he promised to bring Proposal before the board in 2020. That did not happen, both due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a Republican majority board that was not likely to back it.

But November saw the election of a new predominantly Democratic council, and now Fletcher and Vice President Nora Vargas are presenting a proposal to the supervisory board on Tuesday that would create an office for immigrant and refugee affairs. The office would serve as a hub for immigrant and refugee issues and link them to county services and community resources.

“As the first immigrant and woman of color to be elected to the council, I feel responsible for creating a more welcoming environment for our immigrant communities,” said Vargas. “Over the past few years we’ve heard a lot of negative rhetoric involving our immigrant communities, so we really need to embrace it. “

Often immigrants and refugees settle in new communities with little support and face barriers to accessing resources and information, said Esmeralda Flores, immigrant rights and binational affairs advocate at ACLU. .

Over 20% of San Diego residents were born in another country and San Diego is one of the state’s largest refugee resettlement communities, but the county government has not always positioned itself as a resource. for immigrant and refugee residents. In 2018, for example, the board of supervisors voted to support the Trump administration’s lawsuit against the state of California over the California Values ​​Act, which prevented local police from coordinating with law enforcement officers. ‘immigration.

The board of directors has done a 180 on immigration issues: it now supports bills like the one to stop transfers between state prisons and US immigration and customs, and has approved a program aiming to provide free legal defense to persons detained and threatened with expulsion.

Fletcher said the makeup of the board during his early years in office, the response to other immigration issues and the COVID-19 pandemic all pushed back his plans for the office, but he said he was ready to move on now. He believes he has the three votes necessary to approve the creation of the office, and with the election of Vargas, he can partner with the county’s first immigrant supervisor. Fletcher also said the pandemic has forced the county to improve its relations and outreach with immigrant and refugee communities, especially when it comes to access to vaccines.

Shortly after Fletcher’s election, the region faced a crisis in which ICE began releasing families of asylum seekers to the streets of San Diego without resources or shelter. A coalition of service providers stepped in to try to provide temporary shelter for families and help them find transportation to their destinations elsewhere in the country. The county also stepped in and eventually provided its old family courthouse downtown as a shelter.

“It took so much energy,” Fletcher said. “Then we basically wrote the policy, but I was faced with the reality that I didn’t have three votes. I kept thinking we should do it anyway.

Then COVID-19 hit and “sucked oxygen out of the room for so many things,” he said.

The office would report to the County Health and Social Services Agency. The creation of the office will involve both the reallocation of existing staff and the hiring of additional posts.

In their letter to the board, Fletcher and Vargas asked the county manager to include $ 2 million in the next budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year for the establishment of the office and to report to the board within 90 days with a proposed plan for the office.

Fletcher and Vargas described some of the tasks the office should take on. They include writing an annual report for the council, containing demographic data on the county’s immigrant and refugee communities and highlighting gaps in services and providing suggestions for improvement. The office would also reach out to immigrant and refugee communities in multiple languages ​​to connect them to existing resources and provide information on housing, workers’ rights, fraud protection and more. The office would serve as a referral link between the public defender’s office and the county’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Program, which funds legal representation for detained immigrants facing deportation.

Office staff will constantly review programs, services and issues through the lens of what would benefit immigrant communities, Vargas said.

“I’m doing this because I’m an immigrant, but it’s not a natural thing for the county and all of those leading these efforts,” she said. “This office can make sure we’re looking at everything we do, from budgets to services, to make sure we’re including everyone.”

Building trust with immigrant communities is an ongoing process for the county, but there has been progress, Vargas said.

South Bay’s high vaccination rates among seniors show the county has been able to reach many immigrants, for example, she said. The county has also set up vaccination sites in places like the Mexican consulate and Catholic churches, where immigrants can feel more comfortable, and has adjusted schedules at vaccination sites so that workers can always make an appointment or come to receive vaccines.

“I think this office is going to have to create a welcoming culture in San Diego County,” Flores said. “Not only by having a physical office that people can go to, but by having programs that meet immigrant communities where they are.”

This confidence will take time, said Flores. But the change in the composition of the Supervisory Board makes her optimistic. Now it’s about creating that culture of inclusion within the county and ensuring that staff pay attention to things like access to languages ​​and cultural skills when engaging and providing services. to immigrant and refugee communities.

One of Fletcher’s goals for the office is to try to identify a permanent solution to shelter the migrants. In recent years, the region has had to intervene to accommodate or serve unaccompanied minors, families of asylum seekers and an influx of Haitians arriving at the border.

Creating a permanent office ensures structural change in the county where immigrants and refugees will always be considered rather than just funding or short-term fixes, Fletcher said.

“I have shamelessly presented myself as a supporter of our immigrant communities,” said Fletcher. “I’m so glad we’re finally here to move this file forward and I’m excited to set it up and make it work. I wish I could have done it in the first month of my mandate, but we made it here.

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