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Seattle Office Wants To Go Beyond ‘Same Old Voices’ To Address Immigrant Needs

KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

In October 2012, Seattle’s local government expanded in a way typically only seen in bigger cities. Former mayor Mike McGinn created the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, or OIRA, in an effort to give more voice to the area’s booming immigrant population. Nearly 20 percent of Seattle’s residents are born outside of the U.S., according to recent census figures.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "If you have a policy that's not taking into account immigrants and refugees, then that's probably not a good policy.", "style": "inset"}]]Like many city departments, OIRA went through some transition as Ed Murray took over the Seattle mayor’s office this year. But gradually, with OIRA now well into its third year, the office’s strategy and role in the community is coming more into focus.

Acting Director Aaliyah Gupta heads up OIRA’s four-person team, which she describes as “small but mighty” and full of ambitious goals.  Outreach is a big and growing part of their job – not just to immigrant communities, but also internally to other city departments as they work on policy issues.

“Whether it’s a transportation project or a neighborhood development project, how are you communicating with the folks who live in that neighborhood, right?” Gupta said during a recent interview at her office inside Seattle City Hall. “If you have a policy that’s not taking into account immigrants and refugees, then that’s probably not a good policy."

Gupta’s team looks for new ways to bring in immigrant voices. They recently released a five-point plan, which will guide OIRA’s work through 2015. It includes some innovative strategies to seek out lesser-known community leaders.

"There's a subset of leaders who are always asked to be a voice when we need a community voice – it’s the same old people," Gupta said. "Our goal is to really identify a larger network of community leaders and community activists. The whole piece about bringing immigrant voices to the table is really critical."

Outreach Challenges

“I’ve never heard of that before” said Uriel Ruelas when asked about OIRA. Ruelas was downtown at the Seattle Central Library on a recent afternoon, sitting at a table with several other immigrants from Mexico. Ruelas came to the U.S. from Mexico City 30 years ago. He’s lived in Seattle since 2000 and often works in the fishing industry.

Ruelas looks over some glossy handouts with OIRA’s five-point plan,which summarizes the office’s top priorities. He scans two separate versions in English and Spanish, then picks English. "We need to have access to the English language,” he said. “Because our language is for use in our countries, not in this one.”

Even though Ruelas has never heard of OIRA, he’s eager to give some feedback on its agenda. He questions whether immigrants need more access to services in their native language, as OIRA’s plan suggests. Ruelas thinks that type of service could become a crutch and dampen a person’s motivation to learn English.

Then, he zooms in on another bullet point highlighting goals to better connect immigrants with English programs. “I believe this is the best point you have in here,” Ruelas said. “I wish I could learn English when I started coming to the United States, but I didn’t. I had to learn by myself, at my jobs.”

Ruelas agrees with the OIRA’s proposal to support immigrant-owned small businesses, but he’s skeptical about its plans to boost citizenship services and resources. He says lots of local organizations offer help with citizenship, and it was easy for him to find help with his application a few years ago.

Granted, Ruelas is reacting to a snapshot of a much larger plan, and he offers just one man’s opinion. However, he also represents one of the OIRA’s early challenges: To familiarize immigrants with the office and ways it can help.

Services For All, Documented Or Not

OIRA has strong support from immigrant advocates in Seattle, but not everyone in that crowd gives it glowing reviews.

“They focus only on certain elements within the immigrant community,” said Juan Jose Bocanegra, a long-time community organizer and immigrant rights activist in Seattle.

Bocanegra has attended some of OIRA's meetings and followed the office’s rollout. He said he thinks OIRA’s plan fails to address one key group of people: undocumented immigrants, those who are living here without legal status.

Bocanegra has some clear ideas about how the city could better assist help these folks. “One of the things right now that people lack is two or three viable pieces of identification for them,” Bocanegra said. “The city could issue out identifications for folks."

These municipal ID cards can help someone apply for housing, borrow a library book or open a bank account. About a dozen other cities offer them, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It can be tricky to carve out special services for undocumented immigrants. Gupta said it’s against city policy for employees or service providers to ask about someone’s immigration status. But either way, she said, undocumented immigrants are clearly part of the community OIRA and other agencies serve.

“Our work as an office is to ensure there’s equitable services for everybody, whoever lives in Seattle, regardless of their status,” Gupta said.

OIRA has worked on a few specific programs designed to help young, undocumented immigrants, including a Seattle City Light service that allows some immigrants to use their family's utility bill as proof of residency for certain purposes.

OIRA's strategic plan also details some new programs to promote community safety and to get the word out through ethnic media. Gupta said one payoff for those efforts is visible at the Seattle Police Department, where OIRA’s involvement helped lead to 30 percent more people of color applying to be SPD officers.

Changes Coming

Soon, OIRA will have its third director in two years. Gupta came in as interim director in 2014 with no plans to stay long term. She was appointed by Mayor Ed Murray to replace McGinn’s previous choice, Magdaleno Rose-Avila, when leadership changed hands this year. Gupta is now reviewing candidates for the permanent post.

Mayor Murray has also requested a budget increase for OIRA of $409,238, which will be used to double the size of the office and hire two more full-time staffers. The City Council still needs to approve the increase.

Year started with KUOW: 2006