Two years into her term as a Fresno city councilwoman, Esmeralda Soria still finds herself asking: “Did we provide those notices in Spanish and Hmong?”
“The city of Fresno still has a lot of work to do in terms of integrating the immigrant community and making it a government that is more accessible and that truly represents all people, regardless of immigration status,” she said.
Soria spoke with other local, regional, state and federal leaders Monday at a conference on immigrant integration. The conference was put on by the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, a network of organizations and agencies that serve immigrant families. The collaborative has hosted more than 200 free immigration services workshops since 2014.
The Valley’s regional economy, fueled by agriculture, depends on immigrant labor. In California, 29 percent of agriculture workers are undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center. American Community Survey figures show 206,000 Fresno County residents – nearly one in four – are immigrants. Valley immigrants are more likely to have low education, limited English and live below the poverty line.
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Jesus Martinez, chair of the collaborative, said integration means creating upward mobility for immigrants through avenues including education, language and legal status. He said the status quo reinforces poverty, and that everyone suffers when the potential of immigrants is repressed.
Speakers addressed the need to continue advancing workers’ rights, such as the farmworker overtime bill that recently was signed into law, expand healthcare access to undocumented immigrants, end immigrant detention and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Leoncio Vasquez, executive director of the local Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, said indigenous families particularly struggle to maintain their identity while integrating into American society. He called for increased culture- and language-appropriate services.
“In this country we hear every day that if we want to be living here we need to assimilate and change our way of life – basically change who we are,” he said.
It’s not just about helping people learn English – it’s about helping them feel a part of their community.
Felicia Escobar, assistant to the president on immigration policy
Local efforts to help immigrants already exist. For example, Fresno State, Fresno City College and the Fresno Adult School all have welcoming centers with services like voter registration, naturalization applications and training opportunities.
And Soria said she is working on a language access policy ordinance that would stop her from having to keep asking for translations. Earlier this month, the City Council adopted a policy extending the public comment time from the standard three minutes for those who need their statements interpreted.
But leaders said one problem is that those efforts are not centralized. Cities including New York City have immigrant affairs offices.
Felicia Escobar, the special assistant to President Barack Obama on immigration policy, is part of the White House Task Force on New Americans, which started in late 2014. Since then, she has overseen several efforts: Last year’s “Stand Stronger” Citizenship Awareness Campaign; the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign; regional Convenings on New Americans.
Before those efforts, Escobar said she started out in a room like the one she was in Monday, talking through ideas with other local and national leaders. She said some countries have national departments of immigrant integration with dedicated funding. “We’ve never had that.”
“It’s not just about helping people learn English,” she said. “It’s about helping them feel a part of their community.”
Local activist Luis Ojeda stood up in the audience and asked Escobar to address the millions of immigrants deported since Obama took office, and the increased collaboration between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Escobar said the administration has tried to address those concerns. Enforcement priorities changed in 2014 to focus on violent criminals and deportation numbers have decreased, she said.