Valley Voices

Immigrants must have a greater role in Fresno

More than 600 immigrants become U.S. naturalized citizens in Fresno in March, 2016.
More than 600 immigrants become U.S. naturalized citizens in Fresno in March, 2016. Vida en el Valle

Having observed the Fresno mayoral race as closely as possible while having been abroad during the entirety of the campaign season, asking friends and colleagues to share their insights on several candidates, watching every debate and forum I can find online, it is clear that the candidates have failed to mention how they will represent a large contingent of the city’s population.

Not once have the candidates brought up their plans for representing the immigrant community of Fresno or how they will deal with population growth in the city.

It is now a well-known fact that the city is home to south Asian, Southeast Asian and Latino immigrant communities. U.S. Census data estimated that 21.1 percent of the city’s population in 2014 was born outside the United States (8 percentage points higher than the national average). To supplement this data, recent studies have shown that a large majority of the unauthorized immigrant community hails from Mexico.

However, there has been a lack of action taken by previous mayors to integrate these members of our community into the city’s larger social dynamic. A study by USC’s Center for Study of Immigrant Integration ranked Fresno County last among Californian counties in immigrant integration. Immigrants in Fresno are likely to work in agriculture (29 percent), professional services (19 percent) or retail trade (11 percent) even though agricultural workers only make up 11 percent of the county’s workforce.

The 2012 study also indicates that about 11 percent of the migrant workforce is overqualified for the low-skilled positions that they hold in the city and county. This signals a clear division between the U.S. born and non-U.S. born workforce within Fresno that must be addressed to grow the city’s economy.

Furthermore, the fact that Fresno has among the highest concentrations of poverty in the U.S. and that many non-English speaking residents live in poverty cannot go unaddressed during the mayoral campaign. It long has been proven that immigrants are an integral part of our national economy and that they make significant contributions to tax bases at every level. The lack of resources for immigrants provided by the city is not representative of the population’s needs. Candidates will need to do their best to prove that they can change this if they become mayor in order to create a more inclusive and democratic city model.

Another notable trend in Fresno has been the growth of the city’s tech industry. Mayor Ashley Swearengin has been a champion of downtown’s revitalization and it has led to noticeable change in the area with new companies sprouting in downtown. Many hope for this growth to continue and that it will attract more professionals to relocate to our city’s urban core, with its relative affordability, as an alternative to other tech clusters in California.

The fact is that the rising cost of housing in other parts of the state are making Fresno and other cities in the Central Valley more viable options for families to resettle when they can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. With a projected population of more than 590,000 in Fresno by 2020, the next mayor will need a plan that integrates these future residents and does not leave them in the margins.

The same report from the CSII also ranked Fresno last among 10 California counties when it came to immigrant civic engagement. Assuming that the city government is consistent with internal migrants in regard to civic engagement, this is something that must change with the next mayor.

We cannot build a healthy and sustainable city if the mayor’s office continues to ignore the needs of more than one-fifth of Fresno’s population. If we continue to leave these members of our community behind, the city will miss a huge opportunity to improve the city’s economic, social and cultural environment for current and future residents. There are many organizations working with immigrants in and around the city that can help the mayor understand how to address the needs of these communities.

The mayoral candidates must expand their platforms, which already include important issues such as code enforcement and unequal access to parks, to include the growing population (national and transnational; authorized and nonauthorized) that makes up more than 20 percent of residents.

Many political philosophers throughout history such as James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville have considered cities to hold the highest potential to create real democracy; pushing for an all-inclusive and fully representative city will make for a healthier Fresno.

Edgar Reyna is a Fresno native and Urban Studies graduate student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, focusing on the role of city governments in immigrant integration.