Refugees and immigrants living in Orange County could soon get help from county officials to reach a host of social safety nets and programs.
It comes after the arrival of 500 Afghans fleeing Taliban rule in 2021 forced Orange County officials to scramble to help local nonprofits support and assist refugees in getting healthcare, benefits and jobs.
On Tuesday, OC Supervisors unanimously approved a new office that aims to connect immigrants and refugees to crucial resettlement services like housing and health care as they try to start a new life in America.
And Today, officials and local nonprofit leaders are expected to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. in Santa Ana about the office.
The influx of Afghan refugees in 2021 exposed an immigrant support system whose “infrastructure” had decreased significantly since the arrival of Vietnam War refugees almost 50 years ago, according to a county staff report.
A wave of over 50 speakers on Tuesday morning raised a number of concerns – some wanted the office to be independently run, while others questioned the necessity of the office altogether or pushed for some type of connection with federal immigration enforcement.
Speakers like Masih Fouladi, deputy executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations – Los Angeles, spoke in support of the office’s creation as an Iranian American immigrant.
“From the Health Care agency, from the Social Service Agency – there are so many different needs. And the reality is that without an independent office with a director to lead it that serves all immigrants, we would be doing a disservice to our communities,” Fouladi said.
The council sent a letter to supervisors, signed by 21 immigrant and refugee serving organizations calling for the office to be independent, for a taskforce of diverse local groups to help hire its director and for the office to also serve people who are undocumented.
But not everyone was in support of such an office.
Some questioned where the funding for this office would come from, called for the county to focus its attention on the people already living here and worried about the creation of a “welfare state.”
One speaker even tried to take the microphone after public comments had concluded, prompting the Board of Supervisors’ Chair Don Wagner to pause the meeting and call on a Sheriff’s deputy to clear the room for a “civility” recess.
The creation of the newly minted Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs comes after Supervisors in 2021 unanimously approved a resolution in support of a three-step plan for the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
Nonprofit organizations like Access California and Afghan Refugee Relief stepped up to help the refugees.
[Read: OC Welcomes Afghan Refugees; Officials Call on Federal Government to Expedite Process]
Zoleika Ebadi, a board member of Afghan Refugee Relief, said refugee families coming into the U.S. are lost, scared and confused while needing help from support organizations and agencies.
“While the amazing OC community and community organizations have stepped up to fill the gaps. I firmly believe that creating an office that focuses on these issues would help our new neighbors tremendously,” Ebadi said.
The new office won’t provide any services directly by itself, said county supervisors before the vote at their regular meeting on Tuesday.
Rather, it would serve more as a broker for existing services like throughout the community, through partnerships and government support.
“What we’re talking about is coordinating services between many different departments,” said OC Supervisor Andrew Do.
Do, who escaped Vietnam right before the Fall of Saigon, said about a third of the county’s population are immigrants and pointed to county officials like CEO Frank Kim, from South Korea, and County Counsel Leon Page, who immigrated from the United Kingdom.
He spearheaded the new office’s creation alongside OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee.
“When refugees arrive, their most basic needs are missing, they’re essentially homeless, they need food, housing, transportation, education, medical services and jobs,” said Chaffee before the vote.
Due to community gaps and existing barriers, Chaffee said “many refugees and immigrants have trouble finding the help they need, which can lead to adverse outcomes – not just for these families but the community at large.”
Chaffee called for $500,000 of federal COVID bailout money to help start the new office.
Wagner said further community input on the office came to the board “way too late” the previous night.
He also rejected comments from a resident that morning which he cast as “cliche” – “that diversity is our strength.”
“I do not believe that. I’ve never believed that. The strength of this country is to take the diverse experience of immigrants, make them Americans and part of the fabric of liberty.”
Meanwhile, Do pushed back on calls for an autonomous office and said it would be most efficient to put it in the CEO’s office in collaboration with the county’s Office of Care Coordination, which works to address homelessness.
“The implication is somehow, without that directive from the board, that the county would not do those things and that’s just the furthest from reality,” Do said about speakers’ request for an independent office.
Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, who before this office – as Santa Ana Mayor – led one of Orange County’s most predominantly immigrant cities, said “there should be a level of autonomy and independence for this (office) to go forward.”
“There should be a task force created in assisting the selection of who the director will be,” said Sarmiento, who added that the “last thing we want is” for it to be “a hollow effort.”
He said he too came to America as an immigrant at the age of one and called for an update on the office’s outcomes in six months.
“I think there’s some good faith in bringing this, but I do think we have to measure and make sure it’s being done effectively,” he said.
“I think we need to serve, as the name states, refugees – but immigrants as well.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
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