New city office created to aid immigrants

By Jeffrey Osborn
Northwest Asian Weekly

Councilmember Bruce Harrell

Many Americans never face the struggles and hardships of immigration. They never leave their nation due to political strife or military uprising.

There is currently a small, but fast-growing pocket of Americans who can empathize with those who face these hardships, the ones who have faced them when immigrating themselves. It’s no surprise then that the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, a city office within Seattle, has been opened to help this ever growing group of people to find a voice in Seattle.

“Census data clearly shows that the immigrant and refugee population is a growing and important population,” said Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell. Data drew his attention toward the immigrant and refugee groups in Seattle, but it was discussions with advocacy groups that inspired Harrell to sponsor the creation of the new office.

“The advocacy for many grass roots organizations supporting this community made it clear that we could do a better job of supporting this population.”

The bill finalizing the creation of the office was passed by a resounding 7–0 vote on Feb. 6.

Sponsored by Harrell, the bill received support early from fellow Councilmember Tim Burgess.

In an interview with Seattle Weekly dated Oct. 31, 2011, Burgess is quoted as saying, “A lot of immigrants are coming from countries where government is not something you go to for support.

Instead, we believe there should be a coordinated response to their needs.” Harrell understands that a new city can be a confusing place. The Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs will set goals to make the transition to an American city easier for those unaccustomed to it.

“The primary goal would be to simplify the process for a person who speaks English as a second language, to simplify the process by which they interface with the city in any capacity and that could be for human resources needs, for education needs, for utility assistance needs. Imagine coming to a country where English is not your first language and the city has so many departments and services and so many services aren’t even provided by the city, maybe by the state or the county, for example. So the goal would be to simplify the process, so that they could get services more readily and understand how to help themselves,” Harrell said.

OneAmerica, the largest immigrant advocacy group in Washington state has shown staunch support for the formation of the office. In a city hall budget meeting on Oct. 26, 2011, several local community and OneAmerica speakers took to the mic to give their messages.

An unidentified speaker speaking on behalf of OneAmerica said, “As a city, we need to think about how we provide immigrant parents with the resources and institutional knowledge to be effective advocates of their children, some of whom are in school for their first times as teens.”

Following the successful passage of the Office for Immigration and Refugee Affairs, Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, released the following statement, “OneAmerica applauds the Council’s leadership in creating this office, which will help streamline access to services and create innovative ways to recognize and encourage immigrant and refugee communities to participate in city life. The office also provides a clear signal that city government values the input and contribution made by immigrant communities.”

To communicate with the local communities, the office intends to do various forms of community outreach, although no specific plan has been made yet, Harrell has several ideas on how the office can proceed. “They will probably use our existing infrastructure, including the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Office for Civil Rights, Office of Economic Development, our Office of Education. So we’ll make sure that we use publications, such as the Northwest Asian Weekly, other grassroots organizations in the Chinatown/International District, publish things in their mediums. So it will be a combination of our human bodies and our publications.”

Harrell points out that the office will also try to help people who are native to the United States to understand the immigrant groups better. “Part of the immigrant and refugee story is getting lost because of the bad information on the federal level we see constantly. I mean you hear politicians talking about shooting those aliens or talking about the jobs they are taking from other Americans and I just think that the argument gets distorted. So part of this charge is that we bring sanity and data to the policies on how we deal with immigrants and refugees. This is a great opportunity, not a problem, and if we approach it that way, this can be a win-win.”

With an office finally setup to assist with the confusing ordeal that is American city life and a fresh attempt to bringing information regarding this minority to the public eye, Seattle may be turning a long needed page on cultural divisions in the city. (end)

Jeffrey Osborn can be reached at

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