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Oregon lawmakers approve creation of new office to support immigrants and refugees

Oregon State Sen. Kayse Jama
Sage Van Wing
Oregon State Sen. Kayse Jama

With strong bipartisan support in both chambers, Oregon lawmakers have approved the creation of a new government office underneath Gov. Kate Brown that will advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees, as well as implement strategies to aid in their advancement.

In a 50-6 vote Wednesday, the Oregon House of Representatives cleared Senate Bill 778 to head to the desk of Gov. Brown for her signature to establish the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement. The new office will receive $1.3 million in funding to get off the ground with a director and three full-time positions. The Senate approved the bill 28-1 last week.

The purpose of the office will be to advocate for and partner with statewide immigrant and refugee programs and organizations to offer long-term support and services to meet the needs of these populations within the state.

The office will be tasked with collecting data on immigrants and refugees who are new to Oregon in an attempt to better understand their needs and to track progress in reducing social, economic and health disparities. It will also track legislation impacting both populations and advocate for federal resources to support local programs and groups, as well as monitor investments made by the state to ensure resources are being allocated effectively.

The office is directed to partner with any and all state agencies and community-based organizations working within the realm of refugee and immigrant advancement. Although the office won’t directly provide services, it will help coordinate strategies, convene stakeholders, and provide policy support for communities across the state.

According to the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Kayse Jama, D-SE Portland/North Clackamas, Oregon has opened its doors to more than 67,000 refugees since 1975. Currently, one in 10 Oregonians is an immigrant or refugee.

“These are just numbers, but every single number, there’s a story behind it,” Jama said.

Jama’s floor speech in support of the bill last week took a very personal tone. He spoke about his own story of leaving war-torn Somalia and landing in Oregon 22 years ago with little direction, few belongings and not a lot of money in his pockets.

Living with a fellow Somalian refugee, Jama began working at Lutheran Community Services Northwest as a case manager helping other refugees acclimate to Oregon.

It’s that background which provides the basis for the idea to establish this new office.

“This state became my home, and I love it,” Jama said. “This bill carries the spirit of every single immigrant and refugee who lives in the state of Oregon, but also of many others across the country who will look to Oregon as their place of hope and justice.”

Jama said that when he joined the Senate back in January after being appointed to fill the vacant seat left by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, he reached out to all of his colleagues, Democrat and Republican, to create a dialogue and begin to foster connections.

He said that one of the most touching interactions he had came during a meeting with Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Umatilla County, who told him that while they might disagree on policy, they’d never be enemies. He said that had a profound impact on him and his outlook on the support he received from everyone who had helped him get to that point.

“I put the word advancement in (the bill) for a reason. Because every single immigrant and refugee wants to succeed, all they ask is a little support,” Jama said.

In the House, Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland, carried SB 778 Wednesday and too spoke of her lived experience both as the daughter of refugees and in her professional work.

For Pham, the bill is about the story of Oregon and what Oregonians stand for.

She spoke briefly on the dichotomy of scenes her parents witnessed when they came to the United States in 1975. On one hand, her father’s immigration was sponsored by a professor at the University of Oklahoma, where he would later go on to graduate from. At the same time, they saw scenes of KKK members burning fishing boats of newly arrived Vietnamese people who were seen as economic competition.

Pham said the contrast between being welcomed with open arms and xenophobia are both woven into the American identity, and recognizing that history and learning from it are part of what this bill is trying to do.

“I think it’s important to mark this moment in the story of Oregon. A story of a Muslim Somali former refugee in the Senate, and a daughter of Vietnamese refugees in the House, both the first of their kind, carrying a bill that creates an agency that serves people like our families, amidst a year that has seen hate increase in our community, and attacks on the very foundation of this capital of democracy,” Pham said. “This moment is one built on love, of labor, of those who came before us, who survived so that future generations can thrive.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Sam Stites