County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Nora Vargas / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

During his campaign for county supervisor in 2018, now-chair of the Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher promised to create an office of immigrant affairs.

Once elected, he promised to bring the proposal before the board in 2020. That didn’t happen, due both to the COVID-19 pandemic and a Republican-majority board that wasn’t likely to support it.

But November saw the election of a new majority-Democrat board, and now Fletcher and Vice Chair Nora Vargas are bringing a proposal to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that would create an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. The office would serve as a hub for issues related to immigrants and refugees and connect them to county services and community resources.

“As the first immigrant and woman of color to be elected to the board, I feel a responsibility to create a more welcoming environment for our immigrant communities,” Vargas said. “Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot of negative rhetoric involving our immigrant communities, so we really need to embrace them.”

Often immigrants and refugees settle in new communities with little support, and face barriers in accessing resources and information, said Esmeralda Flores, immigrant rights and binational affairs advocate at the ACLU.

More than 20 percent of San Diegans were born in another country and San Diego is one of the largest refugee resettlement communities in the state, but county government hasn’t always positioned itself as a resource for immigrant and refugee residents. In 2018, for example, the Board of Supervisors voted to support the Trump administration’s lawsuit against the state of California over the California Values Act, which restricted local police from coordinating with immigration officials.

The board has done a 180 on immigration issues: It now supports bills like one aiming to stop transfers between state prisons and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and approved a program to provide free legal defense to people detained and facing deportation.

Fletcher said the make-up of the board in his initial years in office, responding to other immigration-related issues and the COVID-19 pandemic all pushed back his plans for the office, but he said he’s ready to move forward now. He thinks he has the three votes needed to approve the office’s creation, and with Vargas’s election, he can partner with the county’s first immigrant supervisor. Fletcher also said the pandemic forced the county to improve its connections and outreach to immigrant and refugee communities, especially when it came to vaccine access.

Shortly after Fletcher was elected, the region was faced with a crisis in which ICE began releasing asylum-seeking families into San Diego streets without resources or shelter. A coalition of service providers stepped in to try and provide temporary shelter to families and help them find transportation to their destinations elsewhere in the country. The county also stepped in, and eventually provided its old family courthouse downtown as a shelter space.

“That took so much energy,” Fletcher said. “Then we essentially had the policy written, but I was faced with the reality that I didn’t have three votes. I kept thinking we should do it anyway.”

Then COVID-19 hit and “sucked the oxygen out of the room for so many things,” he said.

The office would fall under the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. Creating the office will involve both reassigning existing staff and hiring some additional positions.

In their letter to the board, Fletcher and Vargas asked the county’s chief administrative officer to include $2 million in the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2021-2022 for the creation of the office and to report to the board within 90 days with a proposed plan for the office.

Fletcher and Vargas outlined some of the duties the office should handle. They include putting together an annual report for the board, containing demographics of the county’s immigrant and refugee communities and highlighting gaps in services and providing suggestions for improvement. The office would also reach out to immigrant and refugee communities in multiple languages to connect them with existing resources and provide information on housing, workers’ rights, fraud protection and more. The office would serve as a link for referrals between the public defender office and the county’s Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, which provides funding for legal representation for detained immigrants facing deportation.

The office’s staff will constantly be looking at programs, services and issues through the lens of what would be beneficial to immigrant communities, Vargas said.

“I do that because I am an immigrant, but it’s not a natural thing for the county and everyone who is leading these efforts,” she said. “This office can make sure we look at everything we do, from budgets to services, to make sure we are including everyone.”

Building trust with immigrant communities is an ongoing process for the county, but there has been progress, Vargas said.

The high vaccine rates among seniors in the South Bay shows that the county was able to reach many immigrants, for example, she said. The county also set up vaccine sites in places like the Mexican consulate and Catholic churches, where immigrants may feel more comfortable going, and adjusted times at vaccination sites so working people could still make appointments or walk in to receive vaccines.

“I think this office is going to have to create a welcoming culture at San Diego County,” said Flores. “Not only in having a physical office where people can go to, but having programs that meet immigrant communities where they are at.”

That trust will take time, Flores said. But the change in the make-up of the Board of Supervisors has her optimistic. Now comes creating that culture of inclusion within the county and making sure staff is being attentive to things like language access and cultural competency when engaging with and providing services to immigrant and refugee communities.

One of Fletcher’s goals for the office is to try and identify a permanent solution for sheltering migrants. In the past few years, the region has had to step in to house or serve unaccompanied minors, asylum-seeking families and an influx of Haitians arriving at the border.

Creating a permanent office ensures a structural change at the county where immigrants and refugees will always be brought into consideration rather than just short-term funding or fixes, Fletcher said.

“I ran unabashedly as a supporter of our immigrant communities,” Fletcher said. “I’m so glad we’re finally here to bring this forward and I’m excited to get it up and running. I wish I could’ve done it the first month in office, but we got here.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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