Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 7:57 PM

Mayor wants to expand services for immigrants, refugees

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said he’ll ask the City Council for funding to expand the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs so it can provide more support to the community.

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Calling the city’s efforts to help immigrants and refugees “understaffed and underfunded,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Wednesday he’ll expand city services, with a goal of strengthening help for those communities.

Murray called on the City Council to approve $409,000 in new funding to double the size of the small Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and begin work on an action plan that includes expanded access to English-language programs, support for immigrant-owned small businesses, improved relations with the Seattle Police Department and enhanced citizenship programs.

“We want people new to this country to have an opportunity to succeed, to get the education they deserve and to work in the professions they were trained for,” said Murray. The mayor noted that his grandparents were Irish immigrants and the parents of his husband, Michael Shiosaki, were Japanese immigrants. Both faced discrimination in work and housing, he said.

“There are no signs now that say ‘Irish need not apply,’ but there are invisible signs that say no immigrants need apply.”

Murray said that Washington is the eighth-largest refugee-resettlement state in the nation and that almost 1 in 5 residents were born in another country.

And he said that while many think of refugees and immigrants as living primarily in Southeast Seattle, as many as 25 percent of residents in Northgate and Maple Leaf speak a language other than English.

The morning news conference was attended by many representatives of immigrant communities who said they welcomed increased city attention and resources.

Pramila Jayapal, former director of the immigrant-rights group OneAmerica, said the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs was established only two years ago and has operated with only two full-time staff members and no formal work plan.

She said doubling the size of the staff and focusing on the areas of greatest need and impact would be a “huge step forward.”

“All of these pieces are the fabric that knits together economic opportunity with civic participation,” Jayapal said.

Some leaders of immigrant organizations said they operate almost entirely with volunteer staff and can’t meet all the needs of their communities. Sheila Burrus, executive director of the Filipino Community of Seattle, said that 42 percent of children in the organization’s after-school programs are from East Africa.

“They don’t have their own resources,” she said.

Aaliyah Gupta, interim director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said the city knows that immigrant businesses close at a high rate but doesn’t know all the reasons why.

She said that between 2007 and 2013, 3,950 small businesses opened in Rainier Valley, while over the same period 2,390 closed. Many of those were owned by immigrants, she said.

“We know intuitively that city rules and regulations are complex, that many of these business owners don’t speak English and that they may not have the resources to do long-term planning. We also know that a lot of work is being done around the country to support small businesses. We need to find out what those successful strategies are and adopt them here,” Gupta said.

Efforts to improve relations between refugee communities and the Police Department will focus first on a pilot project with young, refugee women, said Sahar Fathi, a policy analyst with the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

She said about half of refugee women are between the ages of 18 and 40, often are fleeing conflict zones, have lost their husbands and have little formal education and poor employment prospects.

The pilot project will bring a group of these women together with female police officers with a goal of establishing trust and improving communication.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes