One in five Seattle residents is an immigrant or refugee, according to the U.S. Census.
At the city of Seattle’s two-year-old Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, the office’s new interim director, Aaliyah Gupta, is trying to bring them into all aspects of city life.
“When immigrants and refugees integrate, the city benefits on all levels,” she said.
Former Mayor Mike McGinn started the office in 2012 with a budget of $238,000; a director, Magdaleno Rose-Avila; and one staff member, Sahar Fathi, former legislative aide to Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
McGinn is gone, and so is Rose-Avila, but Mayor Ed Murray now hopes to grow the size and scope of the office, which has a staff of four and is located in a sea of cubicles on the sixth floor of city hall.
The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs currently has an annual budget of about $400,000. Murray and Gupta have asked the Seattle City Council to double the budget to $800,000 to pay for two more full-time staff members.
The funding and staff would allow the office to study English language learner programs in the city, expand outreach to immigrant and refugee business owners, make city programs easier to access and help people apply for U.S. citizenship, Gupta said.
Murray appointed Gupta soon after taking office in January to create a plan for the department and hire a permanent director, who will work for $120,000 to $145,000 a year.
Gupta is a visual artist and project manager who works as a consultant to nonprofits and governmental agencies. She was the founder and first executive director of Chaya, a nonprofit organization serving South Asian women in crisis that has since merged with the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center, now known as API Chaya. She also led The Road Map Project, a program to improve education in South King County and South Seattle.
Immigrant rights group OneAmerica first posed the idea of a city department for refugees and immigrants in 2011. OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said he is encouraged to see the program growing.
Seattle needs an office to make city government accessible to immigrants and refugees, he said.
“It’s not enough to have various services or forms translated,” Stolz said.
With additional funding, the office will research what English Language Learner services already exist in Seattle and see if there are any holes.
Eventually, the city will need to expand them services, Stolz said.
“At some point it will be a budget question,” he said. “What will the city be willing to commit to support individuals with limited English proficiency?”
Ivonne Rivera Martinez, the office’s ethnic media coordinator, informs newspapers and other media outlets about city news to get more involvement from the immigrant community.
“They’re not reading The Seattle Times or Real Change, because it’s in English,” Gupta said. “But they are reading the Somali newspaper; they are listening to Spanish radio.”
The office could eventually support immigrant and refugee-owned businesses, Gupta said. Immigrant businesses open and close at high rates, indicating that they need technical assistance, she said.
From 2007 to 2013, 3,951 immigrant-owned business opened in the Rainier Valley, according to the state Department of Revenue. Over the same time period, 2,699 closed.
Gupta said this is due to language barriers and cultural differences between the business owners and state regulators.
The city could support businesses by offering technical assistance, education and possibly micro-loans.
“If you support immigrant and refugee businesses, they thrive and our economy thrives,” Gupta said.