The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to create an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs with the search for its leader set to begin next month.
The office proposed by Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher and Supervisor Nora Vargas will be the first of its kind in San Diego County and is intended to serve as a centralized hub connecting individuals and families to services.
Should there be any gaps in immigrants getting the services they need, the board will address those at future meetings. Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs staff will also partner with the Public Defender's Office of Assigned Counsel to create a link for referrals to the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program for detained immigrants facing deportation and can help connect individuals to trusted legal resources.
Helen Robbins-Meyer, the county's chief administrative officer, allocated $750,000 for immigrant programs in the county's proposed budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Some county officials are seeking to increase funding to $2 million, along with supporting five full-time employees.
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Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond cast the dissenting votes Tuesday night following a 90-minute-plus public hearing, saying providing assistance to immigrants and refugees should be the federal government's responsibility.
"My heart goes out to all those who struggled to come to this nation,'' Desmond said, but added the county has enough responsibilities on its plate.
Desmond said there are refugees among the county government work force and said he could support efforts to increase that.
"This would be number seven or eight of new departments we've
recently created," Desmond said. "I can't support the item."
Anderson asked if the federal government would reimburse the county for setting up a new office. Robbins-Meyer said the county would pursue other funding sources.
Residents and activists who called into the hearing said an office was needed to help immigrants and refugees wanting to build a life in this nation.
Patricia Mondragon, an official with the community empowerment organization Alliance San Diego, said the United States "has long history of welcoming immigrants, but with insufficient infrastructure to do so."
Establishing this office will provide a much-needed resource that's responsive to immigrants and refugees, she added.
Margaret Baker, a member of South Bay People Power, which describes itself as a "proactive group of residents who embrace inclusiveness and promote our American values of justice, fairness and civil rights," said barriers can be insurmountable for immigrants, who need a place where they are heard and understood.
"Everyone in our county should have the opportunity to thrive," Baker added.
Others who called in told supervisors about their difficulties in getting help after they arrived in this county.
One woman told the board many refugees come from war-torn countries and don't need to experience more trauma in their adopted nation.
During a Monday news conference, Fletcher and Vargas outlined their plans for the new office.
"As the first immigrant elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, it is an honor to champion an initiative so personal to me," Vargas said.
"To fulfill our vision of creating stronger and healthier communities, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will work for everyone by creating a central hub of services and resources and uplift the positive contributions that our immigrant and refugee communities have on our economy and culture."
Fletcher said the office "will be a regional asset" that will also "undo some of the harm of former policies by making it crystal clear that immigrants belong, and are a vital component of our region."
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, more than 20% of San Diego County residents were born in other countries and speak 68 different languages.