Afghan refugee Mohammad Ajmal Sabit “was just killing time” during his first year after arriving in Sacramento as he waited to be able to pay in-state tuition at a local community college. The 30-year-old man, who earned a computer science degree in Afghanistan, had worked with the U.S. military back home but had joined other Afghans in Sacramento eager to restart his life, he said.
That wait could get a lot shorter for Afghan and Iraqi refugees such as Sabit with the help of a legislative refugee aid package, dubbed “California Welcomes Refugees,” passed by the state Assembly this week. If approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislation would make all refugees eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges as soon as they arrive in California. It could also give preferences for state government jobs to Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, holders who worked with the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan.
One of the bills’ authors, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said he wanted to offer refugees a jump-start after reading about Afghan families in the Sacramento area struggling with poor housing, cultural assimilation and crime. Last year, The Bee told the stories of several Afghan refugee families, which inspired McCarty to convene a community round table with Opening Doors, World Relief, and Sacramento’s other refugee resettlement agencies and county departments serving refugees.
The Sacramento region is by far California’s top landing spot for SIVs from Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 2,000 SIV refugees came to Sacramento just from October of last year through this March, according to the state Department of Social Services. Sacramento County saw 6,000 SIV holders arrive during the last five years, more than any region in the nation, with more on the way.
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“We know we have a robust community of SIVs and other refugees,” McCarty said. “Many are thriving but there are still challenges.”
The Assembly passed the tuition bill, AB 343, on a 65-0 vote Monday, while the state jobs bill, AB 349, passed the Assembly 41-30.
The bills advance even as the Trump administration has tried to suspend the entry of all refugees into the U.S. and block visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Federal judges have so far blocked the implementation of those orders.
The Sacramento region has experienced an upsurge in refugees this year, despite refugee arrival numbers nationwide dropping by 21 percent so far. Just this month, 54 SIV holders and their families are scheduled to arrive in Sacramento, the majority from Afghanistan, said Rawash Yar, an Afghan immigrant who works at the nonprofit Lao Family Development Inc.’s refugee resettlement program in Sacramento.
“The in-state tuition bill will be really helpful to 80 to 90 percent of our refugees,” Yar said. “We’ve had doctors, businesspeople, people who have worked for the U.S. Embassy and a lot of engineers.”
Sabit said he knows more than 50 Afghan SIVs who would be happy to be hired for state jobs. In Afghanistan, Sabit worked as a combat interpreter for the U.S. Marines and Army and trained hundreds of new interpreters to work with U.S. forces.
He’s now getting his associate degree in computer science at American River College while working as an employment specialist for Lao Family.
“Here you have to start from scratch,” Sabit said. “Transportation was a huge problem, and after I got that sorted out I started working for Apple and Uber. A state job would be great for people like me who worked for the Department of Defense.”
In The Bee’s stories about the community, which included pieces about mental health issues and domestic violence, Afghan professionals who’d played critical roles with U.S. and coalition forces often found their degrees didn’t count in their new homes, without U.S. or California credentials.
“I read all of The Bee series, and that inspired me to look into the issues,” said McCarty, who co-authored the “California Welcomes Refugees” package with Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, and Adrin Nazarian, D-Sherman Oaks.
McCarty said he first tried to tackle the credentialing issue so refugees could practice their professions here sooner, “but that proved to be a tough nut to crack.” So he instead tried to expedite the path for all refugees to higher education. On top of that, his state jobs bill would give SIV holders a preference level in state hiring just below U.S. veterans.
McCarty said he’s working now on an appropriation in the state’s education budget that would provide $5 million to California school districts highly impacted by new refugees to “help these kids succeed.” Sacramento schools are the top of the list, McCarty said.
He said many refugees, especially Special Immigrant Visa holders, would be qualified as data analysts, accountants, and administrative and support personnel working for the state.
“Not only are SIVs extremely brave, but they’re really talented. educated people who served with Special Operations, the State Department and the CIA,” McCarty said. “They have tremendous skills and we’d be fools not to get these individuals integrated and working in California, especially through state government.”