Deborah Ortiz, a veteran public servant who spent years trying to help immigrants and refugees in Sacramento and the state, will soon be aiding hundreds of new Sacramentans fleeing violence or persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and more than half a dozen other nations.
On Jan. 1, the former city council member, assemblywoman and state senator will take over as CEO of Opening Doors, a nonprofit agency that helps refugees, immigrants and human-trafficking survivors achieve self-sufficiency through job training, small-business loans and access to legal and social services. Last year, the agency served more than 650 immigrants and refugees and helped resettle 423. It also assisted 94 human-trafficking survivors.
“The sad story about Sacramento is we’re ground zero for many of the cases of human trafficking along our freeways up and down California,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz will replace Debra DeBondt, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya who plans to return to Africa with the Peace Corps to battle the spread of HIV and AIDS. “Africa’s in my blood – the people are just really wonderful, there’s greater value on relationships, as opposed to accomplishment,” DeBondt said. She called Ortiz, a McGeorge School of Law graduate whose background includes nonprofit work, “a great fit” and said “she really feels a connection for the people we’re serving.”
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Since being termed out from the state Senate, Ortiz, 58, has been vice president of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte and the California Primary Care Association. She also was elected to the Los Rios Community College District board of trustees.
Q: Why Opening Doors? Why now?
A: Debra DeBondt’s decision to pursue her African dreams presented me with the perfect opportunity to do what I’m passionate about: ensuring access to opportunities for those who often lack status or power in our society. Our region has a rich history of immigrant populations making Sacramento their home. We are stronger as a result of our diversity, and I am thrilled to contribute.
More than 9 million Syrian refugees have fled since civil war broke out in 2011. Will they find refuge in Sacramento?
Since 2011, when the Syrian conflict started, 1,500 Syrians have been resettled nationwide. Sacramento ranks third in the nation among cities receiving them. Since April, Opening Doors, one of several resettlement agencies here, has resettled 25. Several hundred more are expected. Along with the usual challenges of learning a new language and culture, we are likely to see children with unique mental health needs related to exposure to trauma and violence. And there may be some heightened national security scrutiny of Syrian refugees that could delay or prevent their arrival.
Q: Who else is coming and how can you help?
A: Opening Doors has been serving Afghan refugees, many of whom risked their lives on behalf of our military, were granted Special Immigrant Visas and are transitioning relatively well. …We also assist refugees from Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Union.
Refugees and asylees have lived with daily violence, religious persecution, civil unrest and fear for their lives. … Arriving in a strange country while learning a different language and understanding our financial and social institutions is overwhelming. We make their transition a bit less daunting by helping them set up their households and connect them to services. We also provide immigration and legalization services and help them settle into our community.
Refugees receive $925 in federal funding for the first 30 days. It helps pay for setting up their households, food, housing and nominal expenses. Their refugee status many help them qualify for other income-based public assistance programs including cash assistance, Medi-Cal, and CalFresh (food stamps) for up to eight months for adults without dependent children. Families with children are eligible to receive benefits for four years.
Opening Doors supports them for three months from the date of arrival in Sacramento. The agency enrolls refugees in ESL classes, human services and employment services to help them to become independent at the end of the three months.
Q: Opening Doors provides services to undocumented immigrants, including those brought here as children (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). How do you account for anti-immigrant sentiments in America?
A: Each time we find the courage to speak out against anti-immigrant sentiments, we are making the lives of the individuals and families we serve just a bit easier and more welcoming. Historically there are waves of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiments – some ugly and hurtful. But those are not the majority. Polling shows a great desire for legalization of undocumented immigrants, and people come forward for American Muslims when they are attacked.
I respect the contribution of immigrants, whether it was the early Chinese who built our railroad systems or Mexican and Filipino immigrants who’ve help build California’s multibillion-dollar agricultural economy since the early 1900s. Our more recent refugee populations – whether from the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan or Iraq – come with the same optimism and hope for a better life. Their resiliency and genuine desire to make contributions to their new home is inspiring. It reminds me of the dignity and hard work of my grandparents, immigrants from Mexico.