Foon Rhee

The obstacles facing aid to refugees

Kathleen Mikulin, center, of Fair Oaks holds a sign during a rally supporting refugees at Sacramento International Airport on Jan. 29.
Kathleen Mikulin, center, of Fair Oaks holds a sign during a rally supporting refugees at Sacramento International Airport on Jan. 29.

I’m all for helping refugees who make it to California, after all the hardships and hurdles they have to overcome to escape war and persecution.

Yet I suspect that state and local efforts to aid refugees will face their own obstacles.

In response to President Donald Trump’s refugee order, there’s a California Welcomes Refugees package of bills in the Legislature. Assembly Bill 343 would give all refugees in-state tuition at public colleges, plus priority enrollment for interpreters and others with special visas for helping the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s also a $5 million budget request to fund translators, counselors and other support staff to help refugee children in local school districts.

In Sacramento, a new task force met for the first time Thursday to strengthen the city’s “sanctuary” status. City Hall plans to coordinate with nonprofits and advocacy groups to aid refugees, as well as undocumented immigrants.

Helping refugees makes all sorts of sense. They may be more sympathetic than undocumented immigrants, though Trump seems to see them all as dangerous outsiders.

But in our deeply divided politics, there’s danger. Supporters know what’s coming, so they aren’t going to hide from it.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who helped introduce the refugee aid package, says he’s sure some opponents will make the case that “we should be helping Americans and Californians first.”

Critics pushed that argument in 2001 before the Legislature granted in-state tuition for qualifying undocumented immigrants and again in 2011 before a bill allowed them to apply for financial aid, though both moves mean a more educated workforce. Opponents raised the issue again in 2013 before a law allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, though it helps make our roads safer.

McCarty has his counterpoints ready: “These individuals are Californians.” And “it helps them and helps us” if they are integrated into California’s economy and society faster.

There’s one angle, however, that is even more challenging: when refugees receive special treatment that military veterans haven’t always won quickly.

The second bill in the package, AB 349, would help refugees with the special visas apply their work experience toward getting professional licenses in California. It’s similar to a proposal for military medics who wanted to become nurses when they came home. That took nearly five years to get through the Legislature, a disgrace.

It would be rather awkward if legislators approve the special dispensation for refugees faster than they did for veterans. McCarty conceded that the licensing bill could be more difficult to pass, both because professional licenses are complicated and because of what happened to veterans.

Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a tea party favorite who ran a divisive campaign for governor in 2014, poked at this issue in a piece about the refugee bills posted this month on Breitbart. He wrote that when legislators approved “in-state tuition to illegal aliens who attend California’s taxpayer-funded public colleges and universities, that same privilege was not offered to active-duty service members and their families.”

That shortchanging of the military has been fixed. While I don’t want to put myself in his camp, Donnelly is right that in-state tuition should also be extended to the spouses and children of active-duty service members stationed in California. To balance the political optics, legislators might also want to approve AB 353 to give preference in hiring for veterans who served in any war – Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance – not just during Vietnam as under current law.

McCarty hopes to win passage for the legislative package this spring. He told me that refugees have been on his radar for a while because Sacramento County is a top destination, and that the issues the bills try to address came up in a roundtable he held six months ago.

Last year, Sacramento County accepted nearly 3,300 refugees, ranking behind only far larger San Diego County. And since 2008, Sacramento County has taken in about 3,800 refugees with the special visas, by far the most of any California county and more than 47 states. Sacramento also has seen what can go wrong when refugees don’t get enough assistance; their struggles were documented in The Bee’s award-winning series “No Safe Place.”

McCarty’s co-authors – Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and Adrin Nazarian – represent San Diego and Los Angeles counties, respectively, which are home to the state’s other largest refugee populations. Overall, California has resettled about 112,000 refugees in the last 15 years, including nearly 8,000 last year.

So it only follows that California became a center for protests against Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order halting all refugees for 120 days and banning them indefinitely from Syria. With his order blocked in federal court, the White House plans to roll out a new, streamlined executive order on travel, probably this week. Whether it’s improved, as well, we’ll have to wait and see, but it’s expected to leave those with the special visas alone.

That means Sacramento will remain a refugee hotbed – more impetus for the efforts to help them assimilate faster.

City Councilman Eric Guerra, chairman of Sacramento’s Safe Haven Task Force, says it will get a proposal in a couple of weeks, in time for any funding to be included in the city budget. The initial focus is on legal services, especially if families get separated, but could later include mental health counseling and other services.

Guerra has a strong response to those skeptics who question putting city resources toward refugees and other non-citizens. There’s an economic argument because they work and pay taxes. “People who think it’s an additional burden are completely missing the point,” he told me.

And there’s the moral imperative. For instance, many families have mixed immigration status, such as his. Guerra was undocumented when his family came to California at age four, before finally becoming a citizen 13 years later. “They are our neighbors,” he says. “They live and work among us.”

He’s right, and I would add another reason to support the proposals: It strengthens the principles we say we stand for as the land of opportunity for so many from around the world. You won’t hear Trump talk about it, but it’s what makes America truly great.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee