As headlines in France capture the unrest among immigrants from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa and President George Bush proposes changes in United States immigration law, immigrants in Portland are speaking out.
An immigration and refugee forum that will explore ways for city government to include immigrants in civic affairs is planned from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, in City Hall Council Chambers, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave. The free forum is open to the public.
"The city of Portland does not have ways to engage immigrants," said Kayse Jama, an immigrant from Somalia who teaches a class in "politics of immigration" at Portland State University.
One out of eight residents in the Portland metro area is foreign-born and, in some eastside neighborhoods, immigrants represent one of every three residents. In the past 10 years, the city has experienced more than a 100 percent increase in the number of immigrants living here.
As a result, Jama said, Portland's demographics are changing, and with at least 1,600 immigrants — plus their relatives — arriving every year, the city is "one of the fastest gateways" in the country foreign-born residents. There are 4,000 to 5,000 Somalis alone in Portland, Jama noted.
Although individual Portlanders welcome the immigrants, challenges abound, he said. Among them are a lack of jobs, language barriers, limited housing and education.
"It's not easy being a refugee," added Jama, who came to Portland seven years ago after spending time in a refugee camp.
Instead of focusing on individual issues, however, Saturday's forum will discuss how immigrants can "co-integrate" with other civic and social communities within Portland and how an equitable social, political and economic environment can be created for everyone.
The forum is sponsored by the Community Language and Culture Bank, a multicultural organization that Jama founded in response to the backlash against immigrants and refugees after the Sept. 11 attacks, and by the city Office of Neighborhood Involvement. It will include speeches by Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Erik Sten. A panel consisting of several local immigrants then will discuss the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants in Portland.
The panel discussion will be opened up to the audience for further discussion. Two breakout sessions also are planned: The first will involve city employees and immigrants who will talk about the next steps to take to ensure inclusion in civic affairs; and the second will discuss federal immigration policies and potential immigration reform.
Students from Jama's class are planning the forum as part of their required community project. The class discusses why immigrants come to the United States and analyzes the effect that federal immigration policies have on Portland.
"For example, farm workers," Jama noted. "We need them and we tell them we cannot live without you because no one else will do the job. But they become the scapegoat for every social illness in the country. The class will analyze how they have contributed to society and how they are treated."
Those taking the class, which is one of the university's senior Capstone classes, designed to take students out of the classroom and into the community, include students with a variety of majors.
"What interests them is that this class offers tremendous information about immigration policies. They become more informed than any other American about immigration," Jama said.