With a foreign-born population numbering in the tens of thousands, Portland has become home for immigrants and refugees; in some neighborhoods, one in three residents hail from another country.
On Dec. 6, the City Council will hear a report from Portland State University Capstone students on immigrant demographics and the issues affecting those communities. The information is intended to help a soon-to-be formed task force determine the issues affecting Portland's immigrant and refugee population. The task force will ultimately present recommendations to the council about how that community could be better served.
The City Council, with the help of several immigrant-rights and multicultural organizations, passed a resolution on Oct. 18 aimed at creating stronger ties between city government and the sometimes-disconnected immigrant communities and reaffirming their civil rights.
The resolution calls for the creation of the task force to identify barriers between immigrants and refugees in civic and public life. It also acknowledges the mistrust created by federal anti-terrorism and immigration policies; affirms that they are protected from undue scrutiny from law enforcement; and it "urges (the) federal government to create a fair and humane immigration reform" policy.
Several groups worked with Mayor Tom Potter's office in the construction of the resolution, including the Center for Intercultural Organizing, the Latino Network and the American Friends Service Committee, according to Carmen Rubio, community affairs director for the mayor.
In the wake of similar actions taken in Seattle and other cities, Kayse Jama, founder of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, decided to formally address immigration rights in Portland with the creation of the resolution. Jama, who teaches a Capstone Program class at Portland State University on the politics of immigration, organized a forum last December at City Hall that brought 200 refugees to their government offices. The Capstone Program focuses on the immigrant/refugee experience. Out of that 2005 forum was born Bridgetown Voices, a collaboration for immigrant and refugee communities.
"We've always been asked what we think – but no follow-up," Jama said, adding that the formation of the task force should guarantee that follow-up. Jama and many others in the immigrant community say there is a disconnect between city government and their population. The task force aims to bridge that divide.
Rubio said the makeup of the task force should be determined by end of the year. The exact size and composition of the group is yet to be decided, but it is working on hiring a project facilitator. Compared to other government commissions and think tanks, this task force's mission will be relatively short-lived. The city plans to hear the group's findings and recommendations within a year.
According to Rubio and others, various community groups already have surveyed and questioned immigrant populations about the barriers they face in Portland.
One surveyor, Phyllis Laners, said she found many similar problems faced by today's immigrants and refugees. Laners, project coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, surveyed mostly refugees from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean and found most reported two basic problems: the surveys themselves and culture shock.
Many refugees had trouble with text questionnaires because they feared government retribution, similar to experiences in their country of origin. Community-based surveyors found face-to-face meetings much more beneficial, but also more time-consuming. Many refugees also said they planned to return to their home countries, seeing no direct benefit for answering the surveys.
For new immigrants, adjusting to a culture is one of the biggest hurdles, said Laners; employment, housing, literacy, health care — even something as simple as at-home child care — can be a big change for many of these "involuntary immigrants." Surprisingly, Laners said language was less of a barrier than they expected.
A member of Bridgetown Voices and an immigrant herself, Evelyne Ello-Hart said newcomers face a variety of challenges when adjusting to life in Portland. Ello-Hart, who has several degrees from Cote d'Ivoire, said she was forced to take several minimum-wage jobs to support herself. In Portland for nearly five years now, Ello-Hart is program supervisor for the Africa Women's Coalition.
The Cote d'Ivoire native said she hopes the resolution and its resulting recommendations can build cross-cultural alliances and nurture social change.
"We are part of Portland," she said. "We don't feel like we are begging. … These are our struggles."