San Jose considering opening immigration office

San Jose Mercury News — SAN JOSE — Responding to new actions by President Barack Obama to shield immigrants from deportation, San Jose will consider establishing the city’s first-ever office to provide aid to its huge population of foreign-born residents.

The new federal actions, which begin taking effect in the coming months, are expected to allow millions of people living in the United States illegally to stay in the country, and thousands of San Jose residents are expected to take advantage.

City leaders are united in their support to provide resources for residents to navigate what could be a painful bureaucratic process to comply with the law and “come out of the shadows.” But with the City Council set to discuss their next steps Tuesday before a decision this spring, it’s not yet clear how far the city is willing to go.

Some council members want to establish a new Office of Immigrant Affairs — envisioned as a one-stop center that could provide direct city services, such as help starting a business, and supply references to aid on broader issues, such as health care.

But there are concerns about funding, as there always are in the perpetually cash-strapped city. And with other agencies such as Santa Clara County and several nonprofits already working to provide similar services, it’s unclear how deep the need is for a separate city department.

“The city should do whatever it can to ensure that people have all the information and access they need to take advantage of the change in law,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. “I’m just not eager to rush out there to buy a solution that may not fit the problem we’re trying to solve.”

San Jose would hardly be the first major city to establish public resources or even stand-alone offices for its immigrant population. And most other big cities are responding in some capacity to Obama’s executive actions announced in November.

But the city has an especially large responsibility because of its massive immigrant population. According to the U.S. Census, nearly 40 percent of San Jose residents were born in another country, among the highest rates for the nation’s big cities. A new report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates there are 118,000 undocumented immigrants living in Santa Clara County, the highest in Northern California. About 60 percent were from Mexico and 29 percent from Asia.

“Our city is certainly a city of immigrants. This is really about us serving the needs of our existing community,” said Councilman Ash Kalra, an immigrant himself, who proposed the new office along with new council members Magdalena Carrasco, Tam Nguyen and Raul Peralez.

It comes as the county considers a similar plan to fund an immigration support office, also in response to Obama’s execution action. The city and county will be working together to avoid duplicate services. In addition, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office is working with several nonprofits and agencies that have been holding community meetings about the new laws to help immigrants avoid scammers offering phony services. And the local Mexican consulate has agreed to host meetings in May where volunteers can go over applications with immigrants.

At Tuesday’s meeting, San Jose council members are expected to lay out their preferences for responding to the Obama directive. But their decision will not come until the budget for the coming fiscal year is finalized in May and June.

Concerned about funding issues, Kalra said the city’s role initially may be as simple as temporarily asking existing staff members to man an office and answer phone calls and emails directing people to the right resources. Another option is for the city to increase grant funding to nonprofits and other agencies that support immigration services. Eventually, in the most costly path, the city may establish drop-in centers that could help immigrants with a broad range of issues.

Regardless, supporters say it’s key for the city to take a leadership role in creating a central place on which immigrants can rely.

“We don’t want people to get the runaround where they’re chasing from office to office all day just trying to get basic services,” said James Zahradka, supervising attorney for the nonprofit Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which provides free services to immigrants and others in need. “People don’t have time — they’re already working two to three jobs to keep things going. They’re going to give up and stay marginalized.”