Most writings or speeches on immigration start with something like ”we are a nation of immigrants,” a rather romantic statement that glosses over just how difficult it is to establish a new life in a foreign country. Immigrating is expensive; it’s physically and mentally challenging; it can be daunting. For many, it is a frightening, dangerous move made in desperation.
Back in 1988, I worked for World Relief in South Central Los Angeles, helping Latino immigrants become U.S. citizens. Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was in full swing, permitting unauthorized immigrants who had already been living in the United States continuously since 1982 to become eligible for temporary legal status and pursue a path to citizenship. Unfortunately, there has been no consistent path to citizenship for more than 20 years. If you are rich, a supermodel or white, you are more likely to cross the threshold. If your skin is brown and you are poor, the door is locked.
Those individuals who are willing to take the initiative to immigrate to a new country demonstrate to me that they are strong, ambitious, driven, passionate, courageous, hardworking and highly intelligent. And this is true in every sector — tech, services, trades, small business, medicine, you name it. These traits are why immigrants have played such a vital role in the economic growth and prosperity of this nation, particularly in California and Sonoma County.
While immigration and immigrant rights have long been important to Sonoma County, changes to immigration laws and enforcement at the federal level elevate the need for immediate and meaningful action on the part of local and state government. In Sonoma County, approximately 8 percent of our population is undocumented, and the families, friends and communities of these individuals stretch far beyond that.
Threatening statements against immigrants throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and during the first year of the Trump administration, in addition to recent executive orders, ongoing raids and deportations, generate fear in our community. We know this terror causes some immigrant community members to stop cooperating with law enforcement, discontinue accessing critical services and hold children out of school.
To address these concerns, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors developed the County Immigration Initiative, which includes the following:
Working with the community and local legal service providers to enhance immigrant rights legal services.
Extending the Unaccompanied Child Deportation Defense Project, which provides deportation defense through our county counsel’s office for children, primarily from Central America, who have fled violent conditions in their home countries and have been detained at the U.S. border.
Establishing a county website to serve as a comprehensive information hub for immigrant rights resources, services and volunteer opportunities.
Working with the community and local organizations to assess gaps in services for immigrant communities.
Advocating for legislation that enhances legal protections for undocumented immigrants, increases funding for legal services and deportation defense, such as SB 54, SB 6 and AB 3, and addresses the growing number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
In September, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to affirm the county’s commitment to protect and support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program participants and all immigrant community members in Sonoma County. This action was taken to relieve fear and anxiety of local residents resulting from the memorandum issued by the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 5 to rescind the DACA program. Phasing out this program would negatively affect the approximately 6,000 DACA participants residing across Sonoma County, as well as their families, employers, educators, classmates and friends. To be clear, DACA participants do not represent a threat to public safety and are a vital component of our county’s current and future economic, cultural and intellectual success.
As Americans, we embrace the values of democracy, freedom and the pursuit of a better life. Instead of immigration policies that break up families and threaten economies, we must embrace local immigrants. The Emma Lazaras sonnet on the Statue of Liberty says it best:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
America has been and always will be great if we remember the values on which we were founded.
Shirlee Zane is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, representing the 3rd District, which includes most of central Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Sonoma State University.