SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Lawmakers in Sacramento are discussing a bill aimed at helping immigrants and refugees in California by establishing a new state agency that would connect them to resources.
“When our immigrants are successful, California is successful, and America is successful,” Assemblymember David Chiu (D- San Francisco), the bill's author, says.
The California Immigrant and Refugee Affairs agency would put existing resources under the same roof and coordinate efforts between other state and local agencies to address different needs. Lawmakers say there are nearly a dozen state agencies that provide financial and legal services to immigrants and refugees, but no program exists to integrate current policies.
“It's everything from legal assistance, to health care for immigrant kids, to making sure that immigrants are aware that they can get drivers licenses, to other social services they could receive, student financial aid,” said Chiu.
An immigrant's eligibility to certain services may depend on his or her legal status. Chiu's proposal would link documented and undocumented families to services for which they qualify. The lawmaker says his plan could help streamline some processes for immigrant families.
“Because of what the current occupant of the White House has been doing in blocking comprehensive immigration reform, we have many families who in any other time in history would have been legalized by now,” Chiu said.
For nonprofit organizations in Santa Barbara County such as Importa, the legislation is good news. Importa offers free legal advice to low income families in Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria.
“There's a huge immigrant family population [in Santa Maria] so there's a lot of need for families to know that there's resources out there," Joanna Barrera said. "In a week we see probably 10-15 clients depending on our time availability.”
Barrera says many immigrants fall prey to scammers. She believes the new state agency could also deter that by pointing them to the right resources.
“There's a lot of people out there that are just looking to profit off of people,” Barrera said.
Others worry that lawmakers in Sacramento are not looking after other vulnerable communities and putting their needs first.
“We've got people on social security, we've got people who are disabled, we've got people who are veterans, we've got people who are homeless,” said Lompoc resident Nikolai Nikolenko.
Nikolenko says a new state agency could also put a strain on California's budget.
“We can't support another government agency, we're already running a deficit,” said Nikolenko.
Assemblymember Chiu did not provide an estimate as to how much the California Immigrant and Refugee Affairs agency would cost to establish. However, the San Francisco representative says he doesn't expect it to be a significant expense because the bill would combine existing resources.
"It's been done in other states in our country from Massachusetts to Michigan to New York,” he said.
If signed into law, it would take effect in 2020.
The bill will be heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 9.