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By Miriam Raftery

January 15, 2020 (San Diego) – An executive order issued in September by President Donald Trump requires approval from states, counties and cities to continue to accept refugees and federal funds to help these newcomers coming to America, fleeing war, persecution, natural disasters or violence in their homelands.

San Diego has been an official federal refugee resettlement site since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The city is now one  of the largest resettlement sites in the nation, taking in over 24,000 refugees in the past decade including many families with children. The region receives $7.6 million a year in federal funding to help refugees, including $4 million to the County’s Health and Human Services Agency.

Four of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies are located in San Diego County providing help for the newcomers to become productive members of society.  The support includes medical care, English language skills, help with housing, job training, small business development and aid to school districts with large refugee student populations, including districts in East County.

All of that could have screeched to a halt, if Supervisors had voted against a proposal to approve continuing refugee resettlement in our region and acceptance of future federal funds for that purpose.

Thirty-one speakers spoke in favor, with no one speaking against. Staff pointed out that if funding were eliminated, refugees settled in other states or cities could still relocate to San Diego to be near families, but support services could vanish or be diminished.

Even before the first speaker, Chairman Greg Cox and other supervisors voiced unwavering support for the measure, which today passed unanimously by a 5-0 vote.

“We welcome the refugees,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.” But she noted that an influx of refugees from Iraq settling in East County has also strained resources on Grossmont Hospital, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, Grossmont Union High School District and Cajon Valley Union School District.  “We don’t get enough money,” said Jacob, who later proposed an amendment adopted to direct staff to aggressively seek additional funding to supplement the federal money.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar voiced support “to give people their life back,” before the public testimony.

Speakers included representatives from faith leaders including pastors of churches in Santee and San Carlos, the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, refugee resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee, Survivors of Torture International, and people who came here as refugees seeking safety and a better life for their families.

Marie Raftery with Jewish Family Service said helping refugees also helps community members providing aid who have “demonstrated our better angels.”

Kathy Anderson with Survivors of Torture International said her group has helped “bear witness to the resiliency of refugees and how much they contribute to our communities.”

An Afghan immigrant living in East County noted that Trump has reduced the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. from 110,000 two years ago to just 18,000 this year, “the lowest number in the history”  at ta time when the refugee crisis is growing around the world. “This is a shame and goes against the fabric of our country, se said.

Supervisor Cox stated after the testimony that many refugees have gone through a long federal vetting process which includes background checks, often surviving refugee camps in other countries.  “This is our responsibility in San Diego to provide critical services to help them build productive lives here,” he said.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher spoke last, thanking his colleagues on the board of Supervisors and all who came to voice support for refugees.

“The reason we are here today is that the Trump administration is attempting to divide communities,” he said. “There was no need for the executive order.” He indicated that refugee resettlement has been working for decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Fletcher noted that he has lived around the world in places including Iraq, Cambodia, South America and Africa; he now lives in City Heights, a diverse community. Refugees “make us who we are” as Americans, he continued, adding, “It’s an issue of humanity. It’s an issue of morality. It’s an issue of faith.”

He noted that a year ago, “We saw very divided efforts regarding asylum seekers,” then pointed out that seeking asylum is the first step toward becoming a refugee.  “I am grateful in San Diego that this is an exercise in unity. It sends a powerful message,” he concluded. 

As the 5-0 bipartisan vote was announced, applause filled the San Diego County Supervisors’ hearing room, where humanity and compassion triumphed over the politics of hate and division.

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