Amid reports of hate crimes against minorities in the days following Donald Trump’s presidential election win, city officials across the U.S. made pledges to veer from the type of discrimination the president-elect used to charge audiences during his campaign.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said police wouldn’t refer undocumented immigrants to federal authorities unless they had a criminal conviction, underlining NYC’s status as a “sanctuary city.” Minneapolis City Council members pledged to maneuver any federal mandates that discriminated against Muslims or people of color.
And in San Jose, a Bay Area tech hub that calls itself the capital of Silicon Valley, Mayor Sam Liccardo took to Medium to say much of the same in a post titled “We’ve Got Your Back,” which also highlighted the city’s newish Office of Immigrant Affairs.
“[Director] Zulma Maciel and the City have made considerable progress — launching ‘citizenship corners’ in a dozen libraries, hastening the translation of key applications and documents, and boosting multilingual small business permitting assistance,” wrote Liccardo, outlining what the office has done since its inception in early 2015.
He noted the office was originally created to help assist immigrants in the process of gaining citizenship, and create new points of access to city services for the “immigrant entrepreneurs who launch half of our City’s small businesses each year.”
Nearly 40 percent of San Jose’s residents, and residents in Santa Clara County, where San Jose is the county seat, were born outside the U.S. In 2014 alone, the county’s immigrant population contributed nearly $77 billion in tax revenue and other local spending to the economy.
Which is why it isn’t surprising that Maciel received a few puzzled responses when the office first took off. “People said ‘Wow, you just opened up an Office of Immigrant Affairs? It’s about time.’”
But establishing the office wasn’t the first way the city had been major advocates for this economically vital part of the population. One example Maciel points to is an effort to connect immigrant families with legal services for benefits like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), a federal program that lets some undocumented youth who arrived in the country under the age of 16 go to college and in some cases get a driver’s license. About one-third of the 742,000 current DACA beneficiaries live in California.
As part of its “Welcoming San Jose” three-year plan, the office pinpointed 15 key areas where the city will start working to improve its service outreach to local immigrants. They range from getting more immigrants onto affordable housing and city development boards, to workforce development partnerships with immigrant communities and local community colleges.
For its first venture, the office is rolling out culture and language training programs in Spanish, Vietnamese and other popular languages with staff at local libraries, and the parks and planning departments, as Liccardo outlined in his post.
But it will also help to make sure entrepreneurs in the immigrant community — who Liccardo described as the “secret sauce” to San Jose’s globally competitive economy — have more access to government contracts.
“It’s normally the larger companies that get those bids because they have great prices, they have the experience, they have the people power,” says Maciel. Her office hopes to work with consultants who can provide training sessions to immigrant entrepreneurs on the ins and outs of what they need to qualify for big contracts. That education will range from how to get the types of insurance necessary to qualify for government bids, to how to draft up a competitive project outline and budget.
“We also want to give them the opportunity to interact with those larger businesses, who might then subcontract with them,” she says. For example, if a veteran construction company secures a government job, that could open up the door for an immigrant-owned flooring or roofing company to fill out part of the contract.
The public works department is currently mulling over ways to make this stick. Maciel says nothing’s set in stone, but they have considered bidding systems that award contractors based on how their projects incorporate or benefit targeted communities — like the U.S. Employment Plan, created by Jobs to Move America, which favors contract bidders that reinvest in local economies or employ from neighborhoods facing high levels of unemployment or poverty.
By this time next year, Maciel, who’s the sole person running the office at the moment, says she expects she’ll be able to provide results that illustrate a strong start at the community outreach level. Making city services available in the languages of people who need them most will lay the foundation for better immigrant-government rapport.
And by year three, the office hopes to have established business partnerships with Silicon Valley industries to help create a pipeline for immigrant entrepreneurs to get introduced to that ecosystem.
“The data [on city contracts] shows there isn’t a whole lot of equity there, and we’re not doing much to make it an inclusive process” for minority and immigrant entrepreneurs, she says. “So San Jose is aware of that, and we’re starting to invest in consultants who’ve done this before.”
At 20 percent of the immigrant population, most foreign-born in Santa Clara County are from Mexico. The second, third and fourth most populous nationalities are Indian, Vietnamese and Chinese, respectively. When Santa Clara County grew from 1.68 million people to 1.89 million between 2000 and 2014, immigrants made up 65.5 percent of that growth.
That’s why Liccardo’s stand against Trump’s rhetoric was way more than a nod that he’d stand for all of San Jose’s citizens, regardless of their country of origin or religion. It was an affirmation that without immigrants, his economy would be a sliver of what it was today.
“Recent events have left many thousands of our San Jose residents in fear,” wrote Liccardo. “We cannot control the events in Washington, D.C., but we can do much to care for each other here at home.”
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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City.