After setbacks, Oregon Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement takes shape

Nearly a year after the new office was established and moved between agencies, a director for the office has been hired

By: - March 17, 2022 6:00 am

Republicans in the Oregon House are upset about word changes in a climate package and delayed a final vote. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Nearly a year after legislators created it, Oregon’s new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement has a director who will hire three other staff and help Oregon’s newest foreign arrivals. 

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie was appointed to head the new office by Gov. Kate Brown on March 4. She previously served as director of community health for Health Share of Oregon and director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities. 

The new office is a project of Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, who won support in the 2021 Legislature to create an independent office within the Office of the Governor. The intent was to have the state offer long-term support to new immigrants and to refugees from countries such as Afghanistan. 

Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, during the February 2022 Legislative Session. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Department of Human Services, which helps with refugee services, does not yet know how many of the 3 million Ukrainians fleeing their home country might settle in Oregon. From October of 2019 to September of 2021, the state took in 160 Ukrainian refugees, according to the state Human Services Department.

The legislation that created the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement was passed in July 2021 and signed into law by Brown. It allocated $1.3 million for the hiring of a director and three other staff.

Not long after, according to Kien Truong, Jama’s chief of staff, representatives of the governor told Jama they were concerned there wasn’t sufficient time to get the office up and running as the governor headed into her last year in office.

“We wanted to get it running where it best fit,” Truong said. Jama told the governor’s representatives that it needed to be a stand alone office, not a department within a department. Truong said Jama and the governor considered housing it within the Secretary of State’s Office. Fairborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said he was interested in taking the Immigrant and Refugee Advancement Office as an independent operation housed within his agency, according to Truong. 

That move required another legislative act, delaying the startup until legislators met in February and could approve shifting the still-unformed agency to the state Human Services Department.

“Because the Oregon Department of Human Services is already engaged in refugee support and resettlement, and because the office should be connected to the wraparound services ODHS provides, it made sense to locate the office within that agency,” according to an email from Liz Meerah, a press spokesperson in Brown’s office.

What the office will do that is not yet being done

The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement will be tasked with joining government agencies, community organizations, colleges, universities, nonprofits and businesses to provide economic, social and learning opportunities for immigrants and refugees in Oregon. 

This includes job training and certifications, according to Truong. He said one example of what they hope to do is create a process that streamlines credentialing for new immigrants and refugees who already possess degrees and skills in high demand fields from their home countries.

“A lot of people coming to the U.S. have fled war and couldn’t bring documents with them,” Truong said, “but they have advanced medical training. We need to have a system in place to help them get their credentials here, so they can help us. We don’t have anything like that yet,” he said. 

The office won’t directly serve immigrants and refugees, but will recommend public policies and laws to ease the way for immigrants and refugees and pursue more federal funding for immigrant and refugee services.

The office is modeled after New Jersey’s Office of New Americans, which was established in 2019 to improve access to social services, workforce development and legal services for immigrants.

Truong said that during Covid, New Jersey’s Office of New Americans received federal Covid funding to distribute to undocumented immigrants who had applied for emergency aid. The New Americans Office also helped immigrants who had medical training from their home countries get the necessary state certification to work  in hospitals and clinics. 

Support for Afghan refugees

In September, Jama focused on getting state aid to the Afghan refugees who began arriving in Oregon after U.S. troops pulled out of the country. 

About 600 Afghan refugees have arrived to Oregon since September, according to the state Human Services Department.

Jama and Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, won a legislative allocation in December of $18 million to aid Afghan refugees arriving in Oregon. 

That sort of funding could have been aided by the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement, Truong said. The office could have found more federal funding or leveraged partnerships to provide more resources. 

Since December, the Human Services Department has budgeted $5.4 million for short-term food and lodging for refugees and will give the remaining $12.6 million to the six refugee resettlement organizations in Oregon. Those organizations have yet to receive the additional money, and as of March 8, about half of the 600-some Afghan refugees in Oregon were being sheltered in hotel rooms funded by the state, according to Jake Sunderland, press secretary at the state Human Services Department.

Sunderland said the department expects to disperse money to the refugee organizations in the next two weeks.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.