/ Modified may 4, 2023 9:57 p.m.

Sen. Juan Mendez, Arizona Muslim Alliance propose Arizona Office for New Americans

Mendez said he has been working on the bill for years and is collaborating with the Muslim community.

Office for New Americans Immigration and immigrant rights are discussed around the table during Muslim Day at the Arizona State Capitol on Feb. 24, 2023.
Courtesy Arizona Muslim Alliance

Arizona state Sen. Juan Mendez and the Arizona Muslim Alliance have joined forces to propose an Office for New Americans in Arizona, similar to ones in 13 other states that help immigrants assimilate into the U.S. The initiative is meant to improve immigrant rights and services by providing a centralized location for resources such as language classes and resettlement assistance.

“I’ve moved all across America and I understand what it’s like to start your life over again,” said Mendez, a Tempe Democrat. “I know what it feels like to be alone to have to navigate all different kinds of services that are already provided to people.”

Mendez and his wife, Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, come from families of immigrants. Mendez’s parents immigrated from Mexico while Salman’s mother is from Mexico and her father is from Palestine.

Mendez said he has been working on the bill for years and is collaborating with the Muslim community, which he said is well-organized and has experience establishing similar offices in other states.

“It was through the Muslim community that I met the first person who’s actually worked in this area, who’s helped establish these similar offices in other states,” he said. “So once we got connected through the Muslim community, then it felt like, ‘Oh, I can actually do something real.’”

The senator noted that he is not trying to create anything new, but is seeking to centralize services that already exist and make them more accessible.

Susan Bassal, the secretary of the Arizona Muslim Alliance, said the Office for New Americans could be particularly helpful for Afghan refugees who fled to the United States after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021. Bassal, an attorney, explained that the alliance had previously established a refugee task force to coordinate relief efforts and provide assistance to refugees, which could serve as a model for the proposed office’s work.

“(The task force allowed) these relief organizations that were already existing to work together,” Bassal said. “They’ve been able to provide everything from job training to English lessons.”

Bassal suggested that an Office for New Americans in Arizona could provide one-stop shopping for programs such as the International Rescue Committee and Arizona Immigrant and Refugee Services. The IRC provides job training, language instruction and assistance with basic needs like housing, while also helping refugees and immigrants navigate the U.S. immigration system and advocating for their rights. AIRS offers a wide range of services to immigrants and refugees, including legal assistance, language instruction, job training, health care navigation, case management and community integration support.

Mendez said he would like to propose the bill at the beginning of the next legislative session. However, he is unsure how the Republican majority will respond.

“Statewide, Arizona has a pretty good record or reputation of taking in immigrants compared to other states,” Mendez said. “This is the kind of issue where it could be bipartisan. This doesn’t necessarily have to be like a progressive issue. We want everybody to have a chance at success in Arizona.”

If Arizonans want an example of how an Office for New Americans could operate in their state, they don’t need to look far: Nevada lawmakers established one in 2019. Charina de Asis, the executive director of the Nevada Governor’s Office for New Americans, said it has enhanced “the success, integration and inclusion of immigrant and refugee families in the state.”

The office helps immigrants navigate the complexities of state government by offering programs that cater to the specific needs of immigrants and refugees in Nevada. For instance, the Nevada Initiative for Language Access ensures that state government is accessible to those with limited English, and its Skilled Immigrant Integration Program helps communities find ways to include immigrants and refugees in the workforce.

The office provides support to independent refugee resettlement agencies during crises such as the Afghan humanitarian crisis, when it worked with a county and a state college to find temporary housing for refugees coming to the state. It also connects immigrants and refugees to community resources, including affordable housing and small-business assistance.

De Asis said immigrants and refugees face similar challenges, no matter which state they live in.

“(This includes) language barriers, lack of social network and employment opportunities, access to health care and education, and experiences of prejudice and differences in culture,” she said. “Having an office like ONA helps make tackling these challenges a little bit easier.”

Mendez said his office is investigating whether Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs can establish and administer such an office without legislative approval. Cronkite News reached out to the governor’s office for comment but has not received a reply.

In Michigan, then-Gov.Rick Snyder, a Republican, used his executive power to establish an Office for New Americans in 2014. At the time, the GOP controlled the Michigan State House and Senate.

Azza Abuseif, executive director for Arizona’s branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she met with Hobbs on Jan. 31 and they discussed ways to work together to support the Muslim and immigrant communities. She said she believes that Hobbs might be open to establishing an Office for New Americans in the state.

“It’s something very important to establish that office, ” Abuseif said. “I’m a refugee myself, so having something like that would have been so helpful for both my parents when they came here to have that sort of support from community members and community organizations.”

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