Ever since she joined the Fresno City Council five years ago, Councilmember Esmeralda Soria has been thwarted in efforts to have the city set up a fund to help undocumented residents with legal costs or to proclaim itself as a sanctuary city.
When Fresno was listed 34th among the most immigrant-friendly cities in the U.S. recently, Soria lamented the low ranking and suggested there were ways Fresno could move up on that ranking.
Last Thursday, the council took that first step when it voted unanimously to establish an Immigrant Affairs Committee.
Soria called it a momentous occasion.
“Our immigrant community finally gets to see one additional positive step that the City of Fresno is willing to take to not only demonstrate that we value the community but this this is a community of immigrants,” said Soria. “Everyone is welcome.”
That is good news for Oralia Maceda, who felt the city did not embrace immigrants when its city council failed to identify as a sanctuary city.
The newly interim co-director of the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO) and the binational coordinator of the woman of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacional (FIOB) believes the city has made a turnaround with last week’s council decision.
“It’s something that perhaps isn’t as big as what we were seeking before, but at least it brings us to the discussion table with the council,” said Maceda.
Maceda, who attended a press conference the day before the council took action, believes more can and should be done to help the immigrant community integrate itself with the non-immigrant population.
“More work needs to be done so that us immigrants can feel comfortable,” said Maceda, referring to English classes and greater acceptance of immigrants.
Immigrants, like those from Oaxaca, provide a richness full of culture, traditions and languages that make Fresno stronger, she said.
“We are giving life to what Fresno is,” said Maceda, widow of the late Oaxacan leader Rufino Domínguez. “But they are not seeing it as that. Instead, they see us as a burden far from seeing our contributions. Not only economically but culturally and linguistically.”
Councilmembers Miguel Arias Soria believe the city needs to be more welcoming, and that the committee will be a first step of more to come.
“I’m looking forward to 10 more good steps,” said Soria, who has been looking for the city to take a pro-immigrant stance ever since she joined the council five years ago.
“This is simply the beginning of ensuring that everybody in the City of Fresno understands that they are valued and welcomed here,” said Arias.
Arias and Soria backed the proposal introduced by fellow councilmember Luis Chávez.
Chávez said he received more than 20 letters of support for the resolution to establish the 15-member committee – each councilmember will appoint two members to the group, with Mayor Lee Brand naming one – that will advise the council “on issues related to immigrants within the city.”
“This is a great opportunity to bring these people into the fray,” said Chávez, who said the committee “is really about valuing and celebrating the diversity that we have in our city.”
Our immigrant community finally gets to see one additional positive step that the City of Fresno is willing to take to not only demonstrate that we value the community but this this is a community of immigrants. Everyone is welcome.
Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria
The message, said Chávez, is that the city “loves all immigrants, and all immigrants are welcome here in our city.”
Soria, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who worked in the fields, said her parents – as do thousands of other immigrants – “came here with a dream.”
“We need to do a better job of welcoming our immigrant community,” said Soria, who said the city thrives when immigrants thrive.
The city took the right step several years ago, she said, when it began to provide Spanish-language translation of the council agenda, and then expanded it to include a Hmong translation.
“I think there are a number of subsidiary issues that need to be discussed like language access,” said Soria, who noted the other top five cities in California have “in some shape or form” an office of immigrant affairs or offer English courses in partnership with community organizations.
In Fresno, she said, 42 percent of the residents speak a language other than English at home.
She recalled a conversation with an Amazon representative who said lower-level staff have the inability to move up in management because of a lack of English skills.
“That hinders many of our families to have economic mobility,” said Soria.
Arias said Fresno is pushing back against anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House.
“Today, the City of Fresno is pushing back in saying we have a pro-immigrant agenda,” he said. “This city, the fifth-largest city in the state of California, has your back. You are welcome in our city. Your business is welcome here. Your families are welcome here, and we will push back on any national agenda that creates fear in our neighborhoods.”