County of El Paso: Office of New Americans

Last October, El Paso, Texas, joined the growing list of cities supporting their foreign-born residents when it created the Office of New Americans, or ONA. The county commissioner’s court sought to support and welcome the growing population of refugees and asylum seekers in El Paso County. The ONA connects newly arrived residents to resources, promotes integration through advocacy efforts, and enhances communication and collaboration with local nonprofits, grassroots leaders, community-based organizations, and interfaith organizations.

The ONA has taken great care to facilitate welcome efforts in response to changing immigration policies. To create an infrastructure that would withstand such changes, the ONA turned to local advocacy groups to promote immigrant integration in the community and increase support for local nonprofits and organizations welcoming migrant families daily. While the ONA has been operational for just under a year, the office has already established key relationships with local partners. Initially these conversations were occurring one-on-one until Hope Border Institute, a local grassroots organization and partner of ONA, suggested the office expand their outreach to include other cities in Texas, Juarez, Mexico, and parts of New Mexico. Together they launched and began to co-convene the Frontera Welcome Coalition to support and strengthen the work of the Annunciation House, a local organization run by volunteers that has provided shelter, clothing, food, and other necessities for thousands of immigrants and refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border, for the last forty years. Like most organizations, Annunciation House needed additional support due to the pandemic.

The Frontera Welcome Coalition has more than 100 members with individuals representing nonprofits, faith-based groups, and national and international leaders. The goal for the Frontera Coalition is to be “as prepared as possible to welcome new families,” said Lorey Gonzales-Flores, community outreach coordinator at El Paso’s Office of New Americans. Members of the coalition identify and assess the gaps in services and resources that hinder integration in the region. Thus far, the Frontera Welcome Coalition has assisted the Annunciation House in recruiting volunteers; providing transportation to families and individuals, coordinating donation and food drives, and forming working groups to ensure shelter providers have enough resources to welcome families. The work of the coalition has recently expanded to include advocacy on the Title 42 Expulsion Policy, the dwindling of the Migrant Protection Protocol and engaging with the Biden administration to emphasize the communities’ commitment to welcome newcomers. Lastly, the Frontera Welcome Coalition created the Bienvenidos 2.0 Welcoming Plan to prepare communities to welcome and integrate asylum seekers and migrants throughout the region. “Marisa Limón Garza and Hannah Hollandbyrd at Hope Border Institute are subject matter experts and because they have an extensive history doing advocacy and on-the-ground work, we have collaborated in facilitating discussions for the group. [We are] truly grateful to be able to work alongside them and learn from them,” said Gonzales-Flores.

In addition to supporting local organizations, the ONA is in the process of creating El Paso’s Welcoming Strategic Plan, a countywide plan that will offer transparency to communities and highlight the mission of the Office of New Americans. It will gather feedback from the community and include short and long-term goals with plans of action. “In reaching out to other [Offices of New Americans and Offices of Immigrant Affairs] throughout the nation, we compiled a list of programs and initiatives to be implemented. The plan will help El Paso be inclusive and integrate new residents from around the world into the social fabric of our county,” said Gonzales-Flores. The ONA intends to work alongside nonprofits, various county departments and national organizations. They are preparing to apply for the Gateways for Growth Grant, a competitive grant that offers grantees with customized reports of their community, technical assistance, and monetary support. The ONA also hopes to utilize CLINIC’s Immigrant Integration Surveys once they are ready to engage community members. Although the Welcoming Strategic Plan is still forthcoming, it will include recommendations that have been successful in other communities, such as: a countywide language access plan that will facilitate communication between people who have limited English proficiency; a community or municipal ID that immigrants can easily obtain; scholarships to cover fees for the USCIS N-400 and DACA applications; citizenship and naturalization clinics; a collaboration with VERA to create a legal defense fund to help support legal service providers; and cafecito with an officer to build trust between the community and local law enforcement. Lastly, the ONA intends to promote access to services and civic engagement by bringing awareness and education to how the city and county functions and the services offered.

Gonzales-Flores’ recommends that elected leaders interested in promoting integration create an office dedicated to supporting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the community. “Having such an office [of New Americans] with the city or county will remind elected officials and administrations of being intentional with policy that is inclusive and welcoming,” said Gonzales-Flores. “Immigrants should not be an afterthought but because they are present and part of our community, they should be part of the planning process.” “Many Offices of New Americans and Offices of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs stay in constant contact and bounce ideas for implementation off each other,” she added. “These ideas for programs and initiatives begin to pile up and becomes overwhelming especially for new offices BUT you are also reminded that you are not alone. In my experience, other ONA/OIRAS are ready to provide guidance, national programs are ready to provide technical assistance, and many local NGOs are ready to support…I just remember to, do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

CLINIC applauds the County of El Paso Office of New Americans, the Hope Border Institute and its coalition of allies and advocates in promoting an integrated region along the U.S.-Mexico border!