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Reaching out to new Californians

Commission calls for a state program to help immigrants

By Leonel Sanchez STAFF WRITER

June 17, 2003

Imagine a state government agency charged with helping immigrants to succeed.

California had one that lasted until the 1940s.

With immigrants now making up one-fourth of the state's population, some say it's time for the state to step in again and do something similar.

The Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state watchdog group, last year made a case for establishing a government program specifically to help immigrants. Toby Ewing, a project manager for the commission, will discuss findings from that report, "We the People: Helping Newcomers Become Californians," at the University of San Diego today during a conference organized by the San Diego-based Immigration Museum of New Americans, Post World War II.

With federal immigration reform discussions stalled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, California must develop a strategy to help its immigrants integrate into the economy and become more active in their communities, Ewing said in an interview last week. California is home to nearly 9 million immigrants, including 2 million who are in the country illegally.

"There was a point in time when there was a state agency that had a specific role to help immigrants become a part of California in a way that they could prosper," Ewing said. "This is relevant today, because immigrants face many of the same challenges that they did then."

The Hoover Commission report referred to the California Commission of Immigration and Housing, which operated from 1913 to 1945 and oversaw complaints, conditions of labor camps, housing and immigrant education. It was disbanded after its functions were integrated into other state agencies.

The Hoover report supported creating a "Golden State Residency Program" that would encourage immigrants to establish residency, become citizens and vote, learn English, pay taxes, be better parents and participate in civic affairs.

Ewing said it's unlikely the state would create an office that operated like the earlier commission given California's current budget problems, but he believes state and local governments must find ways to integrate immigrants.

The Hoover report drew some criticism when it was published because it supported helping all immigrants, with no distinction between those who are here legally and illegally. The report said the proposed state program should help illegal immigrants "until federal policies are reformed."

Ewing said there's a better question for the state to ask when deciding which immigrants to help: Who is a responsible community member and who is violating state or local laws?

Many local police and sheriff's departments make this distinction already, he said, because they have been reluctant to enforce immigration laws.

"There are a number of communities that have established policies that fly in the face of federal law, because in their perspective, federal law is inconsistent with what they're trying to do," Ewing said.

Ewing's presentation will help set the tone for today's daylong conference at USD. Scholars, policy-makers, funders, service providers and members of immigrant communities will focus attention on San Diego County's diverse immigrant communities from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

More information is available at