The Nevada Office for New Americans has found new purpose during the COVID-19 pandemic despite a reduced budget and leadership change.
Established last year by the state Legislature, the Office for New Americans is meant to serve as a hub for refugees and immigrants — who make up 20 percent of the state’s population — to help them navigate state occupational licensing, workforce training, business licensing, and provide assistance with other immigration issues.
However, that was before the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. The office budget, originally $393,731 for the biennium, was reduced by about 14 percent to $332,182 during the special session this summer to address the state’s revenue shortfall. The office budget, like all state departments, has also been directed to prepare for another 12 percent reduction for the next biennium in light of Nevada’s continued economic troubles.
So how will the ONA fulfill its mission effectively with such a small budget?
“It’s tough but all agencies know budget cuts are going to be a reality in the next few years. We understand it has to be done,” said Charina de Asis, the director of the Office for New Americans. “It’s a matter of being really creative and working with our community based organizations to figure out solutions and implement programs that don’t necessarily call for a big amount of money or expenses.”
The agency has not cut back on any of their constituent services or scaled back programmatic goals, said de Asis. The agency continues to break down bureaucratic barriers and support immigrant-serving organizations, but under new circumstances.
Now priorities for the office lie in assisting immigrants with unemployment applications and other relief options for those who did not qualify for stimulus checks under the federal government’s CARES Act.
Immigrants make up nearly 40 percent of workers in the state’s hotel and food services industry— the hardest hit sectors in the country and Nevada’s top employers— according to the American Immigration Council.
Nevada posted the highest unemployment rate in the nation in April at 28.2 percent following the first full month of non-essential business shutdowns.
By October the unemployment rate was still 12 percent, up 8.3 percentage points from the same time last year and among the nation’s highest, according to the latest economic report from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR).
The Esperanza Fund was established in partnership with the Governor’s Office for New Americans and the Nevada Community Foundation as a public-private partnership to provide one-time financial assistance (up to $300 each) to support immigrant families in Nevada who don’t qualify for federal or state aid.
The Nevada Community Foundation directly receives the funds, as the fiscal agent, while ONA assists them in administering the funds. The board helps direct which organizations receive the funds.
“We are very proud of this work,” said de Asis. “We know there are immigrants in the state that did not have any relief at all. It’s a dire situation so the Esperanza Fund, through seed money from the Open Society Foundation, has given hundreds of immigrants relief. It’s a small amount but it helps to keep a household going.”
“We are hoping this fund, in partnership with the Nevada Community Foundation will transcend the pandemic,” de Asis said.
The funds were distributed to 13 community-based organizations to assist Immigrant Families, among them the Asian Community Development Council, whose president, Vida Lin, sits on the fund’s board.
“It gives the community hope and lets them know that we care about them. It’s been extremely helpful,” Lin said.
The council has distributed 260 grants of $300 directly to immigrant families. In one case Lin recalls a family with two children where the father’s work hours were reduced and the mother couldn’t work because she is not authorized to work in the country.
“We are looked at as the model minority but that’s not the reality. Our community is trying to make ends meet too,” Lin said, of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in Nevada.
The Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center has also received Esperanza funds and distributed them to families in need. They have distributed 262 grants of $300, about 45 percent of which were given to domestic workers, 25 percent were given to service workers, 24 percent were given to day laborers including construction and landscape workers, and another 5 percent were given to other gig workers, according to the center.
“It’s bad out there,” said Bliss Requa- Trautz, director of the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center.
Over the summer members of the center rallied to urge Gov. Steve Sisolak to establish a state sponsored fund in support of immigrant workers and families who have been excluded from federal coronavirus crisis assistance. Requa- Trautz called the fund “an acknowledgment of the need” but argued $300 comes nowhere close to compensating for the thousands of dollars of aid withheld from immigrant workers, calling it a “drop in the bucket.”
“In light of the failure of federal and state governments to take necessary action, direct financial support is just irreplaceable,” Requa-Trautz said.
Hundreds of unemployment cases have gone through ONA due to “an alien status flag issue.” The office connects with applicants and helps them navigate the issue and advises on what documentation to provide DETR.
“We get it DETR are not experts in immigration law,” de Asis said. “It could be as simple as the fact they were green card holders before and are now naturalized.”
In August, Sisolak appointed de Asis as the director of the Office for New Americans, after the former director left in the midst of the pandemic. She is one of only two employees in the office and is focused on licensing guides for immigrants whose degrees or licenses can’t be easily converted often forcing them to settle for lower-wage jobs.
During the pandemic, Sisolak waved licensing requirements for healthcare workers who are trained abroad who are then vetted and approved by the state chief medical officer
“We’ve really started focusing on immigrant workforce development. The pandemic has shown that when an economic crisis hits the state immigrants are disproportionately affected. We don’t know if these jobs are even coming back.”
The agency can receive grant money, and last year received a technical grant from the World Education Service under their skilled immigrant integration program. ONA is also applying for other grants.
“In our immigrant community there are always highly skilled immigrants that have been trained in their home countries but just don’t know how to translate licensing here,” de Asis said. “We’ve been working to implement that because we know there is a shortage of healthcare workers in the state.”
The office, together with other agencies, has also pushed culturally relevant messaging “in a language our community can comprehend” by creating an immigrant and refugee resource guide to inform immigrant communities about the health and safety orders. In April, it released a “Stay Home for Nevada” PSA in six languages, including in Spanish and Tagalog.
“We know that immigrant communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and we need to reach out to them,” de Asis said.