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Peduto administration introduces plan to create Pittsburgh Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council will consider a plan to create an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. The office would work with community groups to connect immigrants and refugees to resources and promote Pittsburgh as a welcoming home to new immigrants.

The office, proposed by the Peduto administration Monday, would expand the work of Welcoming Pittsburgh Initiative, a citywide initiative started in 2014 that has fostered collaboration among immigrant advocacy groups and provided services for residents in their preferred language.

The initiative earned Pittsburgh a “Certified Welcoming” designation from Welcoming America in September; the third city in Pennsylvania and 12th city in the country to earn the recognition.

The office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs would work to increase civic participation by the city’s immigrant and refugee communities, partly by making sure government documents can be translated into other languages.

According to Feyisola Akintola, special initiatives manager with Welcoming Pittsburgh, a permanent city office has always been a goal of the Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative.

“To be that contact to be that friend in local government… to build trust, build connection so that people know that the city and the mayor [are] here to support them,” she said. “Folks that might not have engaged with local government in the past… how do we work with them and their community leaders?”

The office could also provide continuity for immigrants and refugees who rely on city services created under the Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative.

Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of refugee and immigrant services at the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh, said she would be relieved to have a city office dedicated to supporting immigrants and refugees. JFCS has been recently resettling refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

“Pittsburgh has a lot of resources. But when you are not from here, it’s hard to know what resources are available to you and how to access them,” Smith-Tapia said. She commended Welcoming Pittsburgh as a partner in connecting immigrants with resources like housing and language assistance.

Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San Jose, said a permanent office is also proof of the city’s commitment to welcoming immigrants and refugees as Pittsburghers.

“Pittsburgh has always prided itself on being a welcoming city, and that’s great when you say it. But when you actually put things in place to ensure that it does become a welcoming city, that’s when we can see where priorities are,” Ruiz said.

Both Casa San Jose and JFCS have participated in programs organized by Welcoming Pittsburgh. Among them was a webinar with local landlords during which the organizations explained the importance of renting to refugees and immigrants.

But an office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs could also serve to create better government policies, Akintola said.

“This office is not just community-facing alone,” she said. “This would better position us to work with council.”

Akintola said the office would study immigrant populations by district and provide language access support for council and city documents.

Ruiz argued that the office could also provide an immigrant and refugee perspective to councilors who may not otherwise have access to these populations.

“So many times, folks that look like me are not at the table where decisions are being made,” she said.

And with the city’s immigrant population growing, those perspectives must be considered when creating policies and city programs, according to Ruiz.

“The population of this city is still declining. The only population that’s growing is the immigrant population,” Ruiz said.

According to Census data, Pittsburgh’s overall population dropped by 0.9% in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the city’s Asian-identifying population rose by 47%; the Hispanic-identifying population increased by 67% and those who identify with two or more races increased by 134%.

“We see the numbers. It only makes sense for us to actually have an office that better helps communities to adjust to their new home,” Akintola said.

An ordinance to create the new office will next be debated by council’s committee on finance and law.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.