Oregon lawmakers work to ramp up state’s capacity to welcome refugees

By Sam Stites (OPB)
Oct. 13, 2021 12 p.m.
Afghan refugees are processed at Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Village where they are being housed in New Mexico, Sept. 10, 2021. The U.S. military base is where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened.

Afghan refugees are processed at Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Village where they are being housed in New Mexico, Sept. 10, 2021. The U.S. military base is where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened.

David Goldman / AP

Oregon lawmakers have convened a new workgroup to quickly bolster the state’s capacity to welcome refugees as the nation deals with crises on two separate fronts.


Democratic legislators Sen. Kayse Jama and Rep. Khanh Pham have brought together legislative aides and staff from local resettlement agencies to address gaps in the state’s ability to serve approximately 180 Afghan refugees that are expected to arrive over the coming months.

They’re also hoping to build up the state’s resettlement programs in a way that provides long-term stabilization so that Oregon can help respond to more crises in the future, following news of thousands of Haitian refugees arriving at the southern border to seek asylum.

“During the Trump years, we gutted our resettlement efforts overall in this country,” Jama said. “Oregon has not been an exception to that, so there’s a huge need to rebuild these programs.”

Jama and Pham took steps toward that goal this past legislative session in helping pass Senate Bill 778 which creates the new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement: an agency under the governor’s office that will advocate on behalf of policies and strategies that help stabilize Oregon’s newest residents.

But the rollout of that program was not expected to happen overnight, and the emergence of the two refugee crises in Afghanistan and Haiti have created the need for a stopgap to provide support for the four resettlement agencies currently operating in Oregon.

The workgroup Jama and Pham created will meet bi-weekly to discuss the various needs of resettlement groups and help connect them to state agencies that provide services to refugees such as the Department of Human Services.

They’ve split off into subgroups working on several areas of wraparound services for refugees such as housing, legal aid, education, workforce training, health care, language services and community organizing.

According to Robin Ye, chief of staff for Rep. Pham, the workgroup is in the beginning stages of developing strategies to help resettlement agencies support families arriving in Oregon. But over the course of the next several weeks, they expect to provide reports to lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown’s office on how best to address urgent needs.

They’re also exploring potential statutory changes that could be raised during the 2022 legislative session to bolster the state’s response long-term.


“We’re looking at all these different dimensions of someone newly arrived to Oregon without much of a support system, asking, how do you become a thriving member of our society?” Ye said.

One of the most immediate needs, especially for the 180 Afghan refugees Oregon is expecting, is housing.

While Oregon’s housing market is currently strained, Jama and Ye agree that Oregon has been creative in how it responds to mass displacement.

Take last year’s wildfire’s for example. Project Turnkey served as an opportunity to take formerly decrepit motel properties and turn them into temporary housing for wildfire victims.

It’s that ingenuity that the state will rely on as it works toward ensuring the families it welcomes from overseas have a safe and warm place to stay when they arrive.

“The housing market, of course, is challenging for all Oregonians. There’s no question about that. We were struggling before the pandemic and struggling extremely right now,” Jama said. “But it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.”

Matthew Westerbeck is director of refugee services for Catholic Charities of Oregon, one of the state’s four resettlement agencies.

According to Westerbeck, his organization is grateful that both the state of Oregon and federal government are aligned in their efforts to find creative solutions to a crisis that has evolved very quickly.

He said that rapid standup of a new resettlement program specific to Afghans has also created some holes in how services are provided to them, but the leadership shown by Oregon lawmakers such as Pham and Jama have provided a path forward for the state to meet this challenge with a robust response.

“The gap that I think we’re going to address here in Oregon is part of how we’re well-poised — we’re well-poised because we have strong leadership in the state Legislature, strong champion and leadership in the Governor’s Office, to ensure that Oregon is very welcoming,” Westerbeck said. “And we’ll see that come into shape in the coming weeks and months around what exactly the state’s investment is going to be.”

The workgroup was expected to meet again Tuesday in a private session and will release a report later this week detailing areas it has identified as needing improvement.

According to Ye, those improvements and potential further investment will be rolled into ongoing work by the state to establish the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement as the new agency takes shape.

“When an emergency happens, if that’s when you start to think about building capacity, it’s almost too late,” Ye said. “Which is why it’s so key that Sen. Jama’s leadership with Rep. Pham passed SB 778. I think that was very prescient.”


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