ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A new Governor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs is tasked with connecting immigrant advocacy resources across the state to those in need, and Maryland’s nonprofits and high-ranking officials have thrown in their support — and expectations.
Bills SB85 and HB15, which chartered the office on Oct. 1, require that its administrators form a network of existing immigrant advocacy groups across the state to share resources, as well as to pass along information about government programs and to advise Gov. Larry Hogan, R, on immigrant needs.
The main goals for the office, according to the bills, are to help with career placement, English language programs, and naturalization processes for Marylanders who are foreign-born, about 15% of the population, according to an August 2020 American Immigration Council report.
The bill also requires the office to configure a website and a multilingual hotline for finding services and referrals, as well as for reporting fraud and crime against immigrants, which they are to forward to police authorities.
Lorena Rivera was appointed on Oct. 1 as director of the new office, which is housed under the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives.
Rivera is also the director for the governor’s Hispanic Commission under the same department, which she has been involved with since 2015, working on both census data collection and COVID-19 aid access.
First on Rivera’s to-do list is planning site visits for nonprofits and stakeholders to scope out available resources for the immigrant advocacy group network, she said.
Rivera told Capital News Service that her main goals are to complete the website and hotline before a new governor potentially appoints a new director in 15 months.
She could not give a timeline for the completion of either tool except that the website is currently underway.
Details about hiring the other three required staff, a legal adviser and two administrative assistants, were also still hazy, but she said their hiring depends on her workload and whether she’ll need extra help completing her duties.
“It’s really up to my superiors on what they want to do,” she said, “But we’re still very early, very early.”
Rivera said she feels very comfortable forming partnerships for the advocacy network.
“Everyone knows who all the players are, who the nonprofits are. We all work together on a daily basis, you know — they have events, they all invite one another. So we’re all connected.”
She said some fledgling advocacy groups might not be linked in yet, but are slowly reaching out to her.
She said forming partnerships with new and existing groups would be “very easy” for her, drawing on her background in media and marketing.
Rivera is a daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and recalled being a little girl translating for her parents when they lived in Washington, D.C.
“I remember my parents asking me because they didn’t speak English, ‘How do I get my driver’s license?’ And I remember having to call and ask for them.”
In 2021, she said, it’s much easier to find the information, but not necessarily in an individual’s own language.
“That, I’m truly excited about,” she said, “because back then it was so hard.”
Now, she said, she can connect people to resources multilingually and “be able to show people what our state has to offer.”
Bill sponsor Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s, and Anne Arundel, said the idea for a state-level immigrant affairs office sprang from need exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I started getting calls from everywhere, even from my colleagues across the aisle, all of them asking — ‘What are the services available to the immigrant community?’” Pena-Melnyk said in an interview this month.
When no such list arose, Pena-Melnyk said she collaborated on what she called a “brown paper,” a list of services in Spanish stretching from abuse hotlines to fair housing assistance, from legal help to resources for unemployment.
“But it’s all piecemeal,” the delegate said. The bill requires the immigrant affairs office to connect all these services together under one umbrella and remove language and access barriers to each.
But Pena-Melnyk had some concerns. The bill went into effect without Hogan’s signature and was instituted under his Community Initiatives office instead of at the cabinet-level as the delegate had intended.
“I hope they can budget to do all the bill requires,” she said.
The bill sets aside more than $321,000 initially, with increases every year to cover salary raises and the cost of turnover, up to $400,000 in 2026.
In the first year, almost $256,000 is assigned for salaries and benefits and nearly $21,000 is assigned to operating expenses. Ongoing hotline and website costs ring in at $38,000 for the year, and one-time technology set-up costs are set at $6,500.
“To enhance, enrich someone’s life, help them get educated and work and contribute — their life is worth much more than $400k by itself,” Pena-Melnyk stressed.
Residents and organizations from across Maryland spoke out against the creation of the immigrant affairs office at hearings in February.
At least seven witnesses called the office a “magnet” for more illegal immigration to Maryland. At least five called it unfair that services would be provided to a small sector of Marylanders on what at least six called a “strained” state budget, out of 10 written opposition testimonies recorded for both bills on the Maryland General Assembly’s website.
At the time of the hearing, Hogan had just signed the $1 billion RELIEF Act of 2021 releasing COVID-19 aid to Marylanders due to fiscal stress. This month, a $2.5 billion surplus was announced in the state’s general fund from the past fiscal year.
Other opponents called the office duplicative when other state agencies already exist, like the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees in the state’s Department of Human Services.
According to that agency’s website, however, its services are for “federally recognized refugees and political asylees” only.
A representative from the Maryland Federation of Republican Women said, “While it is a noble goal and desire to help all residents of Maryland, spending more Maryland tax dollars and creating more bureaucracy does not seem the best way to accomplish this task.”
Proponents of the immigrant affairs office include high-level Democrats, including a candidate for governor Comptroller Peter Franchot and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
A program director for the Esperanza Center, an immigrant resource center Catholic Charities runs in Baltimore, said in testimony that a state-level office would mimic the support the center has received since 2014 from the Baltimore Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, ensuring programs are accessible and equitable.
A representative from CASA, which he called the largest immigrant advocacy group active in Maryland, said in testimony in January that a state-level office would have “tremendously positive impact on immigrant families in Maryland who still lack basic language access, experience exploitation in a variety of different spaces, maintain distrust of the government and more.”
This article was originally published on CNSMaryland.org on Monday, November 1, 2021.