Supporting and advancing immigrant rights 

Bookda Gheisar has been the Immigrant and Refugee Policy Advisor for King County in the Office of Equity and Social Justice (OESJ). This is Bookda’s last week before she transitions to take a new position at the Port of Seattle as their first Senior Director for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. 

In this article, Bookda shares some of her reflections and learnings while at the County and provides resources that are available to support King County employees as we all work towards more equitable work places and communities. 

In 2015, the King County Council and King County Executive formed the King County Immigrant and Refugee Task Force. I was hired as a consultant to conduct community engagement and provide recommendations. Over nine months, we held more than 20 community meetings hearing feedback from more than 500 immigrant and refugee community members. This critical work identified barriers in accessing King County services and offered many solutions as identified by community members. The final report can be viewed here.

I then joined the Equity and Social Justice team to support immigrant community partnership and engagement, developing policies to advance and protect the rights of immigrants.  After three years, I am now moving on to help create the first office of equity for the Port of Seattle. As I leave, I reflect upon some of our joint accomplishments.

Immigrant and Refugee Commission

The task force recommended an Immigrant and Refugee Commission for King County. The Commission is now in place with 13 members from very diverse backgrounds and expertise.

The Immigrant and Refugee Commission (KCIRC) plays a significant role in engaging immigrant and refugee communities to establish long-lasting trust-based relationships with County offices and programs.  KCIRC strives to leverage existing programs and funding, and advocate for increased dedicated resources necessary for immigrant refugee communities to thrive. Meet one of our Commission members in this video.

The Commission is currently engaging with a group of 50 Somali women business owners who have been displaced in Seatac. Read more here about how we are supporting efforts to develop short term and long term goals for their next steps.

I hope that all departments continue to reach out to the Commission through Matias Valenzuela (Matias.Valenzuela@kingcounty.gov) to ask for advice and support on initiatives and policies impacting our communities.

Pictured: Members of the community, King County Council, and the King County Executive celebrate the passing of legislation to create an Immigrant and Refugee Commission.

King County Legal Defense Fund

We founded the first King County Legal Defense Fund to support organizations serving low-income immigrants and refugees in King County whether in detention, facing removal, or in danger of losing their immigration status. Leveraging City of Seattle support between October 2017 and April 2019, Legal Defense Network partners have utilized $1.8 million to screen 1,072 individuals, conduct 885 intake assessments, provide direct representation for 357 individuals, and place another 12 with pro bono attorneys, and provide legal advice to an additional 339 individuals.

I am so happy to report that we have been able to continue this critical work and have just awarded $5,446,333 of funding for the next five years. 

Immigration Ordinance

Pictured: Members of the community and King County executive staff celebrate the passing of the immigration ordinance.

In collaboration with community partners, advocacy organizations and Councilmember Gosset, we passed a historical robust immigration ordinance.

The ordinance fosters trust and fairness for King County immigrant communities. It established requirements for how agencies, offices and employees will provide services to immigrants, and requirements for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention honoring of federal administrative detainers, granting access to inmates and sharing information. It also provides translation assistance requirements for non-English speaking persons, a formal complaint process and an immigrants and refugees fund.

Other tools, models and resources

Much of the work I have done at the County provides a framework or resources for others to also perform similar work. I am happy to share the following tools and encourage you to refer to them when working towards your own equity goals:

Thank you for everything and may we have many reasons to collaborate together when I am at the Port of Seattle.