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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - IRCO Executive Director Lee Po Cha addresses the crowd during the release of Portland State University's New Portlander Report on Aug. 9. It’s easy to think of a refugee crisis as a singular event: War or famine breaks out somewhere and people escape to The Land of the Free.

But Lee Po Cha knows differently. A Hmong refugee from Laos almost 40 years ago, Cha is now the executive director of Portland’s Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). He has seen the waves of refugees from Asia, the Soviet Union, Africa and now the Middle East, in addition to the immigrants from all over the world.

“There’s always going to be some newcomers,” Cha says.

But, says a new report from Portland State University, those newcomers are much worse off than they were 10 years ago, even though on average they are more likely to have a college degree.

The results of the three-year study also found the fate of Portland’s newest residents depended a lot on the color of their skin.

While white newcomers’ annual market incomes rose to $47,718 from $26,769 in the last 10 years, annual incomes of newcomers of color plummeted from $14,481 to just $9,304.

That’s despite the PSU report’s finding that the likelihood of a newcomer having a college degree rose from 16 percent during the turn of the millennium, to 25 percent this decade.

“Please know the kind of urgency in terms of what it means to not face a welcoming, affirming, inclusive environment are really serious,” the report’s lead editor Associate Professor Ann Curry-Stevens told an Aug. 9 gathering of immigrant and refugee city leaders at Portland State University. TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - New Portlander Report author Ann Curry-Stevens chats with city Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), who also spoke at the event, says he is working on legislation and urging the state’s institutions of higher education to create pathways for noncitizens’ licenses and certifications to be recognized. For example, Dembrow says, a doctor trained in France would never have gotten the general education classes Americans have because in France they go directly to medical school. So, even though they are technically proficient as doctors, they would have to start their education all over.

“The topic has taken off like wildfire” all over the country, he says, citing statistics that 2 million people are underemployed. “It’s a serious problem and it’s a national problem.”

This is just one example, Curry-Stevens says, of how much Portland’s economy is losing out on the economic potential of this diversely experienced group.

“If there were no racial gaps in income or employment, the region would generate an additional $10.83 billion in economic activity — equivalent to 7.3 percent of our economy — just in the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton area,” the report reads.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The audience listens to the release of Portland State University's New Portlander Report at an Aug. 9 gathering.

Myths and racism

City Councilor Amanda Fritz is not surprised at all by the report’s findings. An immigrant herself from Great Britain in 1979, she says she has known things were getting worse for a long time.

“It’s exciting times and it’s scary times,” says Fritz, recalling a recent visit to her home country during the Brexit controversy. “No longer are we whispering about racism and a culture where white people feel that they have earned their privilege and get to keep it, but some of the political candidates are now saying that flat-out in the open. And it is scary how many people are saying: ‘Yes, that’s what I want to hear.’”

In an effort that has been in the works since Mayor Tom Potter’s time in the mid-2000s, the city started a New Portlander Policy Commission in June to begin to address some of the ways these newcomers are marginalized.

“We can no longer just pretend it’s going to get better by itself,” Curry-Stevens says.

The 190-page report lists common myths about refugees and recommendations for improving newcomer access. Curry-Stevens outlines 14 ways service providers can listen to and understand their clients more fully in order to get them the help they need in a way they can receive it.

The report also recommends housing codes be relaxed to provide higher occupancy rates as a way to accommodate large or multigenerational families, or those who want to help keep their fellows off the streets.

“It seems to us that if these people could exit a room safely in the event of a fire, then the occupancy standard is demonstrating merely a cultural norm, as opposed to a safety issue,” the report reads.

The report also encourages cultural liaisons to law enforcement officials and improvements to educational access. For example, sometimes refugee children are put in grade levels based on their age, not their abilities.

However, the report does not include clear reasons for why newcomers are so marginalized in Portland, nor how this city compares to others in the nation.

Income inequality and affordable housing — the same forces affecting white and native-born people — are a big part of the problem and are likely having a disproportionate effect on immigrants and refugees.

But Portland is also simply not yet as cosmopolitan as Seattle or New York, whose government workers may be more familiar with interacting with people of different languages, cultures and faiths. And, about three-quarters of the population here is white.

“There’s huge amounts of bias in hiring,” says researcher Curry-Stevens, who is white and an immigrant from Canada. “We are, as a region, late to the table in recognizing institutional racism.”

The dialogue is starting in Portland, she says, but the results haven’t happened yet.

Cha says he hopes service providers will follow the recommendations in the report.

“Otherwise we will just chase and chase and chase this problem and never be able to address it,” he says.

Before heading off to another meeting, Fritz put in her plug for the Portland Police Bureau:

“We are hiring. We want our police department to reflect the community,” she told immigrant and refugee leaders. “Spread the word, because we really, really, really want people to apply.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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NOTE: This story has corrected Lee Po Cha's surname of Cha and the name of the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization.

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