There was celebration in the air. Anxiety, too.
About 60 people who came to San Diego from Somalia — refugees, immigrants, naturalized citizens — gathered in a conference room in City Heights for their weekly meeting. It’s an opportunity to work out problems, strengthen community bonds, share food. This time, Friday morning, they applauded those among them who had just completed a six-month program to learn how to read and write English.
And they worried.
Two days earlier, President Trump had endorsed a radical shift in the nation’s immigration policy. The bill would eventually cut in half the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country every year, currently more than 1 million, and it would take a decades-old system that favors family ties and turn it into one that is “merit-based,” giving preference to those with college degrees, job skills and the ability to speak English.
“This legislation will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens,” Trump said at the White House. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
Almost immediately, critics on both sides of the political aisle found fault with the plan and gave it little chance of passage. They disputed the claims that low-skilled immigrants are taking jobs from Americans and driving down wages, and they said the new restrictions would hurt the economy by shrinking the number of foreign-born workers at a time when the native population is decreasing.
To the Somalis gathered in City Heights, the new proposal felt mostly like more of the same. Trump made immigration reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and since taking office in January he’s moved to build a wall on the Mexican border, increase deportations, stem the influx of refugees and curtail visitors from certain Muslim-majority countries.
“What he’s telling us is we’re not welcome here,” said Said Osman Abiyow, 34, president of the Somali Bantu Assn. of America, an aid organization he founded after arriving in 2003. “This is not what America stands for around the world, where it has a great reputation as a place of freedom and peace.”
Like many others in the room, Abiyow has relatives in Somalia he would like one day to bring to the United States. Now a U.S. citizen, he’s hoping his sister can join him. But he said she’s been caught up in the ban the administration put in place for newcomers from six predominantly Muslim countries (Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Iran, Syria and Yemen). He doesn’t know when she might be allowed to come.
If the proposed changes go through, maybe never.
There were 44.7 million immigrants living in the United States in 2015 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), which was 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. An estimated 11 million of those are believed to be here illegally. In San Diego County, Health and Human Services Agency figures show about 21.5% of the population is immigrants.
Under current policy, American citizens and permanent residents can sponsor spouses, minor children and parents for an unlimited number of green cards, and siblings and adult children for a limited number of visas. That’s how most lawful immigrants arrive here. In fiscal year 2015, for example, about 65% of the green cards went to relatives.
The new bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, would still allow the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to come in, but it would end the preferences for siblings and adult children.
That left San Diego newcomer Rukiya Bare concerned during Friday’s weekly meeting of the Somalis.
She came here with her husband and four children 10 months ago. But their 25-year-old daughter, Natesho, had to stay behind. Now she’s trying to join the family and is currently in Saudi Arabia, Bare said. When her three-month visa there expires, she’ll have to leave the country or risk jail.
“I worry about her all the time,” Bare said through an interpreter. “At night, during the day — it hurts my heart, the stress of not having her with us.”
Several of the Somalis said they came to the U.S. because of the immigration-policy emphasis on family unity. The Somalis are a tightknit group (there were 3,534 in the county in 2015) and family connections can be crucial to helping them survive in new surroundings, Abiyow said.
Sado Moh, 29, misses her mother. Moh arrived in San Diego four months ago after spending 10 years in a refugee camp and is hoping her mother, father and four siblings will be able to come, too. That was already uncertain because of the other immigration initiatives pursued by the Trump administration, she said, and the latest proposal seems to her the most threatening yet. In addition to the cuts in immigration, it would cap the number of refugees admitted annually at 50,000, about half of what it has been.
“I ran away from civil war and came here to build a new life,” Moh said through an interpreter. “But without my family, what I feel mostly is lonely. I want them to come here and have the same chance for a new life. Then I will be happy.”
Lawful immigrants are more likely to be of working age (18 to 64) than native-born U.S. citizens, according to Pew — 76% compared with 60%.
The occupation with the largest percentage of immigrant workers, about 20%, is farming, fishing and forestry. Many of those workers are drawn to San Diego County, which has more than 5,700 small family farms (most of them less than 10 acres). Nationwide, the county is first in avocado and nursery-crop production; third in honey production; fifth in lemons; and ninth in strawberries.
About 11,000 people are employed as farmworkers in the county, and most are immigrants — a mixture of people who are here both legally and illegally. “Americans are just not raising their children to be farmworkers,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the county Farm Bureau. “Historically, it’s been foreign-born workers and we just don’t see that changing.”
Under the new immigration legislation, preference for green cards would be determined by a point system for attributes like education, English-language ability, high-paying job offers, entrepreneurial initiative and achievements (such as a Nobel Prize). Although that would seem to suggest limited opportunities for farmworkers, supporters of the bill said it will help bring up wages, perhaps making the jobs more attractive to native-born workers.
“We’re not committed to working-class Americans, and we need to change that,” said Cotton, the senator from Arkansas.
Larson said the agricultural industry has seen other reform proposals come and go over the years.“I think this continues the chain of disappointment — not just with President Trump, but with all of Washington, D.C. — in failing to address immigration in a way that understands the needs of agriculture,” he said. “Farmers see their workforce shrinking, aging out, and they don’t feel there’s any place for them to turn to get the workers they need.”