Mayor Ed Murray has named Cuc Vu to lead Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), as the two-year-old office prepares to expand in response to an influx of refugees and immigrants.
A seasoned advocate for marginalized people, Vu first came to the United States as a child refugee. Her family narrowly escaped from Saigon on the last day of the Vietnam War, settling in Olympia, according to OIRA’s website.
Vu served as chief diversity officer for Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, and immigration campaign manager for the Service Employees International Union.
“She comes with a really strong awareness of immigrant rights, of workers’ rights, of women’s rights,” said Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, an immigrant rights group.
Vu’s experience with immigrants in a range of contexts, including LGBT rights and workers’ rights, will come in handy, said Interim Director Aaliyah Gupta, who sat on the nine-member hiring committee that selected Vu from a pool of more than 100 applicants.
Immigrants and refugees make up one-fifth of Seattle’s population, and they span all parts of Seattle life, Gupta said.
Created in 2012 with a budget of $238,000, the office is about to get a financial boost. Citing an influx of immigrants and refugees, Murray announced his intent in March to double OIRA’s budget from $400,000 to $800,000.
The office is charged with making sure all city departments meet the needs of immigrants and refugees.
Often these needs are unique, said Stolz of OneAmerica. Supporting a business, for instance, may be especially difficult for Muslim immigrants, whose religion discourages them from taking on debt.
Even poverty is different for immigrants, Stolz said. Instead of living on the street, several families often cram into a single house. Mental illness is often ignored because of stigma, and people who have escaped oppressive governments are often afraid to ask authorities for treatment, he said.
Last year, members of OIRA noticed that immigrants weren’t enrolling in a city program that provided low-income households discounted rates on their utility bills. To raise awareness of the program OIRA ran announcements on Spanish-language radio stations. At a community meeting to help people enroll in the program, 50 people said they had heard about the program on the radio, according to Ivonne Rivera Martinez, the office’s ethnic media coordinator.
Now with four staff members, the office recently made a five-point action plan for the future. It includes plans to support immigrant businesses and get more refugee women involved in city government.