Out in the World: South Bay report touts the benefits of a rich immigrant community

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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Three young LGBTQ immigrant cafe owners celebrate receiving an award announcement. Photo: Courtesy M Stocker/AdobeStock
Three young LGBTQ immigrant cafe owners celebrate receiving an award announcement. Photo: Courtesy M Stocker/AdobeStock

Karla Pardo Valdovinos fled Mexico 26 years ago. She was running from the Mexican cartels and violence that more than a quarter century later continue to plague the Latin American country.

In a recent example of that violence, Mexican authorities found Jesús Ociel Baena Saucedo, 38, the first openly nonbinary judge in Latin America, dead next to the body of their partner, Dorian Herrera, in their home November 13, reported Courthouse News.

The cause of death remains unknown, said Mexico's Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodríguez. Figueroa said that so far there is no evidence of foul play, reported CNN.

The outspoken LGBTQ rights activist took office in October 2022. The media outlet reported that Baena often took on LGBTQ issues — such as protecting transgender children — from the bench. They were also highly visible, regularly posting photos and videos of themselves in rainbow garments and accessories and dressing in women's clothing on social media.

Baena's fate was exactly what Pardo, 51, feared could happen to her. She crossed the Mexico-United States border illegally and settled in Santa Clara County, living undocumented for many years. Several years ago, Oasis Legal Services, a Berkeley-based advocacy organization that provides free legal and social services to LGBTQ asylum seekers, helped her obtain her citizenship in the U.S. Oasis works with LGBTQ asylum seekers throughout California and has a consultation center at The Q Corner office to work with LGBTQ asylum seekers in the South Bay.

The Q Corner is a program of Santa Clara County's Behavioral Health Services Department.

"We have always had a lot of clients who live in Santa Clara County because it's really a rich community where many people who live there are immigrants," said Rachel Kafele, Oasis co-founder and director of programs and advocacy. "It's a place where a lot of LGBTQ folks come after they arrived in the United States [and] they're able to find community there."

Many of Oasis' clients — there are about 200 annually and 800 cases ongoing — work in technology, manufacturing, or provide services to tech companies in the county. Many of the organization's clients are also entrepreneurs who have opened their own small business.

"We try to stay with them during their asylum, during their whole kind of immigration journey," she said.

Oasis operates on a budget of $2 million.

Kafele estimated most of the organization's clients come from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

That's not stopping as the organization has seen "a lot of recent arrivals" lately, and it receives "around five calls a day," for assistance, she said. A segment of the LGBTQ asylee community that the organization does not have any funding for is working directly to represent recent arrivals who are in immigration court proceedings or who are in deportation court proceedings.

"That is something that we're interested in," Kafele added.

Karla Pardo Valdovinos, a Silicon Valley housekeeping business owner, is living her dream in the United States. Photo: Courtesy Karla Pardo Valdovinos  

The power of immigrants
Pardo is now living her American dream, continuing to build her housekeeping business she started in 2012 and support her two employees — cis women — without worries about her status or freedom to be who she is.

"I feel successful, because I have my own business," she told the B.A.R. "I don't have to work for nobody else."

A couple of notable gay South Bay undocumented immigrants and immigrant advocates are Filipino Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and Tony-nominated producer Jose Antonio Vargas and Mexican poet and storyteller Yosimar Reyes. Reyes and Vargas were both raised in Silicon Valley after being born in Mexico and the Philippines, respectively.

Reyes, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient, better known as DACA, is currently touring the country with his one-man show, "Prieto" (translated from Mexican slang, "dark"), according to his biography on the American Immigration Counci's website.

The B.A.R. reached out to Reyes and Vargas for comment, but they were both unavailable.

People like Prado, Reyes and Vargas all have one thing in common: they demonstrate the creativity and economic power of immigrants in Santa Clara County as a report, "New Americans in Santa Clara County," published in September found.

The report was created by the American Immigration Council, which worked with the Santa Clara County Executive Office's Office of Immigrant Relations, under its Equity and Social Justice Division. It examines immigrants' economic impact from business, workforce, and spending power in the South Bay.

Key findings demonstrated that in 2021, while immigrants make up about 40% of the population, they contribute 54% of the gross domestic product created in the county each year — $255 billion in 2021. Immigrants are nearly half of the 1 million people who make up Silicon Valley's labor force and accounted for 49.9% of its employed labor force. Immigrants fill crucial labor force needs in science, technology, engineering, and math and other key industries accounting for 67% of the region's science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, workers, 64% of manufacturing workers, and 56% of professional service workers. Immigrants in Santa Clara County contributed $5.1 billion to Social Security and $1.8 billion to Medicare in 2021, according to the report.

Pardo is one of those business owners.

Looking at the entire immigrant community "the evidence is so strong and so clear in their report," said Santa Clara County District 4 Supervisor Susan Ellenberg. She noted that as businesses are created, economic mobility is achieved by these individuals and families.

"I don't believe that the LGBTQ+ community is excluded or separate from that," added Ellenberg, a straight ally.

"Our diversity and our inclusiveness are really the strength of Santa Clara County," Ellenberg said. "It's exciting that LGBTQIA+ immigrants would choose our county as their new home. I think it adds to the really colorful and rich tapestry that is Santa Clara County."

OASIS' Kafele stated, "The narrative that immigrants are a drain on society is just really proven false by this report. What really resonated with me is just how integral immigrants are to the success of our communities."

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg. Photo: From Facebook  

While Ellenberg was upbeat about the report's findings, she was cautious.

"The numbers are significant, but as far as numbers go, they never tell a complete story. There are so many immigrants that come to our community that are far less well-resourced," she said, pointing to the Berryessa Flea Market immigrant vendors.

"Those tend to be the immigrants that are starting their own businesses" with a vendor cart that allows them to eventually "build wealth," she said. "That's where I see a lot of really exciting, newly rooted impact in our community."

However, if San Jose has its way, the affordable business incubator immigrants have had at the flea market might be a thing of the past. The site of the flea market has been approved by the City Council for a new housing development next to the Berryessa BART station, which opened in 2020.

Silicon Valley could do more
Stakeholders from Ellenberg to Pardo believe the county could do better by LGBTQ immigrants, from access to entrepreneurial opportunities to employment, especially for transgender people.

Kafele noted that the report lacked any information about LGBTQ immigrants' impact on Silicon Valley's economy.

"I think one thing that's missing from the report, or at least I didn't see, is the LGBTQ representation," she said. "How many immigrants in Santa Clara identify as LGBTQ? I think it is important to know and understand so that communities' contributions can be recognized as well."

Ellenberg agreed.

"We tend to look at refugees and asylum seekers by country of origin and don't necessarily drill down to gender identity and whether or not that presents an additional barrier to folks," she said. "I think it's important to understand that clearly."

Last year, the B.A.R. reported on the county's alarming report about the state of transgender employment throughout the region produced by the county's Office of LGBTQ Affairs. Researchers hired by the office surveyed 234 trans and nonbinary people living or working in Santa Clara County and 60% of people of color participants reported experiencing racial and ethnic discrimination in addition to bias against their gender identity or expression. The respondents identified as Asian/Pacific Islander (25%), Latinx (24%), and Black (11%). Whites made up 38% of the study.

Oasis' clients have reported being discriminated against in past jobs, Kafele said.

The transgender study found that 70% of participants reported struggling or barely making enough money to get by. Only 44% of participants were employed full-time, while 12% were unemployed. Despite about half (46%) of participants holding a bachelor's degree or higher, participants' level of education compared to their income was low: 42% of participants had an income under $25,000 and 35% were between $25,000 and $75,000.

The transgender report didn't examine entrepreneurship within the community.

Pardo said she didn't feel supported by the county as an entrepreneur. She built her business cleaning one house at a time, relying on client referrals. She said that funding and networking opportunities supporting LGBTQ entrepreneurs would benefit her and her business.

Kafele said that people running their own businesses is important.

"We have clients who have opened their own small businesses," Kafele said. "Our clients have a big interest in how to open their own businesses. Owning their own business is very attractive to them because they really get to kind of have self-determination of what they're doing and how they're being treated."

Ellenberg admitted that the flea market is "not as sexy, not as headline-catching as immigrants who come here and start tech companies." But that's not the point, she said, as the immigrant community is vastly diverse with people coming from prosperous, safe countries and those arriving from dangerous countries where people are fleeing for their lives.

Speaking from the top down, Ellenberg said she would like to see Congress enact policies that would allow asylum seekers to quickly apply for work authorizations. Currently, those can take up to nearly seven months to be approved at best, according to Boundless Immigration.

At the local level, Ellenberg is interested in exploring opportunities for alternative avenues for economic mobility for immigrants, such as worker-owned co-op businesses that don't require a work authorization "since each employee is essentially a business owner." She would also like to create an immigrant welcoming center or immigrant welcoming hubs that would provide a bouquet of services from legal to health care to community-building initiatives, including services specific to the LGBTQ community, in one place.

Ellenberg realized that many LGBTQ immigrants may not feel safe sharing or being public about their sexuality or gender identity. She said the county needs to get the message out to queer and transgender immigrants that "it is safe here."

She added that the county "needs to do a better job," especially for transgender people no matter what their citizenship status is, to "walk-the-walk" and hire more people from diverse communities, especially the immigrant and LGBTQ communities.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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