SILER CITY — Decades after immigrants first began flocking to Siler City, the town will soon have a new immigrant advisory committee — and its creators have high hopes for the opportunities it’s meant to bring.
“Siler City tries to work with people and try to see what their needs are and what the community needs are,” Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Bray told the News + Record. “We are trying to progress and do what we need to do for the town and for our people, so I think the committee will be great.”
The Siler City Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the formation of the town’s first Immigrant Community Advisory Committee on June 21. Delayed by personnel turnover and COVID-19, the idea originally emerged several years ago amid a community planning project called Building Integrated Communities (BIC).
Begun in 2017, this project brought the town, the Hispanic Liaison and community members together to identify immigrant residents’ needs and create an action plan to address them. Creating an immigrant advisory committee was one such step in the project’s finalized action plan.
“I think it’s a really important step to create more relationships and communication and a channel for the immigrant community to have direct communication with town commissioners, town management and town staff about issues in the community that are relevant and need to be uplifted and need to be talked about and addressed,” the Liaison’s founder and executive director, Ilana Dubester, told the News + Record.
“We haven’t had that kind of space before within town government to do that,” she added. “There hasn’t been an official channel. There’s been, of course, the Hispanic Liaison bringing up issues, but that’s not the same as having a body that is part of the town and that works closely with the town in an official capacity.”
According to the town’s resolution, the seven-member committee will provide a bridge between the board and immigrant residents, offer strategies to foment civic participation among immigrant residents and serve as a forum to both discuss and address the immigrant community’s concerns.
And, perhaps most importantly, committee members will take the lead on implementing any and all recommendations outlined in BIC’s action plan to better serve the town’s immigrant residents.
“The Advisory Committee really was started as a key next step, but also a group of people that can shepherd this action plan in collaboration with the town,” Dubester said. “Other organizations might be involved, but in particular, (they’ll be) looking at things that are related to either action by the town manager or action by the (police) chief or action by the town commissioners, and move that ball forward … aside from performing other functions.”
Eligible committee members must come from “historically underrepresented communities” with recent immigrant ancestry — be that from Latin America or other parts of the world. Though Siler City’s immigrant population is overwhelmingly Latino, the committee’s not just for Hispanic immigrants, Dubester said.
“It was called the Latino Advisory Committee, but then another group honed it in more and changed it to Immigrant Advisory Committee,” she said. “We wanted it to be representative of the other kinds of waves that come through, and there are other immigrants in town. So, we wanted to be inclusive of all immigrant communities, and of all new immigrant communities — not people that have been here for generations.”
As part of that, committee members must either be foreign-born or the children and/or grandchildren of immigrants. That’s crucial, said BIC’s Hannah Gill, because knowledge of the immigrant experience is the committee’s “primary qualification.”
The resolution stipulates that members must have a “vested interest in immigrant communities,” plus the necessary skills or knowledge to serve that interest.
“It’s the close knowledge of immigrating to the United States and I think living in this area — those are key forms of knowledge and expertise,” Gill said. “ ... This is a committee for people who are immigrants, or people who are recently descended from immigrants who would have that knowledge. This is a group that will hopefully support the advancement of a lot of the recommendations of residents who are immigrants.”
Committee members don’t have to live in Siler City to participate, according to the resolution — but when it comes to choosing among the pool of candidates, the town will be looking for those with strong connections to Siler City.
“To me, if you want to build a town or a community, you have to have people that want to be here, and they want to stay here,” Bray said, adding, “You have to be a member of the community. People know who you are, and they can trust you and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know so-and-so. ... That’s what a vested interest to me is — someone that wants to stay and help the town in the community to grow in a good, positive way.”
Lynch added: “You know, work, recreate, be a part of the community here, be involved whether it’s programming for Parks & Recreation or have a business here. Just to have their focus on Siler City.”
To apply, interested applicants can submit letters of interest to the town clerk, Jenifer Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org by Aug. 9. The letters should include applicants’ home addresses, contact information, educational background and current jobs. Applicants should also add in their level of civic involvement, why they wish to serve on the committee and anything else they deem necessary.
“People can submit anything that they would like to,” Lynch said. “You know, on other various committees, people submit their resumes and all their work history and things like that that may help them decide.”
All positions are unpaid. Appointed committee members will serve in three-year staggered terms. Members may serve a second term if reappointed, but they must rotate off the committee for at least a year before serving a third term. Once formed, the committee will determine its own meeting schedule, but must meet at least once a month, if not more.
And according to Dubester, documentation status doesn’t matter.
“None of the town committees have immigration status requirements of any kind,” she said, adding, “It wouldn’t serve the purpose. We know, everybody knows, that proportion of our community is undocumented and needs representation as well. And this is a volunteer service to the town of Siler City, so it’s not an issue.”
The application process officially opened July 9, when Johnson sent out the notice in English and Spanish. It will close on Aug. 9.
“There’s a 30-day window that we have to allow for submissions, and then, at that point, she’ll (Johnson) compile those,” Lynch said. “Our next meeting will be the 16th of August. I’m not sure if we will have time to get everything together for that meeting. It may be September 6th when they are submitted to the board for their review.”
Once the board receives the letters, Lynch added, commissioners may choose first to review the letters and then bring them back to another meeting to ask questions or offer “different guidance about what they would like to see.”
“It’s all new,” he said. “It’s probably just going to develop as it comes together as we move forward with the process.”
This advisory committee has been years in the making, said Dubester — but for a while, she wasn’t quite sure it’d happen at all thanks to repeated turnover in town staffing and COVID-19.
Siler City first began the BIC process back in the spring of 2017. The town had originally applied for the years-long program at the behest of the Hispanic Liaison. Managed by UNC’s Latino Migration Project, the BIC program drew together key community partners in a two- to three-year community building process.
“The first year is a community assessment, where they gather data from any and all available assessments already out there, as well as conducting focus groups and surveys, etc,” Dubester said, “and compile a report that’s on the Siler City website and on our website, too.”
That report identified challenges and service gaps the immigrant community faced while integrating into Siler City and Chatham County. Likewise, the report also detailed immigrant residents’ recommendations to close those gaps or lessen those challenges.
Once the assessment came out, a “steering committee” of community members, the town and nonprofit organizations came together for over a year to compile an action plan based on those recommendations. The committee finalized the action plan in February 2019.
But just when they were ready to begin implementation, problems arose. Bryan Thompson, who’d been Siler City’s town manager throughout the whole process, left the town. The Siler City Police Department also cycled through several chiefs and soon after gained a new town manager.
“So we had to onboard those folks, explain what had gotten done,” Dubester said. “... The old recommendations were all done in collaboration first with Chief Tyson, and then with Chief Miller, so we got their blessing, but then we have a new chief, right? So we have to start from scratch there. Same thing with Roy.”
Despite constant turnover, however, the town managed to check off some action items. Besides creating a bilingual guide to Siler City government in both English and Spanish, the town now offers a Spanish-language section on its website. They also increased pay incentives for bilingual employees, offering a 5% pay increase to police officers who could speak fluent Spanish — something they recently expanded to other town employees in June.
“We do have a new website that will be coming online here hopefully in the next couple of months,” Lynch added, “and there is a button, or a link, that will be on the website that will automatically translate.”
The town also contracted a translation service to offer Spanish interpretation at board meetings upon request.
“Back before COVID and the onset of COVID, each meeting that we had public comment, we would have a translator here for that purpose to assist with that,” Lynch said. “But at this point, you know, if anyone needs a translation, then we certainly have that service available.”
But in early 2020, just as the Liaison had planned to approach the town about creating an immigrant advisory committee, COVID-19 struck and delayed any further progress.
“We could possibly have brought it before the board commissioners, but because of COVID, it didn't make sense to try and form the new group,” Dubester said. “It would be hard to recruit. It would be hard to meet, and it just didn't make sense to try and get that done on when also everybody was pivoting and we were way in over our heads with COVID response.”
In the end, the board approved it unanimously — and now that the committee’s on its way, Dubester said the Liaison will be focused on spreading the word to their community and recruiting people to apply.
“It’s going to take a little while to recruit like with any kind of committee of any town and county,” she said, laughing, “but I'm very, very hopeful that people will be interested in participating.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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