Last Thursday, State Senator Jose Peralta announced $50,000 in state funding for the Center for Integration and Advancement of New Americans (CIANA), a group founded in 2006. The money will be used to help provide legal assistance and support the organization’s programs.
“We’re a society with open arms to immigrants,” Peralta said. “This is why it’s so vital to continue to help them. Helping immigrants has become my number one priority.”
Peralta noted that the funding comes right after the 100-day mark of President Donald Trump’s presidency, which he said has made it a priority to “attack” immigrant communities.
“We are now constantly under fire from the White House,” he said. “This is as un-American as it gets.”
The senator spoke about his own immigrant background. His parents came from the Dominican Republic, leaving behind family and friends in search of a better life.
“Like so many others before them, they broke down cultural and linguistic barriers and were able to succeed and provide for their families,” Peralta said. “Presidents come and go, but our values are not negotiable, they are untouchable.”
Emira Habiby Browne, founder and CEO of CIANA, said their organization has been struggling to keep its doors open. They even had to cut some programs when funding was drying up.
“That’s what CIANA was created, to take new immigrants as they come in early in the process and guide and support them so they can succeed and advance,” Browne said. “They are coming here to do well, for a better future, for the promise of a better America.”
CIANA offers new immigrants a variety of programs, including adult ESL classes, civics courses, pathway-to-citizenship workshops, and tutoring programs for kids. Now it’s looking to expand by providing legal services as well.
“We have a holistic approach to serving our families,” Browne said. “We are hoping that this model can be used elsewhere throughout the country.”
Due to funding issues, CIANA is largely volunteer-based. Many of the volunteers, Browne said, are people with immigrant backgrounds who want to give back.
“They say repeatedly, ‘where was CIANA when my family came?’” she said. “Why didn’t we have a CIANA that provided us with that guidance and support?”
Some of CIANA’s clients also spoke about the services the organization offers. Hamilton Torres, an ESL student, said the organization has helped many Hispanic immigrants.
“I just passed my citizenship class,” Torres said in Spanish. “I still listen, pay attention and participate in English class so I can learn the language better.”
Lamees Qassim, a volunteer and translator with CIANA, said her family fled from Baghdad at the end of 2003. She said she became a better person because she came to the United States.
“My family believed that once we came here, we’re in the land of the free,” Qassim said. “You can practice any religion you like. You can be free.
“I represent a lot of individuals back home who are still struggling and would like to come here,” she added. “This country provides nothing but great opportunity and education.”
Rattanpreet Singh Kohli, a volunteer civics teacher with CIANA, also shared his immigrant background. His family came from Iran roughly 32 years ago in the aftermath of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980s.
“Back then, they had to endure the 'Go back to Iran, Khomeini' chants,” Kohli said, reflecting on the racism they faced. “Fifteen years ago, as a 14-year-old boy entering high school, I was subjected to the 'Go home Bin Laden' chants.”
Kohli said his parents were told to assimilate when they first arrived. His father was criticized for wearing his turban and keeping his beard.
The civics teacher said immigrants shouldn’t assimilate, but rather integrate. That’s the model CIANA pursues, he said. He was first told about the approach when he signed up to volunteer.
“When my parents first came here, they were exposed to the model of assimilation that you had to be American,” he said. “When a lot of Punjabi Indians came to America during the 80s, a lot of them lost sight of that. A lot of them started losing the turbans, started cutting and trimming their beards.
“It’s one of the things I can respect my parents, love them to death for, they held in,” he added. “We all speak English at home, though we speak Hindi and Punjabi as well. That’s the way it’s always been.”
Kohli said he hopes to continue to volunteer with CIANA as long as he can to help newly-arrived immigrants who remind him of his parents three decades ago.
“I feel it’s my turn, as they came 30 years ago, to be able to give back to the community while I still can,” he said. “I would hate to look back and say, ‘Wow, one day when I turn my parents age, what have I done as an American? Have I done my civic duties?’
“When it comes to this new political climate with the Trump administration, the rhetoric has been so dangerous,” Kohli added. “We want to make sure we help each other out, that we remind immigrants they’re welcome here.”