In a city of immigrants, three men share their stories
on December 17, 2019
Oakland is a city of immigrants.
According to information provided by Census.gov, in 2018, Oakland had a population of about 429,000 people, with about a third of the population being from another country.
But those census figures may not be accurate. “I think the challenge is that many of them are living in the shadows, so it is really hard to know how many [immigrants] are here,” said Lisa Hoffman, development director for the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, an organization that helps immigrants and asylum seekers with their transition to the United States as they face obstacles such as finding work and affordable housing. Her group offers programs to assist people seeking adjustment of status (the process that immigrants use to apply for permanent residency), as well as with naturalization, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, (a policy that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the opportunity to stay in the country and be eligible for a work permit), and the Temporary Protected Status program, which allows immigrants to stay if their home country is unsafe due to war, famine, or natural disasters.
In an email interview, Karen Ferguson, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee, wrote that the term “immigrant” is so expansive that it is difficult to discern who exactly is an immigrant and what that definition should mean. “Who is an immigrant? If I just arrived I certainly am. But if I have a green card, then officially I am a lawful permanent resident, not an immigrant, and if I get citizenship then I am a US citizen. Hence these categories become impossible to quantify,” wrote Ferguson. The International Rescue Committee aims to provide resources for refugees, asylees, human trafficking survivors, and other immigrant groups. Their programs focus on topics such as financial independence and entrepreneurship, and they also provide medical care.
According to a fact sheet published by the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), the foreign-born population in Alameda County is about 33 percent of the total population. Statewide, it is about 27 percent. More than half of immigrants in California are naturalized US citizens, with another quarter having another legal status, and 23 percent are undocumented.
Hoffman said that one of the primary reasons for immigrants choosing the Bay Area is the access that it provides to services and work opportunities. That incentive is compounded thanks to the many immigrant communities that have already chosen to settle down here and can help newcomers with adapting more quickly. “Most often people are coming to stay with a relative or a friend, or they’ve heard it is a more welcoming place, or more people from their community are there,” she said.
Ferguson agrees that many immigrants come to the Bay Area because they already have relatives here. “Mainly we bring in refugees here who have US ties—so the attraction is reuniting with family,” she wrote. “Of course also there are jobs here and diverse communities for them to join. Californians as a state and people are very welcoming to newcomers and supportive of immigrants.”
But both Hoffman and Ferguson mention that the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing can make cities like Oakland difficult for new immigrants. Those who cannot afford to stay are often pushed out into surrounding cities.
According to information provided by Census.gov, from 2013-2017, the median rent in Oakland was $1,255 a month, and people who have mortgages pay a median cost of $2,480. As of 2017, the percentage of people living in poverty was about 18.7 percent. In a CIPC economic report from 2017, they wrote that most residences headed by immigrants end up spending a third of the household’s income on rent.
“It’s very true that housing costs and the challenges of living in the Bay Area are pushing people out of the Bay Area, which is a huge problem because the Bay Area is where there is more availability of legal and other services,” said Hoffman. “Once you get into more remote areas, it is much more isolating and much more difficult to access legal services and other social services. It’s a real challenge for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers to be able to stay in the Bay Area.”
Ferguson also attributes the difficulty of living here to the high cost of housing. “The biggest challenge is the very high cost of living (rent). When one arrives here with little or no money at all and no job, paying for Nor Cal rent is extremely challenging,” wrote Ferguson. She thinks that as prices continue to rise, more and more immigrants will be pushed out.
However, she wrote, most of the clients that the organization assists help get people settled fast. “Generally within 3-6 months many manage to start making it work very quickly,” she wrote.
This series will highlight the stories of three immigrants who call the East Bay home. Click on the links below to read their stories.
Pastor Wilber Kigundu immigrated from Uganda almost 18 years ago when he was a young national boxing champion. He is currently the senior pastor of Abba Church Ministries in Berkeley, where he preaches every Wednesday night, and he continues to practice boxing as a hobby.
Imam Ali Ahmed Mukasa, also an immigrant from Uganda, has been the head of Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland for the last eight years, although for six of those years he has been on a visitation visa. Though he has applied for adjustment of status through a family petition sought by his wife, his future is uncertain as he waits for an interview that will determine whether he can stay in the country permanently.
Ismail Abdullah Mohammad is a Sudanese man who came to the United States when he was 8 years old. Over the years, Mohammad has adapted to living here in the United States, but continues to wear traditional Sudanese garb and to follow the Islamic faith taught to him by his grandmother as a way to stay connected to his heritage.
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