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Advocacy at the IRC: the 2021 Utah Legislative Session

The International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City and the 2021 Utah Legislative Session

The 2021 General Legislative Session was filled with firsts—from Utah’s first General Session during a pandemic in modern memory to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City’s first Session with a full advocacy officer on staff.

Through both general legislative engagement and issue-specific advocacy, the IRC in Salt Lake City provided refugees with an opportunity to shape policy outcomes, legislators with an opportunity to uplift those requests and community members with an opportunity to #StandWithRefugees and make Utah a more welcoming state for all who live here.

In partnership with the Utah Refugee Services Office (RSO) and Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS), the IRC in Salt Lake City hosted a legislative briefing on refugee resettlement in Utah. The briefing was sponsored by Senator Thatcher (UT-12) and attended by members on both sides of the aisle. Many commented on their broad support for refugee resettlement—with one member referencing their mother’s friendship with a local refugee and another referencing their own immigration experience. In addition to the briefing, the IRC in Salt Lake City worked to ensure refugee representation in bills and funding requests regarding education, digital inclusion, food security, health, and language access.

Issue Area: Education

"I am proud to be a first-generation American. There are all kinds of people from all over the world who come to America. Their way out is getting an education.”

- Representative Dan Johnson (UT-4) on HCR 22

Prior to the legislative session, the IRC in Salt Lake City worked closely with refugee service providers, refugee community leaders, five school districts, and several other key education-focused stakeholders to develop legislative proposals intended to address barriers faced by newcomer students.

These discussions resulted in two bills sponsored by Representative Dan Johnson: House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 22, “Concurrent Resolution Celebrating the Contributions of Multilingual and Multicultural Families to Utah Schools,” and House Bill (HB) 446 “Multicultural and Immigrant Student Policies Amendments.”

HCR 22 was the first proposal introduced and assigned a committee hearing. In addition to celebrating multilingual and multicultural families, the Resolution commits “to supporting the contributions of multilingual and newcomer families, with similar vigor as the state commits to other multilingual programming and family engagement efforts,” and encourages schools statewide to share their promising practices with the legislature. Elevating these programs facilitates best practice sharing between districts and provides legislators with opportunities to further invest in Utah’s multilingual and multicultural family engagement efforts.

The IRC coordinated the bill’s presentation, which included testimony from five refugee and immigrant students. In addition, the IRC in Salt Lake City arranged testimony from several teachers and administrators that run a variety of newcomer family engagement programs—from family-to-family mentorships, welcome and transition centers, and multicultural advisory committees. Additionally, the Utah Education Association and United Way of Salt Lake formally supported HCR 22 via their 2021 Bill Trackers. With direct assistance from the Refugee Advocacy Lab, the IRC in Salt Lake City also provided handouts on multicultural and multilingual family engagement to all members of the House Education Committee and the broader House Chamber. In addition to Representative Johnson, Senator Thatcher and sixteen bipartisan representatives lent their support to the proposal by signing the bill as CoSponsors. HCR 22 passed unanimously through both Chambers and was recently signed by the Governor. Read more about IRC’s efforts on HCR 22 here »

Issue Area: Digital Inclusion

“The refugee community is another community that really, desperately needs these resources…Equity means: do you have the ability to participate? If you do not have access to these resources, you do not have the ability to participate and that is inherently unjust.”

 - Sen. Thatcher (UT-12) on Digital Inclusion

As remote work and school became day-to-day pandemic realities, many Utahns experienced a heightened impact due to their lack of access to digital tools and resources. Utah’s policymakers and community-based organizations responded accordingly, elevating discussions of policies intended to address the digital divide.

The IRC in Salt Lake City is a unique player in Utah’s digital inclusion community. Because refugees often arrive in the U.S. with limited exposure to technology, the IRC has responded to these needs by crafting programming across all components of connection—from assisting clients with accessing subscriptions and devices to hosting language-specific digital parenting classes. As the pandemic threw a spotlight on Utah’s digital divide, the IRC in Salt Lake City identified an opportunity to lend its expertise to assist community members—ranging from private partners, like Google Fiber, to public partners, like the Utah Library Association (ULA)—in crafting inclusive and responsive policies.

In partnership with the Utah State Board of Education (USBE), Utah Communities Connect (UCC), the Division of Indian Affairs (DIA), the Utah Rural Telecom Association (URTA), and many others, the IRC drafted the Utah Broadband ACCESS Initiative. This Initiative outlines four solutions for bridging Utah’s digital divide, ranging from increasing broadband subscription subsidies to expanding digital learning opportunities for adult learners. The Initiative received support from the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board, which was chaired by Lt. Governor (now Governor) Cox at the time.

In partnership with UCC, a coalition of many public and private organizations engaged in digital inclusion work, the IRC drafted the second solution: “State Broadband Adoption Coordination and Strategies,” which included recommendations for a digital inclusion-focused staff member at the Utah State Library Division (USLD) and a grant program to support local digital inclusion initiatives such as device refurbishment ecosystems, 1:1 digital literacy and train-the-trainer programs, and efforts to increase internet access points at multi-dwelling units (MDUs). This recommendation was also included in the Cox Transition Team’s Agency Review for the Department of Heritage and Arts, which describes the recommended priorities of the agency for the incoming administration. The solution “State Broadband Adoption and Coordination Strategies” also recommended the creation of a statewide digital equity plan, to ensure streamlined consideration of digital access considerations across agencies, programming and broadband policy.

The Utah State Board of Education submitted a business case requesting funds for the additional position in USLD and grant program to the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. IRC supported the request via letters of support and conversations with lawmakers. Many community partners—including United Way of Salt Lake, YWCA Utah, AARP Utah, BitStream, Google Fiber, Chamber West, Catholic Community Services of Utah, and others—demonstrated their commitment to digital equity by signing onto letters of support. The request was listed as the number two item on the Subcommittee’s list “Recommended Use of Federal Funds.” USBE is currently working with USLD to secure federal funds for the requested position. The IRC is optimistic that the State Library Division’s capacity to support digital inclusion efforts will be expanded via this request.

Finally, the Initiative’s recommendation for a “statewide digital connectivity plan” was codified in H.B. 348, “Economic Development Amendments.” The IRC plans to work closely with the Utah Broadband Outreach Center and Utah Communities Connect to ensure the needs and contributions of Utah’s refugee communities are reflected in the forthcoming plan.

Issue Areas: Food Security, Health, and Language Access

Similar to IRC’s work in the field of digital inclusion, the IRC in Salt Lake City has developed robust food security programming—from New Roots to Spice Kitchen Incubator. To ensure Utah’s policy regarding food security adequately reflects Utah’s refugee communities, the IRC in Salt Lake City worked to ensure “one individual who works with a refugee or an immigrant community;” was included in S.B. 141’s Food Security Task Force. The IRC supported Senate Bill (S.B.) 141, which has been signed by the Governor, via letters of support to key committees.

The IRC in Salt Lake City also supported a request to fully fund the Health Clinic of Salt Lake, one of two public health clinics in Utah that conduct refugee health screenings. After providing testimony to the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, describing the services the clinic provides to refugees resettled in Utah, and otherwise communicating with lawmakers, $775,000 in ongoing and $250,000 in one-time monies was appropriated to sustain the Clinic by Executive Appropriations during the final days of the Session. This funding will ensure culturally competent medical professionals with knowledge of refugee experiences can continue to serve IRC clients.

Finally, the IRC supported the passage of S.B. 214 through communications with individual legislators, which eliminated procedural barriers for governmental translation and interpretation services.

Take Action With Us

The IRC in Salt Lake City plans to continue its efforts to ensure refugee representation in the Utah Legislature—and we hope you will join us in our efforts. To stay apprised of our federal and state advocacy opportunities, text RESCUE to 40649 or visit Rescue.org/TakeAction.