Indy Q&A: Office for New Americans director on the new state agency and her career focused on refugees

Amaka Ozobia’s parents came to the United States from Nigeria after fleeing the Biafran War, a conflict blamed for about 100,000 military casualties and as many as two million starvation deaths in the late 1960s.

That history — and her family’s own challenges adjusting to American life as immigrants — has formed a career that included working as an asylum officer, serving the children of migrant farmworkers as an Americorps volunteer and becoming an immigration attorney for the refugee-focused Church World Service. Ozobia is now settling in to her latest role on that trajectory — directing Nevada’s Office for New Americans.

“I think it’s important for us to realize that we do not come into our own without the sacrifices of others,” she said in an interview in December. “There are sacrifices that my ancestors have made that they may not have had the chance to be privy to the benefits that I have had. But they helped pave the way and in whatever profession I do, I think it’s important to help others where you can.”

Ozobia grew up in Las Vegas and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNLV. She served as an Americorps volunteer teaching math and reading to fourth graders at Ann Lynch Elementary School north of downtown Las Vegas, and then went on to earn a law degree from Seattle University School of Law.

Ozobia cut her teeth as an asylum officer, refugee officer and adjudications officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. After living in San Francisco, Miami and most recently Washington, D.C., she is returning to her hometown to launch an office that was created this year by the Legislature through SB538.

In this interview, which has been edited lightly for length and clarity, Ozobia explains her vision for the new office — which will include herself, an assistant and a soon-to-be-hired senior adviser — and lessons learned from a career spent helping immigrants and refugees.

You’re kind of starting from scratch here with the first iteration of the Office of New Americans. What do you think is really realistic for Nevada’s office to do, especially at the stage where you have a small staff?

As far as our goals, the main one right now has been getting the office on board. We’re reaching completion there and hiring staff. We’ll soon be recruiting for a senior advisor.

One thing that I think we’re going to be focusing on is continuing to be a kind of liaison or a connector between the state and federal government. What is happening at the federal level and some of the directives — there hasn’t been a lot of clarity. So explaining in clear terms what these directives are. The [refugee acceptance] consent letter is an example of that. 

And since coming on board, we have worked with the DMV on an issue where TPS recipients had issues obtaining their Real ID. That has been resolved for the most part.

I know some things that I would like to focus on is aligning with the governor’s intention for economic stability. They’ll be working with occupational licensing and ways of getting immigrants working and utilizing a lot of the skills and skill sets that a lot of them bring. I can tell you most want to get working. And this is a great opportunity for Nevada, and the statistics around immigrants in Nevada only shows that they’re an integral part to our success and wellbeing. 

Nevada lawmakers passed a bill this session allowing people to get occupational licenses regardless of their legal status, although they still need a work permit to legally use it. I hear that it’s a lot of work to try to implement that and getting all the occupational boards compliant with this law might be a pretty heavy lift. 

I think we’re just gonna be strategic and be realistic. I think focusing on one or two occupations and having tangible success there that we can build upon is important too. 

Having worked on the more advocacy side and then as an asylum officer where I was issuing decisions granting refugee status in the United States, I often thought about, well, what happens next? You have status but you kind of are released into the community to fend for yourself and then there also needs to be ways of being able to navigate a lot of the different systems out there that you don’t necessarily know just because you are granted status or because you become an American citizen. 

How do you envision this working out? Are people going to come to the Office of New Americans and you are going to individually work on their case? Or do you see your role as maybe behind the scenes, making sure all these licensing boards are working and the DMV is working for the benefit of immigrants? 

I think that’s going to be a hybrid. It’s gonna be both. This is something new for Nevada. So I think it’s important that I’m out there in the community and having worked in nonprofit and kind of had training as far as listening to the client, having the person be an agent in their own destiny and have them tell you what their needs are. And so I hope to implement that philosophy. And you know, there are organizations in Nevada doing great work but we don’t necessarily know about it. I would like to highlight or be able to bring their work to the forefront. 

There was controversy during the session about the Office for New Americans being open to helping undocumented immigrants and that was kind of the red line for a lot of people. What are you telling people that you encounter about the decision to help people regardless of status?

I think most people who are here, whether they’re documented or not, want to provide for their families and most are here to do things according to what is right. And there are so many circumstances that arise that affect one’s status. And so we’re not in a position to be draconian or looking at one’s status. In ways that we’re able to help, we will do so. 

If people want to get more information or want to know how they can use the services of ONA, do you have a website? 

We will have a website up and running within the next week or so. I do envision a place where someone who has an issue will be able to complete an intake where we could follow up on that. Also having a means for them to call the office and express what their issues are. And also once we are up and running, I’ll be holding meetings. I’m not only going in the community, but I’ll be holding meetings here in the office.

What did you learn from your experience as an asylum officer that people might misunderstand about the job?

I learned that there is definitely procedure and law that we had to follow. There’s no capricious or arbitrary decisions that asylum officers are taking. And there are checks and balances that we all have to make sure that your decisions that you are issuing to grant someone a refugee status in the United States [are] legally sufficient and supported by the Immigration and Nationality Act. 

So those decisions were not only reviewed by your supervisor but by other higher levels as well. So we were confident that those that were being granted asylum status in the United States were those that were eligible for that as well. And the same goes with unaccompanied minors, which I also worked primarily with toward the end of my tenure as an asylum officer. 

And another misconception is the vetting process. The vetting process is very intricate. As an asylum officer, part of our due diligence is to conduct very in-depth background checks and security checks. So these are not capricious decisions. This is a process that is deliberate, well thought out and supported with technology and other means to make sure that those that are granted are eligible.

I imagine that you were hearing pretty personal and difficult things on a daily basis?

You hear the atrocities that people go through. It’s really sobering to realize what human beings can do to another, but there’s also hope and many Americans embody the hope and values that uplift us as human beings. And I think that’s one of the misconceptions many have.

As an asylum officer, many, many times the stories are heartbreaking and the desperation is palpable. From a human perspective, one cannot help but empathize. But also we do have the law and we also worked to make sure that the case [complies] with whatever requirements were holding at that time. 

I did cultivate an interest in mental health and mental health for refugees. As we already know in this country, it’s a serious issue, but I think it also should be part of the conversation and helping refugees, immigrants integrate into their new home.

What mental health issues do you typically see among refugees and asylum seekers? PTSD?

Definitely. PTSD and other types of trauma are often the basis of someone delaying the process for asylum. And you know, there is a one-year rule [requiring people to apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the U.S.]. But those who have undergone a lot of trauma — it’s hard to then acclimate quickly. And so having those services available are crucial.