D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. has introduced a bill to create a city Office on African Affairs that would focus on a growing immigrant group that has put its mark on the District by operating restaurants, cabs and other professional services.
The District has similar offices for Latino and for Asian and Pacific Islander residents.
"The African community continues to feel they need an advocate in the government to help them do their issues and navigate" the bureaucracy, said Orange, a Democrat from Ward 5. A public hearing on the proposed office is scheduled for next month.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has not made up his mind about the legislation, said his spokesman, Vincent Morris. The proposal, Morris said, could represent too much of a good thing.
"The major concern the mayor would have with this is the trend toward balkanization of the government," he said. He noted that the D.C. Council recently tabled a proposal to extend permanent status to the mayor's Office on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs because of similar concerns.
"You can run this risk of turning every special interest into a special agency. You end up having too many people and a lot of duplication," Morris said.
The immigrant population overall has expanded dramatically in recent years, with roughly one in every eight D.C. residents born overseas.
The District's African-born population grew about 40 percent in the 1990s, reaching 9,208 by the 2000 Census, according to statistics compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, a local think tank.
Even with that growth, African natives accounted for only about 12.5 percent of the city's foreign-born population, according to the think tank's report. The biggest groups were Latinos, who made up about half of the city's immigrants, followed by Europeans and Asians, who each accounted for about 17 percent, according to the report.
But thousands of other African immigrants commute into the city to work each week as taxi drivers, parking lot attendants, restaurateurs and white-collar professionals.
"Having this office, I believe, will help us navigate the system and address the concerns of the community, and educate and [offer] outreach to the African community about how to adapt to a new culture," said Abdul Kamus, an Ethiopian immigrant and a major proponent of the new office.
The blossoming of African-owned businesses has helped to transform neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and U Street in Northwest. But despite their successes, Kamus said, the immigrants still need help with affordable housing, health care and other issues. Complicating their situation is the fact that some are not fluent in English or don't understand American culture, he said.
To become a reality, the African office must win approval from the Council's Committee on Government Operations -- which Orange chairs -- and then the full Council.
If it succeeds, the bill will be sent to the mayor for approval or veto.
In recent years, as immigration has climbed, the city's offices for Latinos and Asians have grown substantially. The Office on Latino Affairs has 11 staff members and will receive $4.5 million in city funds for fiscal year 2006, said its director, Gustavo F. Velasquez. About three-quarters of that budget is distributed as grants to community groups, he said.
The Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs has a staff of seven and a budget of about $500,000 for fiscal year 2006, according to its director, G. Greg Chen.
Orange said he didn't yet know how many council members supported the idea of the new office. But one, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), said he was in favor.
"All of these offices have the effect of really increasing awareness and visibility for these immigrant populations," Graham said.
The public hearing on the proposed office is scheduled for Dec. 9 at 10 a.m. in the Council chambers, on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.