How to Support Asylum Seekers – Locally

We’ve heard much about the pressing needs of asylum seekers in places where they cross the border into the U.S. But there are less known needs that exist elsewhere – including in our own communities.

Indivisible East Bay recently heard from Theresa Gonzales, Executive Director of Centro Legal de la Raza, and Carolina Martin Ramos, Director of Programs and Advocacy, about the organization’s work and the immigration crisis that rarely makes the headlines. According to Carolina, the situation (like all politics) is local. Many detained children separated from their parents and asylum seekers traveling with caravans may present themselves to immigration officials at the border, and are initially processed at or near the border, but they don’t stay there. After they’re released to sponsors, bond out, or are paroled into the US, they’re most likely to travel to other parts of the country to reunite with family members or sponsors. 

And Oakland – and the San Francisco Bay Area generally – are destinations for many unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. In fact, according to Carolina, they’re more likely to have family members and sponsors here than in border cities like San Diego or El Paso. 

The heavy lifting in many migrants’ immigration cases or deportation proceedings thus happens not at the border but where they settle. They need long-term legal representation and resources there – and the burden of helping them falls on local organizations in those locations. Unfortunately, these local groups have limited resources to respond to the recent arrivals’ needs – they’ve already stretched their scant budgets working with long-time resident immigrant populations facing deportation. 

As Centro Legal de la Raza also points out: Because immigration proceedings are administrative and not criminal proceedings, asylum seekers are not guaranteed legal representation or other due process safeguards. Most, in fact, don’t have legal representation; in 2017, only about 30% were represented. Being without legal representation drastically lowers an asylum seeker’s chances of success: for example, 5% of those who won relief between 2007-2012 were without an attorney. Studies find that asylum seekers are anywhere from 24% more likely to 10.5 times more likely to be successful if they have legal representation. Very few organizations are prepared to offer legal representation to asylum seekers once they arrive at their destinations.

What you can do:

Local organizations helping asylum seekers need your support!

  • Centro Legal de la Raza is the leader in removal defense in California and is in the heart of the Fruitvale District of Oakland, where many asylum seekers and unaccompanied children are arriving. 
  • ACILEP, the Alameda County Rapid Response partnership, is a partnership of Centro Legal, Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, Causa Justa/Just Cause, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Street Level Health Project, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), and Vietnamese Community Center of the East Bay. All ACILEP organizational partners are doing critical work and responding to immigration emergencies. 
  • Stand Together Contra Costa is a rapid response, legal services, and community education project supporting CoCo County immigrant families. It offers free legal clinics to provide immigrants with individualized legal consultations, advice on legal rights, and arranging referrals for pro-bono or low-cost legal services. Individuals who have been detained may be eligible to receive free legal representation to pursue bond or release, and more. Find out how to get involved.
  • In San Francisco, organizations like CARECEN, Catholic Charities, ICWC and Dolores Street Community Services are also responding to the needs of noncitizens.
  • Another way to help is to support local bond funds.
  • Cookies Not Cages! El Cerrito Progressives is raising funds to support the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC), which provides legal support for local immigrant minors here without their families. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are living in California, and hundreds attend local area schools. ECP is holding monthly bake sales at El Cerrito Plaza (near Trader Joe’s) during August, September, and October, on the third Saturday of the month; and at Kensington Farmers Market on the third Sunday of the month. If you’re interested in baking or staffing the table please contact Ada Fung at as.fung@gmail.com  Can’t make it? You can also donate at this gofundme fundraiser.
  • See more in our recent article, Show UP for Immigrant Justice.

Liberty and Justice For All

“Liberty and Justice for All” – these are words we don’t always associate with this administration’s immigration policy. But Contra Costa Deputy Public Defender Immigration Attorney Ali Saidi informed and inspired a large crowd in El Sobrante on January 27 about “Immigration Realities” and the new, innovative Stand Together CoCo immigrant rapid-response program. Courageous Resistance / Indivisible El Sobrante – Richmond hosted the talk, which was attended by local political leaders, community members, and representatives of progressive groups including Indivisible East Bay and CA-11 Team United.

Saidi outlined Stand Together CoCo, which will officially begin on March 1 and will provide wide-ranging education and support services and some legal consultation and services. Among these services:

  • Paid community responders will staff a 24/7 hotline to verify and provide accurate information about immigration-related activities reported in the community.
  • Team members will be dispatched when necessary to respond to reports of ICE raids.
  • Legal observers will document and collect data.
  • Community Supporters will provide immediate support to families and individuals who have been targeted or detained.
  • When possible, lawyers will meet with detainees (at present, there is funding for only three lawyers).

The program will also hold education and support events all over the county, including Know Your Rights, legal consultation and services, workshops for people detained in the West County Detention Facility, clinical consultations, and training for trainers/leadership development.

The audience was eager to hear how it could help, and Saidi provided a Volunteer Interest Form with a variety of ways community members can step up to support  immigrant neighbors and friends. The volunteer program, which is being administered primarily by Catholic Charities of the East Bay, is looking for people interested in conducting Know Your Rights presentations or helping with outreach to spread the word about immigrant rights and the hotline; presenters to assist at community meetings; supporters who can accompany people to ICE appointments or help them find resources; and more.

If you want to volunteer to help, please fill out the online volunteer application. Have questions? You can email Joseline Gonzalez Soriano, Stand Together CoCo’s Interim Coordinator, for information. More info will be posted soon on the Catholic Charities’ website.

You can also help by spreading the word about Stand Together CoCo and other rapid response networks. See this list of networks in California to report ICE activity and enforcement. To report ICE action in Contra Costa before March 1, contact Alameda County’s rapid response program, ACILEP, at 510-241-4011.  

Saidi, whose family moved from Tehran, Iran, to Los Angeles when he was five years old, recalled that he didn’t really understand the Pledge of Allegiance when he said it in school for the first time, but he liked the sound of the final words: “Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Saidi encouraged the audience to work for “liberty and justice for all,” and emphasized that the words are not a description of what America is but of what it might be – and that “pledge” means committing to putting in the work to reach the goal. We at Indivisible East Bay could not agree more.

Photograph of Ali Saidi by Judy Weatherly,  Courageous Resistance / Indivisible El Sobrante – Richmond 
Judith Tannenbaum contributed to this article. Judith is a writer and teacher. Her books include Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin.