By Anna Schuessler Daily Journal staff
Jan 28, 2019
More than six months after San Mateo County officials dedicated nearly $765,000 toward legal resources available to immigrants living in the country without proper status, attorneys within a network of agencies are representing 35 individuals in their applications to stay in the country.
By funding four half-time and two full-time attorneys at agencies operating across the county, officials are aiming to expand resources for immigrants facing deportation proceedings in response to swirling fears in that community of stepped-up immigration enforcement actions.
With bolstered resources at the International Institute of the Bay Area, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach and Catholic Charities Refugee & Immigrant Services in San Mateo County, among other organizations, agencies operating in the county have accepted cases ranging from applications for asylum to representation of youth seeking legal status in the United States following abuse or neglect, explained Stacey Hawver, executive director of Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
For nearly two years, the county had been working with the Legal Aid Society and its partner agencies to offer workshops on how to apply for U.S. citizenship or other legal statuses. But in June, officials boosted support for immigration attorneys who can take on the deportation defense cases. Hawver said the network of agencies included in the yearlong contract is on track to meet goals of opening 150 removal defense cases by August.
“Everybody is staffed up, all the attorneys are on board,” she said. “It’s definitely enabled us to accept more defense cases … we were really able to expand our services.”
The individuals for whom cases were opened are residents of Daly City, East Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, Redwood City, San Bruno and San Mateo and their countries of origin included El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Some 57 percent are 18 years old or younger, with some 20 percent 5 years old or younger, according to a report Legal Aid Society prepared of activities Sept. 1 to Dec. 31.
Hawver said the funds have allowed the University of San Francisco Law School’s Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic to assign half of an attorney’s time to the coast and Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach to reach residents in the northern part of San Mateo County with deportation defense services. In staffing attorneys trained to handle deportation defense cases in parts of the county farther away from urban centers, the network of legal agencies in the county has become equipped to respond to enforcement activities and meet with clients, she said.
Hawver noted an ability to discuss legal options in the languages their clients speak is yet another bonus of working with legal groups with different specializations and familiarity with a variety of cultures, noting the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach has been working with the Pilipino Bayanihan Resource Center in Daly City to reach some of the Asian communities in northern San Mateo County. She added the collaborative has further developed its collective skills through one-on-one training offered by the San Francisco-based Immigration Legal Resource Center.
Hawver credited the San Mateo Rapid Response Network, which has also received a boost from the funds, with offering a hotline residents can call if they see enforcement action so volunteers and legal professionals can assist those who might be taken into custody or face deportation proceedings. Led by the nonprofit Faith in Action Bay Area and operated largely by volunteers, the network is now being coordinated by a paid contractor and, for the first time, in November verified U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, activity, said Hawver.
When the network is alerted an individual has been picked up by ICE, an attorney on call typically goes to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Francisco to see if the individual can be interviewed and either taken out of custody on bond or ensure they are not moved far from the area, explained Hawver. If the person is a San Mateo County resident, the case is forwarded to the collaborative of legal groups to determine how that person is best represented in the long term, she said.
With some 4,000 county residents facing deportation proceedings and a fraction of the group receiving legal representation when the county’s contract with the legal agencies began in September, Supervisor Dave Pine was hopeful officials’ support for legal services would help meet demand for them.
“There was considerable demand for deportation defense services,” he said. “I think the program is working well and I’m pleased the way our Office of Community Affairs, the Rapid Response Network and this attorney network are all working together and they very much have their ear to the ground and can respond as needed.”
Having held several events such as “Know Your Rights” forums at churches, schools and other community events in recent months, the collaborative’s efforts to spread the word about immigrant’s rights and resources have been extensive, noted Pine.
In response to concerns about the resources being used to represent individuals with serious criminal histories, Pine said officials required those convicted of violent and serious felonies to obtain consent of the county manager before they can access the services. He said he was somewhat surprised to see youth under the age of 18 to make up such a large portion of the group receiving the services, but understood some of the legal agencies leveraged existing ties with young-oriented organizations or agencies.
Though Hawver acknowledged the collaborative’s work in recent months has boosted the resources available to the county’s immigrant community, she said demand still outpaces the available resources. Legal groups are still not able to serve everyone in need of them. For those they aren’t able to represent, Hawver said they may refer residents to clinics offered by Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto or to pro bono attorneys, but acknowledged the difficulty of finding legal representation for many.
“That’s a real challenge for a lot of these folks,” she said. “The resources aren’t sufficient to represent everyone.”