Dozens of immigrants testified at the Immigrant Rights Commission on Monday night that fare inspectors and police are harassing them when they ride Muni.
The alleged harassment over the past months has resulted in three deportations and an increasing fear among immigrant communities of riding Muni, according to the testimony.
Commissioners of this mostly advisory commission agreed to send a letter asking several government agencies, including the mayor’s office, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and others, to find a solution.
Luis Barahona, a community organizer with the Mission-based Jamestown Community Center, said harassment became an issue when the SFMTA stepped up enforcement last fall to curb fare evasions and crime on Muni. A study by the SFMTA last year found that the 10 percent of fare evaders cost the agency $19 million every year.
Once on board Muni, fare inspectors are too strict on expired transfers and arbitrarily pick on immigrant riders who don’t speak English, he told the commission.
While some passengers simply pay a fine, immigrants worry that being apprehended will lead to deportation. Currently if an adult is booked on a felony and officers suspect he is undocumented they notify ICE.
At the hearing, for example, Felipe Reyes described being pulled back by two undercover offiicers after he boarded a bus from the back door. He showed the officers his fastpass and asked them to show him respect, he said.
Instead, they booked him and took him to jail. He was released to immigration on the third day, he said. It is unclear what charges were filed and his attorney would not elaborate because the case is pending.
Zheng Huang, a Visitation Valley resident, told the commission he was one of SFMTA’s victims.
Huang said his transfer expired while en route to Chinatown and he was given a ticket. He couldn’t communicate because he can’t speak English and is now worried that it might affect his status for citizenship.
Marlene Tran, the spokesperson for the Visitation Valley Asian Alliance, pointed out that Muni transfers are printed only in English.
Visitation Valley residents have previously complained that they were not properly informed of changes to the 9x Bayshore and had to fight to get a Cantonese voice calling people to reserve the front seat for seniors, Tran said.
Gloria Steva of the Mission said she has seen first hand how police are too strict in ticketing for transfers that have expired because the buses take a long time to arrive.
“What are we supposed to do?” she asked. “We are held accountable for Muni’s failures.”
She also complained that no one from the SFMTA was at the hearing.
Adrienne Pon, the executive director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, said Muni executives were absent because they had not been given sufficient notice of the meeting.
Donaji Lona, an organizer for People Organized to Win Employment Rights, told the story of a member who was given two tickets simultaneously as a “lesson” to cooperate with law enforcement.
According to Lona, the member was told her transfer was invalid and was asked to sign the ticket.
She only spoke Spanish and asked to call her husband before she signed anything because she couldn’t understand. Subsequently, the officer gave her two tickets out of frustration, Lona said.
Lorena Melgarejo, the vice chair of the commission, said she called the hearings because her own father was harassed.
For some advocates the solution is to eliminate the enforcement because they claim it doesn’t work and it’s too aggressive.
“This is reactionary policy,” Barahona said about the increase in fare evasion enforcement and police presence. He added that the system is unsustainable and Muni should try to fix their fiscal problems in other ways.
Tran said cultural competency training for officers and more community outreach might work.
In that instance, Police Chief George Gascon met with advocates and Supervisor David Campos and a deal was reached to impound cars only if they couldn’t find a legal driver after 20 minutes.
“It feels we are back again to an issue like this,” said commission chair Angus McCarthy. “Hopefully we can get the same outcome and result.”