Woman stands at lectern on the steps of city hall. She is flanked by other immigrants' rights activists.
Marisela Esparza, of Dolores Street Community Services, leads a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday urging the Mayor to back a bill to increase funding for immigrant legal defense. Photo by Brian Rinker.

Instead of writing wishlists for Santa Claus, immigrant activists gathered on the steps of City Hall Monday to write letters to Mayor Ed Lee urging him to provide more funding to the public defender’s office in the anticipation of a Donald Trump presidency that promises to deport thousands of undocumented people.

So far, Lee has resisted such pleas to increase funding for the public defender’s office.

Early Monday morning, Lorena Melgarejo woke her daughter up, “We’re not going to school today. We’re going to city hall to fight for immigrants’ rights.”

Her daughter, Ixchel Quezada, sat on the steps of City Hall writing a letter to Mayor Lee. “Please give all the money needed to protect moms and dads from ICE. Cancer stole my dad, don’t let ICE steal parents from other kids. You have the power and need to be brave,” wrote Quezada who is in grade school.

During a press conference at City Hall on Monday, Lorena Melgarejo helped her daughter, Ixchel Quezada, write a letter to Mayor Ed Lee asking him to protect undocumented immigrants. Photo by Brian Rinker.

Immigrant rights activists want San Francisco to stand up to Trump’s deportation policies and show the rest country what it means to be a sanctuary city.

“We want to make it clear to the powers that be in city hall: We don’t want to see our families torn apart,” said  Campos.

Campos introduced a deportation defense fund at a Nov. 29 board meeting to give $5 million to be split down the middle for community based organizations and the public defender’s office.

But the mayor sees it differently.  Lee responded by re-balancing the budget last week to provide $1.5 million for the community based organizations, on top of the $3.8 million that was already allocated for immigration legal defense.

Community organizations are good at representing undocumented immigrants who aren’t in jail, while the public defender’s office is better suited to handle those already detained by immigration, according to advocates.

“The mayor’s counter offer only gives sanctuary to some and not others. That’s not real sanctuary,” Campos said referring to the public defender’s office failing to get funding to help detained immigrants.

Campos said the biggest hang ups to passing his bill asking for $5 million are Supervisor London Breed, who put a 30-day freeze on it, and Mayor Ed Lee. Because the bill was frozen, it won’t be heard until the board has turned over. Campos terms out at the end of the year.

The mayor has also pledged an additional $3 million for the next 2 budget cycles, according to the mayor’s office press spokesperson Deirdre Hussey.

Campos and advocates say that’s not enough if the city wants to provide adequate counsel for all undocumented immigrants. They want the public defender’s office to receive more funding to add 10 more attorneys, five paralegals and two legal clerks to the immigrant legal defense team.

The Mayor has “asked the Public Defender’s Office to follow the budget process and submit a plan for additional services,” Hussey said in an email response.

Tuesday was Campos and the advocates third press conference attempting to sway the mayor’s support. The previous press events hadn’t done anything. The mayor still doesn’t support increasing funding for the public defender’s office, said Marisela Esparza, Dolores Street Community Services.

One of the event’s organizers Caroline Morales collected all 52 letters and led the group into City Hall to handoff them off to the mayor. They walked up the marble steps, past couples getting married, while an orchestra played “Land of the free.”

José-Luis Tekun Mejia, of Coleman Advocates, said the song was fitting. “Here we are fighting for the ones being left behind.”

Norman Yee was the only supervisor who came out in the hallway to talk with the advocates. Someone yelled asking if Lee supported the bill and Yee said yes I do. Then smiled and asked what bill.

The group chanted in Spanish we have no papers but we’re not afraid, as they walked to the Mayor’s office. Paul Henderson, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and public safety director, came out to address the group. “These aren’t the type of Christmas carols I was expecting,” he said.

Henderson said later that he didn’t want them yelling at the door so he took them to a conference room that was locked. Instead he went into the hall and got an earful.  

Paul Henderson, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and public safety director, addresses a group of immigrant rights activists. Photo by Brian Rinker.

Advocates argued that the public defender’s office is better suited to handle undocumented immigrants who are detained by ICE. Henderson said he has never seen a study about that and wasn’t sure if it was true. He said that public funds go further with community based groups. There is more bureaucracy when dealing with a city agency and it cost a lot more to hire attorneys. They have to deal with benefits, unions and higher pay scales than the non-profits.

Henderson said he was concerned that the public defender’s office might be subject to release vulnerable information to federal officials.

“Don’t make us fight you, we already have enough battles with Trump,” said Kelly Engel Wells, an attorney with Dolores Street Community Services. “The mayor should be on our side.”

Follow Us

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *