The Immigrant Rights Commission held a special hearing in the Mission District on Monday night. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

At a meeting Monday night, service providers for the city’s Latino and immigrant populations said fear of deportation and family de-stabilization have risen while the resources to deal with both have diminished.

“Our attorneys are doing quasi-social work,” said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Mission-based Central American Resource Center or CARECEN, a nonprofit that provides immigration legal services to low-income Latino immigrants.

“We started a fund solely for client emergency needs… because we needed to put cash in their hands,” she said at a hearing in front of the 15-member Immigration Rights Commission that advises the city’s mayor and board of supervisors on issues and policies related to immigrants who live and work in San Francisco.

On Monday, the commission was joined by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts at 2868 Mission St. for a hearing that drew about 40 people.

Celine Kennelly, the commission’s chair, called the Mission District “the hot bed of the current immigration debate.”

While the hearing’s purpose was to collect testimonies about quality of life issues experienced by those affected by federal and local policies on immigration, testimonials during public comment came largely from service providers. They underscored the lack of federal funding, which has been exacerbated by a housing and displacement crisis locally.

Unable to work and pay rent, many of those awaiting their immigration proceedings have become homeless or unstable in the process, Dugan-Cuadra said.

“We had about five families sign voluntary departure forms even though they had legitimate cases that they could have won,” she said. “But because of the economic pressures…they were completely overwhelmed and they felt that if the journey north was difficult, the journey of going through the immigration court  in San Francisco was far more difficult.”

Many Latino families who have expanded to District 10 – encompassing the Potrero, Bayview Hunters Point and Visitation Valley– are living “largely isolated and underserved,” said Monica Chinchilla, on behalf of the Mission Neighborhood Center. Chinchilla advocated for more resources and “culturally competent” services to be allocated in those neighborhoods.

A growing wealth gap has not only displaced the clients of Latino and immigrant-serving organizations, but has also taken a toll on staffing levels and the quality of services provided.

“Barriers to our legal services include access to mental health care providers who are bilingual,” said Dugan-Cuadra. “The housing and economics of the city are affecting how well we are able to respond. Our professionals cannot afford to live in San Francisco.”

Dugan-Cuadra said that CARACEN recently advocated for supplemental funding from the city – which was approved by the mayor.  It will mean the hiring of 22 full-time immigration attorneys for 15 nonprofit organizations by July 1. The initiative will expand CARACEN’s capacity to represent immigrants involved in 800 active cases in the San Francisco Immigration court and expand representation to those already detained as a result of raids.

The caseload is overwhelming. In the last two and a half years, only 100 of a total of 400 cases contracted to CARACEN have been successfully resolved. The rest remain tied up in court.

“We have not lost a single case, which essentially means that the speed with which the court is making decisions is slow,” Dugan-Cuadra said.

Latino immigrant families not only in the Mission, but elsewhere in the city, are in need of mental health services and increased access to resources, said Chinchilla.

“They not only have burden of dealing with plight of their immigration status but also of dealing with community violence – many there have lost children due to gang violence,” said Chinchilla. “They are dealing with the trauma of death and of displacement.”

Dr. Estella Garcia, executive director of the Instituto Familiar de la Raza, also spoke to a need for additional and more accessible mental health services in Latino and immigrant families.  

“We are seeing families not living together anymore. We are seeing children who have a lot of distress over economic issues, housing insecurity issues, and most recently the aggression from our government around immigrant rights and population,” said Garcia.

In an effort to carve out additional funding from the city, Garcia urged the commissioners to review a report crafted by the coalition, which has also been submitted to Mayor Ed Lee.

“What we need is more resources to be able to serve our families more and respond more rapidly to them,” said Garcia.

Although Ronen left the hearing early, the Mission’s supervisor discussed some of her plans for ensuring the wellbeing of and economic opportunities for the Latino, immigrant and other vulnerable communities in her district.  

Among the list of commitments was building more affordable housing units to help counteract the housing crisis.

“If we don’t build housing that normal people … can afford, then we are going to continue to transform as a city and we won’t be the special place that we all love,” said Ronen.

Ronen also said that her office has responded to the federal government’s immigration policies by advocating for more community-based immigration lawyers and the addition of attorney to the Public Defender’s office lawyers to specifically represent individuals detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We have one of most prepared communities of any city in the United States to fight back if the federal [government] ever decided to do enforcement actions in our community,” she said.

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