Immigrants, lawyers and community members squeezed into the Budget and Finance Committee meeting in substantial numbers that spilled into an overflow room to show support for a measure that would establish a legal unit to defend immigrants from deportation through the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
The attendees came fresh from a pro-immigrant rally outside, where Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer proposed the legislation on the steps of City Hall alongside San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
“People are in desperate need of legal representation to ensure their due process rights,” Fewer said. “We can do more than just make political statements. We in San Francisco have the opportunity to back up our statements of support with real resources and help.”
Adachi said about 1,500 people are currently held in detention centers through the San Francisco immigration court, and 67 percent of them do not have any legal representation.
The proposal, if passed, will hire 10 deputy public defenders and seven support members, who are expected to take on 400-600 immigration cases per year in the city. This will cost an estimated $2.5 million through 2018.
Supervisor Norman Yee proposed an amendment during the budget meeting to reduce the fund for the 2016-2017 fiscal year from $418,105 to $218,105, noting that the public defender’s office currently has a surplus of funds able to make up for the difference.
The item will continue for two weeks as amended and is expected to be voted on by the committee at the end of the month.
In response to those who believe the committee is conservative in its spending, Supervisor Katy Tang said that $6.8 million in city funds are already allocated for immigrant services in the city annually.
“We are struggling as immigrants from the beginning,” Joaquin Sotelo said during the rally. “It is real, it is painful, it is shameful, it is a disgrace for us to go through this process. It seems like the United States of America is not united any longer.”
Sotelo is an immigrant from Mexico who was detained for one year and four months, despite the fact that he is a U.S. veteran and has two children who are citizens.
Protesters chanted “Sí se puede,” in between speakers, as they waved signs reading “IMMIGRATION RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS” and “STOP SEPARATING FAMILIES.”
Numerous immigrants, sometimes with the help of translators, shared their stories during public comment and showed support for the funding of the public defender’s office when they moved inside for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing.
“It’s time to stop the blatant violation of human rights, of immigrants who are put behind bars and threatened with deportation without access to anything,” said Niloufar Khonsari, executive director and immigration attorney at Pangea Legal Services.
“It’s time for San Francisco to create a system that really upholds and stands true to our values and is true to our sanctuary city.”
Khonsari said some non-profit organizations have joined forces to provide legal services for immigrants, but what the community organizations are able to provide is still “far from enough.”
The proposal is modeled after successful blueprints that New York City and Alameda County public defenders have used to represent detained immigrants, according to Adachi. He hopes more cities will look to San Francisco as an example if the proposal passes.
Adachi said he expects his office to have lawyers on the ground by April 1 if the measure passes.
“We need to act now,” Adachi said. “I’ve heard from budget people in City Hall, ‘Oh let’s wait and see how bad it is.’ We don’t have to wait, we can see that right now.”