By Ken A. Epstein
The Oakland City Council this week unanimously passed a resolution committing to adding the humanitarian relief effort for unaccompanied immigrants to the United States, authored by Mayor Jean Quan, Vice Mayor Larry Reid and Councilmember Noel Gallo.
“The bottom line here is clear and urgent: we are talking about children who need our help, and Oakland stands shoulder to shoulder with everyone offering that help,” said Mayor Quan.
“This is a humanitarian crisis that requires a compassionate and urgent response,” said Councilmember Gallo. “We must do what we can to support the health and wellbeing of these children. Our goal is to ensure that these unaccompanied children get the services they need, and are able to move from federal shelter facilities into the homes of relatives or host families as they await the results of their immigration proceedings.”
Seeking to put teeth in the resolution, Gallo on Wednesday convened a meeting in the Mayor’s Office with representatives of over 30 of churches, nonprofits and community groups to coordinate efforts to meet the children’s and families’ pressing needs. The representatives were mostly from Oakland but also from other East Bay cities and San Francisco.
“We’re reacting to the situation, but we’re not prepared,” said Rev. Pablo Morataya, pastor of Primer Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana on High Street in Oakland.
His church is supporting two families, one from Guatemala and another from Honduras, who are each living in one room in small apartments with relatives.
“The necessities are housing and legal assistance,” he said. “They are already in court up here. And there are young people coming into our city. We don’t know yet how many, but there are many, many of them.”
According to attorneys at the meeting, the young immigrants and adults are entitled to legal representation, but the government does not pay for it. To retain a private lawyer typically costs at least $6,000, and a case can take between two and three years.
Centro Legal de la Raza in the Frutivale District is representing as many of the new immigrants as it can and is referring other clients to nonprofits and private attorneys who are willing to work without cost, said Barbara Pinto, an immigration staff attorney at Centro Legal.
“Locally, we’re locking arms” to help the new arrivals, said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra of the Central American Resource Center of Northern California in San Francisco. She said she knows of 60 families that are going to court in the next few weeks.
Oakland International High School has already taken in 50 immigrant children this year, “and we’re a small school,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of the Oakland public school.
“We’ve been triaging the best we can, trying to find lawyers – it’s a nightmare,” she said. “Asking someone in the third grade who doesn’t speak English to (represent) themselves is ridiculous,” she said.
Gallo said that that he is working closely with Supervisor David Campos in San Francisco, and Gov. Jerry Brown is willing to provide resources. But so far, the U.S. government is mostly talking about militarizing the border and has not been forthcoming with much aid to help take care of the children.