SAN FRANCISCO – Just before stepping out of the room to take a call with the White House, Mayor Ed Lee said he wanted San Francisco to be a model city in helping undocumented immigrants access administrative relief.
“I would like all cities to follow our practices as the best practices. I want to be out in front,” Mayor Lee told a group of philanthropic and community organizations that are preparing to respond to the executive action that President Obama is expected to announce Thursday.
Obama’s anticipated executive action could temporarily defer deportation and provide work permits to the parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Depending on the scope of the announcement, it is estimated to impact up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, or about half of the country’s undocumented population, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. However, it would not provide a pathway to legal permanent resident status or citizenship.
Immigrant advocacy organizations have been calling on Obama to take executive action since the prospects of Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform have faded. Republican leaders, who will now control both houses of Congress, have made it clear that they will not act on immigration reform. Obama, meanwhile, has faced mounting pressure from immigrant rights advocates who criticize him for presiding over a record 2 million deportations, including the deportation of many who had no criminal record or were only convicted of minor offenses.
Cities like San Francisco are now preparing to coordinate strategies to deal with what Lee calls a “surge” in families who will want to take advantage of administrative relief.
In early December, Lee will join a meeting with other mayors from across the country to discuss how they are responding to the federal government’s expected executive action on immigration.
“This is very important to us. For me, as a child of immigrants, I understand that pretty fast. But also as sanctuary city,” Lee said, “we unite people.”
San Francisco is facing a housing crisis, and already has seen cuts to human services, education, health and family programs, Lee noted.
But, he said, “I really think the city is strong enough to cover those cuts,” citing the role of San Francisco’s philanthropic community. Last month the mayor appointed Colin Lacon, former head of Northern California Grantmakers, as the Mayor’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, a new position supported by foundations, that will interact with non-profit and philanthropic organizations.
“I’ve always said that the federal government is going to leave us behind on some things and we’ve got to be prepared to make it up,” said Lee. “Good thing we’re in a very strong economic situation in this city because these are things we’ve been preparing for.”
Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) Deputy Director Sally Kinoshita, who will be leading administrative relief efforts, said there are lessons to be learned from past executive actions.
“With IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act] back in the ‘80s, legal services were completely overwhelmed,” said Kinoshita.” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was enacted in 2012, was “a good test run,” she said. But she noted that, as with IRCA in the 1980s, legal services were inundated.
“Knowing how to coordinate” with other agencies is key to its success, said Kinoshita, noting that San Francisco was a model in bringing in school districts and unions to help get out the word to immigrants.
Nationally, the Committee for Immigration Reform Implementation is working to prepare for possible administrative relief, as is the statewide group Ready California, a coalition of 11 organizations.
“It really is going to take widespread coordination,” agreed Adrian Pon, executive director of the Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs.
Another lesson from DACA was that certain communities took longer to apply. Kinoshita expects that this will also be the case for administrative relief, and expects many to take a “wait and see” approach, especially in communities that are more fearful or have a bigger stigma around being undocumented.
Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indian eligible Dreamers, for example, had much lower application rates for DACA than Mexicans.
A report published in August 2014 by the Migration Policy Institute found that 62 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants had applied for DACA, compared to 24 percent of eligible Koreans, 26 percent of eligible Filipinos, 28 percent of eligible Indians, and an even lower percentage of Chinese Americans.
“Chinese youth were notably absent among DACA applicants,” the report stated. “Although China ranked ninth among the top 10 countries of origin of the immediately eligible population, it was not among the top 20 countries of origin for DACA applicants in the program’s first two years.”
“We’re really concerned about Asian immigrant communities,” said Kinoshita, noting that this has already changed the way organizations are informing communities about DACA, and will be applied to administrative relief as well.
“We’re just trying to go through those trusted community leaders that people are already in contact with,” said Kinoshita, such as “community leaders, churches and tapping into ethnic media.”
“People go to work, people go to school, people listen to the radio at work and read their newspaper,” she said. “We learned from DACA it takes multiple touches.”
Kinoshita encourages immigrant families to start saving money and getting their documents together, including potentially having to prove that they were in the country on the day of the announcement.
But she warned that immigrant families should “keep a close eye on media sources” so they can get accurate information.
“I think the biggest challenges are going to be getting the correct information and accessing competent services,” Kinoshita said. “There’s a lot of preying on the immigrant community and people who will take their money and scam them, giving them the sense that they will get something that doesn’t exist yet.”