The Berkeley City Council Meeting, which took place on April 11, 2023, focused mainly on housing issues with many public comments. In addition to discussing housing concerns, Councilmember Kate Harrison introduced the Social Justice Collaborative’s (SJC) appeal for funding so they can hire two full-time social workers.
The SJC, founded in 2012, offers legal aid and assistance to low-income immigrants, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, young dreamers, and displaced families in Northern California for little to no cost. Their expertise includes deportation defense, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), visas for victims of human trafficking, and asylum litigation. Their growing team enables them to take on a higher number of cases, providing case-building, representation in court and interviews, partner referrals, and family reunification efforts. Their website can be found here.
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani raised concerns about the sole source contract criteria that would be used in this instance. In response, Director of Finance Henry Oyekanmi said the sole source criteria is used when the organization is the only “available venture that can do the task.” While other local organizations do provide similar assistance to low-income people in need of free legal aid, they do not handle DACA or other immigration legal matters and services; they do not have Mayan-Mam-speaking staff, making the SJC a unique essential service provider.
During the meeting, the SJC representative, Catarina Mendoza, who is their interpreter supervisor, shared the SJC background and reaffirmed that the SJC provides essential language support. More than a quarter of clients that the SJC serves speak Mayan-Mam, a language spoken by Indigenous Guatemalans. It was also one of the 10 languages most frequently spoken in US immigration courts in 2016. Mendoza explained that the legal support that is provided is only part of what their clients need; many need services such as mental health care. Unaccompanied minors need help with school enrollment, applying for Medi-Cal, and CalFresh. The contract with the city would help them hire two full-time social workers that provide those services, with their salaries being $65,000 each and the total budget being $147,000.
Mendoza provided translation services for one of her clients during the meeting. The client shared their personal story of becoming a single mother of four after her husband passed away. She experienced trauma and did not know where to turn until she was introduced to a lawyer with the SJC. She said that the SJC team treated her patiently and gave her hope for a new life with a sense of security for her children. Services such as these are crucial for many others like her. The mother expressed her desire to learn English and to be an example for her children and other immigrants.
The request to add the SJC’s proposal to the June 2023 Budget Process Review received nine yeses and no noes, with Kesarwani abstaining from the vote.
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