Most people find out about the APILO’s services by word of mouth, so if you’re reading this and know someone who could benefit from APILO, please spread the word. Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, or APILO, provides legal assistance to members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in the Bay Area. One block down from the Tribune Tower, the APILO Oakland office provides both pro bono law services and acts as a network to connect people with social services as well as educational and empowerment workshops. The outreach program focuses on helping with legal issues of immigration status, domestic violence, elder law, estate planning as well as working with victims of human trafficking. With a staff of about 30 people, 25 of whom are attorney and most of whom are people of color, the APILO can provide legal services to a community respecting wide range of languages and cultural practices.
Its holistic approach to serving the Asian and Pacific Islander community has proved enormously successful over the past 40 years since its establishment in 1975 by Dean Ito Taylor. Taylor began the API Legal Outreach as a small clinic in San Francisco’s Japantown. At the time, the clinic focused on providing legal aid to victims of domestic violence, however the agency continues to grow to meet the changing needs of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Serving this community poses the unique challenge of being accessible to wide variety of languages. As Raheel Hayat, the supervising attorney in the Oakland office, explained to me there are 26 different API communities in the Bay Area alone. To meet this challenge, the East Bay office staff includes speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin, Tagalog, Hindi and Urdu, Vietnamese, Spanish and Korean. You can call ((415) 567-6255) or visit their website. They also offer a monthly in house clinic where volunteer attorneys come in and provide legal assistance to those who attend the workshop under supervision of the APILO full time attorneys. This happens every 3rd Wednesday of the month from 6 to 9pm.
The APILO also puts on events with the Anti-Displacement Coalition working to secure tenant rights in an increasingly gentrifying Oakland. APILO is the lead collaborative of the East Bay naturalization collaborative, putting on 8 to 10 workshops per year in cities across the East Bay. In these workshops, LPRs (legal permanent residents) and green card holders can come and apply for citizenship without a lawyer fee. Thanks to an anonymous donor who gave $35 million to different non-profits working in Oakland, APILO now offers to cover the cost of the actual government application fee of over $600. The naturalization collaborative offers aid to all seeking naturalization, not just those within the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
In offering legal immigration help to communities of color, Hayat and his colleagues hope to empower these communities to achieve a better quality of life and increase their political organization. This is a process getting undocumented Oakland residents “out of the shadows.” Although the appeals court ruled against Obama’s immigration plan, the original DACA benefits are still available to many undocumented immigrants. Benefits include access to student loans, work permits and healthcare. Hayat explains that even though DACA does not include the right to vote, DACA will help immigrant communities organize and develop and thus have more say in local and national governments.
Applying for DACA can also open doors to new ways of civic engagement, thus facilitating activism within API communities. “Unless you come out and participate, people think you’re content” Hayat says, and point to the example of former mayor of Oakland Jean Quan, the city’s first Chinese-American mayor. If you ask people from Chinatown, “most people would say that she was a horrible mayor for the Chinese community and for the API community” and Haya explains by asking that as a politician, why would Quan work to serve a community that is not “knocking on [her] door?”
Access to work permits, student loans and healthcare through DACA will help communities grow and organize to have more say in our trying American democracy. For many, API Legal Outreach is the first step. There is a huge DACA-eligible population who have yet to apply. Many of the undocumented immigrants in the Pacific Islander and Asian community are not reaching out to API Legal Outreach. Hayat point to three possible reasons for this: misinformation, fear, and inaccessibility. Because it is a fairly recent policy (implemented in 2012) DACA is a foreign concept that many people are not aware of. Another factor which deters people from seeking these services is fear of possible negative repercussions they would face in seeking legal aid about their residency status. Hayat points to Donald Trump’s inflammatory claims that he plans to deport 11 million people out of the United States if elected president. An abundance of misinformation surrounding immigration and the naturalization process among people both documented and undocumented leads to fear about migrant status. It also leaves the door open for exploitative labor practices by employers who pay undocumented immigrants and their children well below the minimum wage. Often times, because the victims of these situations do not reach out for legal aid, abusive employers never face legal repercussions.
Because of its label as the “model minority,” the Asian and Pacific Islander community is often left out of discourse about marginalized minorities in the United States. Lumping a diverse community into one immaginary ethnic group of "Asian," this label of "model minority" gives people the impression that everything is going well with the API community: they are not marginalized and therefore not in need of advocacy work and aid. This label ignores the historic and current systematic exclusion of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant groups in the US. In aiding the API communities in Oakland, and in the greater Bay Area and United States, advocates work to counteract the label in the face of pressing issues which challenge the diverse API community. The Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach organization is on the front lines of raising awareness about this community while providing immediate legal assistance.
It takes time to become established in a community to the point where people feel comfortable seeking legal advice about such sensitive subject as their residency status, domestic abuse and tenant rights. With their holistic approach, APILO provides legal aid and links the API community to educational, health and employment resources including the Asian American Bar Association, and the Burmese Refugee Family Network.