Community Lawyering Towards Collective Safety, Justice and Belonging

Since 1972, Asian Law Caucus (ALC) has defended communities throughout California from racism, discrimination, and hate violence. Among our earliest cases, ALC defended youth in San Francisco’s Chinatown who were targeted by racist police sweeps and dragnets quite simply because of who they were. Around the same time, ALC lawyers were also filing first-ever lawsuits to defend immigrant garment workers who were being forced to work without pay and in hazardous conditions.

In public policy debates and courtrooms, the issues surrounding these cases are often siloed from one another. But, over the course of our history and for the communities we serve – low-income Asian, Pacific Islander, Arab, and Middle Eastern communities – they illuminate the root causes of violence and a lack of safety. We all deserve to go to work and school, walk down the street, and relax with our families in safety and peace. Yet, when communities are denied housing, food, medical and mental health care, and jobs that provide fair pay and workplaces free of harassment and discrimination, safety becomes elusive.

We see this in our work every day. In Siskiyou County, for example, Hmong and other Asian residents have been subjected to a systematic campaign of racist hostility and persecution by the local sheriff’s department and county officials. Community members have not only been denied their constitutional rights, but have also been blocked from water they need for health and hygiene and to protect themselves from wildfires. In 2022, we filed a class action lawsuit[1] with the ACLU of Northern California and Covington & Burling LLP against this horrific treatment and resulting humanitarian crisis. The path to safety is not just affirming someone’s legal rights – it’s also meeting their basic needs.

More recently, ALC was involved in the emergency response to the mass shooting in Half Moon Bay alongside many other Bay Area organizations. Farmwork families impacted by the shooting are grappling now with pressing needs for housing because their homes on the farm have become a crime scene. They are wrestling with the impossible choice between losing the wages they need to survive or returning to work after the trauma of the shooting. We cannot create a safer future without reckoning with the reality that farmworkers are among the most oppressed workforces in the U.S. In community statement[2] with dozens of Asian and Latinx groups, we shared that “for generations, U.S. systems of immigration, labor, and capitalism have exploited a mostly immigrant workforce, benefitting from their unconscionable poverty, language and community isolation, and distrust of government agencies because of the harm that also comes from these interactions.”

As we join with legal aid, advocacy, and other partners to prevent violence and help community members heal after harm, we’re continually applying what we’ve learned from our clients to hone a framework for community lawyering rooted in meeting people’s needs, strengthening cross-community solidarity, and building the safety infrastructure that has most often proven to prevent interpersonal and state violence in the first place.

As part of this, we’re currently developing new resources to help Asian American victims of violence exercise greater agency within the criminal legal system. Too often, survivors and victims do not have the resources they need to understand complicated and opaque legal systems, let alone know how to effectively navigate them to advocate for what they need. We saw this in Half Moon Bay as Chinese and Mexican farmworkers sought clear, trusted information about their rights after experiencing violence in the workplace. With partners like California Rural Legal Assistance, Chinese Progressive Association, and SIREN Immigrant Rights, we developed know-your-rights resources in Spanish, simplified and traditional Chinese, and English to help people make the right decisions for themselves and their loved ones.

With the support of California’s historic API Equity Budget, we are also working to fill longstanding gaps in how our communities are resourced. Police and prosecution are frequently identified as the only available response for addressing violence and hate incidents. That is because for decades, federal, state, and local governments have persistently increased police and carceral resources, simultaneously cut funding for social services and housing, and refused to adequately fund programs that can heal, provide accountability, and disrupt cycles of punishment, poverty, and family separation.

In Oakland and other parts of the Bay, community members and organizations – many of whom are led and staffed by Black Californians – are launching restorative justice and transformative justice programs that achieve these goals. Yet limited funding has meant that these services are regularly not available in a linguistically and culturally sensitive manner for Asian American communities.

Even as we develop resources and programs specific to the vast diversity of languages and cultures within the Asian Pacific Islander umbrella, we know that the challenges our clients and communities face are intertwined with those faced by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQ+, Muslim, Jewish, and other communities subject to fear-mongering and discriminatory attacks. Cross-community solidarity deeply informs our work, whether as part of a multiracial coalition[3] seeking to end the double punishment of immigrant and refugee community members in California or with San Francisco communities to end pretext stops.[4]

Over the past decade, ALC and other immigrant rights organizations have been organizing to change laws that amplify the effects of racism in federal immigration laws which disproportionately harm Black immigrants. Through broadly-supported laws like the TRUTH Act, TRUST Act, and Values Act, Californians are disentangling ICE detention and deportation from our lives and livelihoods. Today, we’re continuing to advance a community-led vision of immigrant justice in counties and in Sacramento – one that guarantees when any Californian serves their sentence in prison or jail they are reunited with their loved ones, no matter where they were born.

While the challenges to creating sustained community safety are many, we’re encouraged and inspired by the work of other civil rights and safety practitioners, including the Contra Costa Immigrant Rights Alliance and Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). Together, we are committed to solutions that lead us to a safer, better world.