Undocumented Immigrants in Oakland: “We Live in a Country that Hates Us, but Benefits from Our Labor. We Belong Here.”

A collage of four diverse people, mostly Latinx
Immigrants and immigrant-rights activists say undocumented immigrants in Oakland have contributed a lot to the fabric of the city, from paying taxes to making it a culturally-rich place to live.

In October 2022, a federal court ruled against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. The participants of the program are immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, and are often called “Dreamers.” Now, the program might be in jeopardy. This week, hundreds of immigrant-rights advocates and DACA recipients are rallying in Washington, D.C., to push Congress to protect DACA recipients. In the meantime, many feel like their lives are in limbo.

DACA is a federal policy that was initiated by the Obama administration in 2012. It was designed to provide some protection for young people who entered the country without papers. In March 2022, it protected 611,270 young people. However, it was estimated that at that time, there were about 1,159,000 eligible people

Oakland Voices spoke with two DACA recipients – a current DACA recipient and a former DACA recipient – to find out about their experiences and perspectives. Oakland Voices also talked to two advocates, who underscored how undocumented immigrants provide a host of benefits to Oakland, including that they contribute to the economy through their work, their purchases, and the taxes they pay. There are many myths around undocumented immigrants, particularly when referring to undocumented immigrants of color, such as that they don’t pay taxes, they’re a drain on social services, or they’re criminals. According to Carnegie Corporation of NY’s “15 Myths About Immigration,” undocumented immigrants pay about as much in taxes as they consume in benefits and are less likely to be incarcerated than U.S.-born people.

In addition, people who Oakland Voices interviewed noted that undocumented immigrants have a profound cultural impact, making Oakland a desirable multi-ethnic city in which to live, work, and visit. Oakland has been a “sanctuary city” for immigrants since 1986, where an estimated one in 10 residents are undocumented. In 2017, California became a “sanctuary state.”

Image of a woman with brown hair wearing a shirt-dress in the woods
Saba Nafees. Photo by Daniel Clayton

Saba Nafees, scientist and former DACA recipient

Saba Nafees is originally from Pakistan, from where there have been relatively few DACA recipients. Her grandparents lived in Texas and they sponsored her parents. However, her family ended up becoming undocumented after her grandfather died. 

“It was a grueling fight for my parents. It caused them so many mental and physiological issues. Years of going back and forth to the ICE office [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and being under supervision. Many, many families go through this as well,” Nafees told Oakland Voices. In 2013, the family had a court hearing. DACA had been announced in 2012 and a Dallas immigration judge ruled that Nafees could not be deported because she was eligible for DACA. In 2013, at the age of 20, she became a DACA recipient. In 2019, she married and is in the process of applying for citizenship.  

In the fall of 2011, right after high school, Nafees heard about Immigrants Rising and learned that she could go to college. She eventually earned a PhD in Mathematical Biology. Her professional work as a data scientist and her immigrant rights work with organizations such as Immigrants Rising is what brought Nafees to the SF Bay Area, where she continues to work closely with various immigrant rights groups. 

Nafees recognizes the biases in the U.S. when talking about immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants. She has continued to speak up, which led to her receiving media attention because she was a PhD student and a scientist-in-training. A PBS film focused on her story.

As an Asian American woman, she said, “I recognize that there is a model minority myth. There is this perception that immigrants have to be top of the line. You have to have a certain amount of merit in order to qualify to be Americans, to call yourself Americans, and I think that’s really wrong. For example, your restaurant worker, your waiter, your cleaning crew, we tend to overlook, to disregard their contributions and their humanity. I think it’s important to note that all of us are in this together.” 

Nafees also commented on the economic contributions of undocumented people in Oakland. “It’s important to note that undocumented people pay a lot of taxes, giving back to the economy. So, it’s a myth to think that undocumented people don’t pay taxes, don’t file taxes, don’t contribute,” Nafees said. She also spoke about DACA recipient friends who live and work in Oakland and have businesses, where they employ people and contribute to Oakland’s economy in this and other ways.

“They have the tenacity and the perseverance to continue to fight, to continue to give back, to find ways to overcome obstacles and be part of society. They give back as teachers, scientists, physicians, and restaurant workers, among various other roles.”

A Latina woman with curly brown hair smiles for camera inside a restaurant with brick wall
Reyna Maldonado at La Guerrera’s Kitchen Restaurant in Oakland, CA on July 12, 2021.

Reyna Maldonado, restaurant owner and DACA recipient

Reyna Maldonado is the co-owner of La Guerrera’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Old Oakland, who is in her late 20s. She came with her family to the U.S. when she was six years old and was undocumented. When she was 20, she applied for DACA status. She had been a young organizer and, at first, she was hesitant about applying for it. She said, “I waited about a year after it was initiated just because I was very skeptical about it. I didn’t think it was a permanent solution. It was something that was really scary for me. And I was also really scared about providing information about my family. I waited until most of my friends received it.” 

DACA allows Maldonado and others like her to work in the U.S., but only for two years before needing to reapply for DACA status. Maldonado has been able to apply for a driver’s license, social security number, and work permit through DACA. “I’ve been relieved to have that. Having a business is a secure way of income for us. The hardest thing right now is that, if DACA were to be removed, that would leave us without social security, which makes me really nervous.” She added, “Although you can still open and run a business with an ITIN [Individual Taxpayer Identification Number], having access to Social Security has opened many doors and access to opportunities that helps a business be successful.  Not having DACA anymore will most likely prevent us from having access to many funding [opportunities], programs, and basic needs that makes it easier for a small business to keep running.”

As Maldonado pointed out, DACA provides some protection, but it is very limited and having DACA is a very unstable immigration status to have because of changes in administrations and their immigration policies. “DACA provides security around deportation. It provides some level of protection, but it does not offer a permanent path to legal status” she said. 

Maldonado spoke about the variety of ethnic foods and Latin music that are available in Oakland, the traditions that help keep families together, and how undocumented immigrants help to make the Bay Area a vibrant place in which to live and work. “For a really long time, undocumented people have only been seen for the labor, the work that we do,” Maldonado told Oakland Voices. “But, we also need to recognize the culture that we bring here. If you go into the Fruitvale, there’s so many cultural spaces. We have so many different food options. There’s street vendors. And so many professionals here as well that are DACA. I think we contribute so much of our hard work and culture and traditions and we are able to make the Bay Area what it is. Without immigrants, we wouldn’t be able to have this much culture, this much diversity.”  

Many immigrants, particularly Latinx, express concern that someone close to them could be deported. The situation is particularly stressful for DACA recipients and immigrants with TPR (Temporary Protected Status), but it is also true for Latinx who were born in the U.S.and are not immigrants. 

“It’s very uncertain. We are not going to stop here. This fight is going to continue and we have to push for something permanent and inclusive of other people that DACA leaves out. We are tired of having to deal with so much anxiety. We are tired of this program that excludes so many people, including parents who have lived here for so many years. We live in a country that hates us, but benefits from our labor. We belong here,” Maldonado said.

A Latino man holds guitar around him and his hands are in prayer form in front of his face as he is smiling
Francisco Herrera

Francisco Herrera, musician and co-manager of a day labor program and women’s collective 

Francisco Herrera, who prefers to use terms such as pre-documented, in progress, or migrants when referring to undocumented people, is an advocate for them and knows well how they contribute to Oakland’s economy. “The day laborers and domestic workers with whom I work, the majority of funds that they earn here are spent here, locally,” Herrera told Oakland Voices. “On food, buying clothing, buying [school] supplies for their children, going to the coffee shop, going to the show. People have spent years here paying rent and lights. Immigrants are a central piece to the economic health of Oakland.” 

Herrera also pointed out how, through the rents they pay, undocumented immigrants support services in Oakland, including the fire department and the police. Herrera also commented on how a large number of new businesses are started by immigrants, and how California leads in this. “They come with fervor, ingenuity, and energy,” he said.

Herrera spoke about the cultural contributions that immigrants make. “I love that Oakland is completely diverse. If you go to any celebration of anything in Oakland, what you see is a diverse, vibrant community of many colors, of migrant people. Some have migrated from the East Coast. Others from the South. Others have migrated from Michigan and the North. And others have migrated from other countries. You’ve got a great Laotian community. You’ve got a vibrant Vietnamese community. You’ve got a Salvadoran community. Guatemalan community. You’ve got folks from New Zealand, from Ireland, from Bolivia and Ecuador. If you go to St. Elizabeth’s Church on 34th Ave. [a primarily Latinx church], you’ve got a vibrant Filipino community with a Latin American community and still the aging Irish and Italians who are there. So, they’re adding to the cultural life of Oakland.”

Herrera expressed concern about how not all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are treated equally by the government and the media. For example, Ukrainians were treated very differently in the early weeks of the Russian invasion earlier this year from immigrants of color and immigrants who come with few resources. They were welcomed into the U.S., often after just a few days at the southern border. In contrast, in September 2021, thousands of Haitian asylum seekers at the southern border, most of them Black, were denied access to the U.S. asylum system, which is contrary to international law, and put on planes back to Haiti, where they were likely to encounter extreme, life-threatening violence. 

Image of Southeast Asian woman with straight hair smiling for camera
Sheng Thao

Sheng Thao, Oakland City Council President Pro Tem and Mayoral Candidate

Sheng Thao is the daughter of Hmong refugees and she supports immigrants, including undocumented immigrants. We caught up with the mayoral candidate to get her take on immigrant contributions to the city.

“I’m a strong supporter of protecting undocumented communities,” Thao told Oakland Voices. “A lot of people come here, especially undocumented people, because they are fleeing violence, persecution, and financial hardship. Many come from Central and South America — they are the most vulnerable and we have to make sure we’re creating these safe spaces so they don’t have to hide in dark corners. We need to be more accessible to them. We are a Sanctuary City and our actions should show that, too.”

Thao also commented on how undocumented people contribute economically to Oakland. “There’s a lot that has been given back to the city of Oakland by undocumented people. I think that people [nationally] are fearful that others are taking our jobs and opportunities. People talk about them taking resources, but actually that’s not the case. They are also spending money in the city, just like any other neighbor.”

Thao added, “In my opinion, Oakland is really the heart and soul of the Bay Area, maybe in California itself. We are the center of art, music, food, and culture because we have that diversity that we continuously talk about. So, our undocumented and documented immigrants and refugees create what Oakland is about. It creates this beautiful diversity. It’s more than that. It’s that the Oakland community feels it wants to be immersed in that diversity, to understand better.” 

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Additional Resources & Readings:

  • East Bay Sanctuary Covenant is grounded in the Sanctuary movement and focuses on supporting low-income immigrants and asylum seekers
  • Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI) works on behalf of Immigrants and the incarcerated
  • Immigrants Rising is a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to helping undocumented people get access to higher education
  • Immigrant Defense Project offers some very compelling Immigrant Stories from a wide range of countries of origin and occupations
  • Forward (FWD.us) provides information about the positive impact of immigration
  • The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) provides detailed DACA information and articles such as its June 2022 one about the impact of state immigration policies on whether newcomers and native-born people feel they belong in their communities
  • United We Dream is an activist organization initiated by DACA recipients, which provides information for current recipients and DACA-eligible youth
  • Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) provides up-to-date information on DACA (for example, an explanation of the final Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals rule, which was published on August 30, 2022 and was set to go into effect on October 31, 2022)
Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway has lived in Oakland for over 35 years. She is a long-term educator — a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education.

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