At the start of each workday, Shiori Akimoto crosses a parking lot, descends a flight of outdoor stairs and enters the Trinity United Methodist Church basement through a red door marked with the words East Bay Sanctuary Covenant.
Here, hidden in the church and out of plain sight, many of Berkeley’s undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers have found a sacred space — a place where they can turn to individuals such as Akimoto for free legal services and assistance in navigating the bureaucratic process of resettlement in the United States.
“I had trouble finding this place when I wanted to work here,” Akimoto said. “We tend to be a little quiet. We are not really outgoing as an organization.”
But the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant’s inconspicuous location has not hindered those seeking its services. As Akimoto walks past signs reading “We are not deportable” and heads toward her office, she passes through a waiting room packed with clients in search of consultation and legal aid.
Since graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in ethnic studies in 2014 — two years after former president Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program — Akimoto has worked as the organization’s DACA coordinator. She said she first “fell in love with the work” while volunteering at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant to obtain community service hours as a student.
Akimoto’s DACA clients are undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children and who, through DACA, can be protected from deportation and receive a work permit for two years.
“We are probably processing 70 cases a month, just for DACA,” Akimoto said. “And we are really under-resourced.”
Akimoto said she has about 10 appointments with DACA clients per week. She also conducts group workshops, during which she explains the DACA renewal process and how her clients should interact with law enforcement officials.
Akimoto herself came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Japan at the age of 22, after studying Spanish in Mexico. She pointed to her personal experience as an immigrant — before she obtained her residency and during a time in which she was undocumented — as a driving force that pushed her to her current line of work.
“It was a time where I struggled a lot as an immigrant because I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have family members or friends, so I really relied on people’s kindness to help me,” Akimoto said. “When I was in a place to help others, I really wanted to work with undocumented immigrants.”
DACA is now under imminent threat. The Trump administration decided to rescind the program in September 2017 — a decision that was met with numerous lawsuits and protests. Akimoto said these tumultuous times have left many of her clients “confused about many changes that have been happening” that may affect their DACA renewal eligibility, and she attempts to clear up this confusion during her weekly workshops.
Akimoto said the Trump administration’s threatening of DACA has also prompted her and her coworkers to be even more cautious when submitting documents and interviewing clients about their criminal histories. She fears that the Trump administration will deny DACA renewals on the basis of even “minor criminal history” and is also concerned about the government releasing such information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
After the attempted repeal of DACA in September, Akimoto and her coworkers were left with only one month to renew many of their clients’ DACA statuses in order to provide them with an additional two years of protection and work. Though she was exhausted throughout this period of time, Akimoto said hope for her clients’ futures gave her the energy to persevere.
“When I’m tired, I just think that two more years is so significant,” Akimoto said. “You’ve got to muscle through.”