BOCA Helps Immigrants, Others Find a Voice

By Judith Scherr
Friday June 02, 2006

“People think Berkeley is different, that we don’t have undocumented people,” says Belen Pulido-Martinez, organizer with BOCA, Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, a nonprofit dedicated to giving voice to people from communities with little power. 

“There’re here on Telegraph Avenue in every restaurant and on Fourth Street. Up in the hills—who’s doing the gardening? Who’s taking care of the babies?” she asked. 

While people in Berkeley without proper immigration papers are mostly from Mexico and Latin America, many are from Eritrea and other parts of Africa, Haiti, the Philippines and elsewhere, she said. 

As part of its effort to let the public know what immigrant communities face and to educate immigrants about their legal status, BOCA is sponsoring Immigrant Solidarity 2006 at St. Joseph the Worker Church, 1640 Addison St. at 1 p.m. on Sunday. 

At the event, older African-Americans who fought for civil rights and new immigrants will share stories. Attorneys will be on hand to consult individually with immigrants. Speakers will address legislation Congress is contemplating that could criminalize people without papers and those who help them. There will be gospel and Latin music and food from everywhere, organizers say. The event is free. 

BOCA is part of the nationwide faith-based activist movement PICO or People Improving Communities Through Organizing, headquartered in Oakland. PICO-California consists of 350 congregations and 450,000 people, working with health care, education, housing, fair wages and immigration issues. Some 1 million families in 150 cities and 17 states are involved nationwide. 

The Berkeley organization, founded in 1999, consists of 13 ethnically diverse religious congregations; one Jewish synagogue is among the Christian churches. “We're organized by congregation to make changes for the people who are the most needy,” said BOCA Executive Director Rev. Andrew McComb. 

“We develop leaders, pushing members to take leadership,” Pulido-Martinez added. Because BOCA is a nonprofit organization, the group does not support candidates for elections but works on issues.  

BOCA’s message is: “Don’t hide in the dark. There is strength in numbers; get to know each other,” McComb says. 

Among its activities, BOCA works with the Berkeley schools. The organization is part of the effort to divide Berkeley High into small schools. They also are working through the schools to bring health care to all Berkeley children. 

At the predominantly African-American McGee Avenue Baptist Church, a congregation that belongs to BOCA, issues are different. 

Elderly people are trapped at home and don’t feel safe going out, so BOCA helps them resolve issues of isolation, Pulido-Martinez said. 

Sunday at St. Joseph’s individual attorney consultations will be, in part, aimed at arming newcomers with information to help them avoid going to “Charlatans” who might get them into legal trouble with authorities, said Mark Silverman, immigration attorney with San Francisco-based nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center, who will participate at the event. 

Immigrants should bring any legal papers they have with them to share with attorneys, Silverman said.  

Michael McBride, pastor of the Way Christian Center on University Avenue is helping to organize the Sunday event. Addressing the question of competition between African-Americans and Latinos for jobs, McBride, who is African-American, said, “A host of issues overlap. The nature of the particular political climate thrives on the ability to keep one group at odds with another. Fighting each other keeps us distracted form larger concerns.”