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Unseen exploitation: More California landlords are threatening undocumented immigrants with eviction if they complain, say legal aid experts

Daniel Saver entered the state Capitol last week on a mission to speak for a woman who could not speak for herself.

An attorney from Palo Alto, Saver had been in the middle of a drama worthy of Dickens’ pen, one that involved a landlord threatening an undocumented mother with the promise of calling immigration authorities if she invoked her rights as a tenant a day before Christmas Eve. Saver intervened on behalf of Community Legal Services, which counts itself among the small number of legal-aid groups pushing back against a new trend in immigrant exploitation: property owners leveraging fear for profit.

It’s a tactic Saver and his colleagues are seeing more and more, one they think highlights an intersection between California’s skyrocketing rents and an anti-Hispanic tide from the White House.

Saver’s client couldn’t take the chance of being separated from her young children. He says she yielded to the landlord’s intimidation, forgoing legal protections that documented Californians wouldn’t feel the need to surrender.

On March 21, the Assembly Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would prohibit landlords from threatening to report their tenants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in retaliation for making complaints. The bill would also bar landlords from sharing a tenant’s immigration status with law enforcement for the purpose of harassment, eviction or coercion.

Saver was one of the first experts to testify before the committee. As for his client, she’s still living in the shadows.

Assembly Bill 291 was authored by Rep. David Chiu of San Francisco, who’s advancing the protections despite resistance from four apartment associations in the Bay Area and Southern California. Those groups were represented by Ron Kingston, who told committee members the bill’s penalties against landlords—including fines equal to one year of rent—were “excessive, based on actions.”

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who sits on the judiciary committee, agreed. “I’m passionate about immigrants’ rights, and am the daughter of an immigrant, but I also find myself on the other side, in that I am a landlord,” Garcia told Chiu. “I think the penalties are excessive.”

But without a painful price tag, landlords who engage in immigrant bullying can still make a profit. That point was driven home by Jith Meganathan of the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“In areas where rents are rapidly rising, there are financial incentives to threaten tenants and intimidate them to vacate the premises, so that you don’t have to go through the process of a statutory eviction and can rent the unit out at a high price, much faster,” Meganathan testified. “We need to make a light go on in that landlord’s head—change that financial calculation” by making it illegal and costly for landlords to report tenants.

Meganathan added that, by his count, there are fewer than 200 legal service groups in California helping low-income renters and fewer than 20 private attorneys involved in fair-housing litigation. The small group of attorneys handling those problems are reporting a large volume of incidents, especially cases of undocumented renters being harassed and wrongfully evicted.

After hearing from witnesses, Judiciary Committee Chair Mark Stone said it’s not a mystery why the problem is escalating. “I think this is a bill that levels the playing field, given the stark realities of what’s going on in the [Trump] administration and the pressure being put on these families who are even afraid enough to not leave their homes,” Stone said.

Garcia left the chambers in time to be absent for the vote. Every other committee member voted to advance AB 291, with the lone exception of Roseville Republican Kevin Kiley, who voted against it. The bill still has to pass the Assembly’s Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection before it can go to a full vote.

In his closing remarks, Chiu emphasized that he’s determined to get it passed: “We are in an era where an immigrant tenant’s life can be destroyed with a single phone call.”