Gay SF immigrant affairs director Rivas reflects on his tenure

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 5, 2024
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Jorge Rivas is the executive director of the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Jorge Rivas is the executive director of the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Since taking over in early 2023 as executive director of San Francisco's Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, Jorge Rivas has marked a number of milestones for the city department. It is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year of being a standalone entity that staffs the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission oversight body.

Two of its programs, one helping people become U.S. citizens and the other a paid leadership fellowship for immigrant youth, both are now a decade old. And late last month Rivas and his staff moved into 1145 Market Street, a short walk through several public plazas from City Hall.

"It's been an exciting year and a half," Rivas, 43, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview inside his new office, of which he had yet to adorn the windowless walls with any personal effects.

The gay son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in the agricultural town of Los Banos in the San Joaquin Valley, roughly two hours southeast of San Francisco, Rivas is fluent in Spanish and can often be seen being interviewed on local Spanish-speaking news channels. He was a few minutes late for his interview with the B.A.R. due to being asked to address reports of federal immigration officer impersonators in the North Bay approaching random people on the street and asking them for their documentation in order to steal their wallets.

"My first advice is to stay calm," Rivas said he had told the reporter, adding people should remember California is a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants.

While he had not heard reports as of that afternoon about the scam occurring in San Francisco, Rivas suggested anyone approached in such a manner should call one of the rapid response hotlines staffed by community organizations that work with the immigrant community.


One of his office's main purviews is providing grants to community-based organizations to offer free immigration services, such as assistance with citizenship applications, connections to legal services, and financial support to pay for immigration application fees. It also works to ensure fair access for residents with limited English skills, as nearly 34% of San Franciscans were born outside of the U.S.

"We are tasked with ensuring the right level of resources are provided to those who need it most," explained Rivas.

With city leaders confronted with addressing a budget deficit of $789 million over the next two fiscal years, department heads were ordered by Mayor London Breed to make cuts of 10% in their budgets. Rivas' office had been budgeted $10.5 million in the current fiscal year.

He told the B.A.R. he targeted capacity building and training programs in the cuts he suggested to the mayor. He did so with an eye toward preserving funds for direct services and now awaits what the mayor and supervisors decide to do with the budget they need to balance and finalize by August 1.

"I think we are all waiting to see how that proposal plays out," said Rivas. "It is a tough year with tough decisions to be made around what we reduce. We are trying to preserve direct services to our local immigrant population."

Due to the political fighting in Congress over the country's immigration policies, funding at the federal level isn't available for certain services that the city allocates resources toward, noted Rivas, such as legal support for immigrants and asylum seekers that local organizations offer.

"If we don't fund it or provide support for it locally, it is really difficult for them to do it," he noted.

Also under the prerogative of the immigrant affairs office is providing resources and technical assistance to other city departments and agencies that need interpretation services for meetings or events they are hosting. Rivas and his staff also enforce the city's Language Access Ordinance, which ensures that information provided in English by city departments and agencies is translated into Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino.

Vietnamese could be added to the list, as the city's supervisors have been advancing a policy proposal that could make it the city's fifth official language. If instructed to do so by the board this month, Rivas said he and his team will have until early 2026 to bring a formal proposal for Vietnamese language services back to the supervisors to adopt.

Based on 2021 census data, there were 11,285 speakers of the Southeast Asian language in the city. Rivas said his office would likely also evaluate if there is a need for Russian language services, as there were 11,026 speakers of that language in the city three years ago.

Sanctuary city

Because San Francisco is a sanctuary city, it does not ask people about their immigration status, making it "complicated," said Rivas, for his office to track exactly where the people accessing its services are coming from.

The city has seen more immigrants, particularly families, coming from Central and South America over the last two years, he said, and also has seen more Chinese immigrants making their way to San Francisco via the country's southern border.

In a given year the waitlist for immigrant services in the city ranges from 200 to 900 people, said Rivas, with the majority being asylum seekers. While his office worked with their city counterparts on a plan should busloads of immigrants arrive in San Francisco sent from other states by Republican governors, such a situation never occurred.

"We had a plan in place," said Rivas.

With census forms not currently asking about people's sexual orientation or gender identity, it is not known how many of the city's immigrants are LGBTQ. While the city is known worldwide as a safe haven for LGBTQ people, those who are immigrants or asylum seekers often find it too expensive to live in San Francisco and will end up moving to nearby cities with cheaper rents or end up in other states entirely where housing costs less.

"We don't know any trendlines," said Rivas, when asked about the city's LGBTQ immigrant population.

LGBTQ immigrants

The Immigrant Rights Commission did hold a special hearing last year to examine what the needs of such individuals are who do call San Francisco home. As it detailed in its annual report released earlier this year, it found that LGBTQ immigrants need expanded access to health care and mental health services. It also noted that safe housing and shelter is especially needed for transgender immigrants.

Like any immigrants to the city, the report noted LGBTQ individuals would also benefit from more legal support and pathways to employment, among other assistance programs to help them build new lives in San Francisco.

"We know immigrants have very particular needs for services, like access to quality jobs and workforce training programs," noted Rivas, adding that he has been sharing the findings of the commission and his office with his counterparts at other city departments focused on employment, health care, and housing.

Rivas, who is single and lives in the South of Market neighborhood, previously worked for the city in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development as the director of Invest in Neighborhoods, an interagency partnership aimed at strengthening and revitalizing neighborhood commercial districts. In response to the economic fallout from the COVID pandemic, he worked to assist impacted businesses and oversaw the deployment of more than $24 million in financial support for local small business owners and their employees.

He previously had stints as an associate transportation planner at Caltrans, the state transportation department; the Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Housing and Economic Development; and an inaugural member of the San Francisco Soda Tax Implementation Committee. He worked for an Oakland nonprofit where he assisted immigrant non-English-speaking business owners and had served as deputy director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Bay Area, which works to preserve and produce affordable housing and economic opportunities for people of color and immigrants.

"My entire professional career has been in public service," Rivas noted, "so when I was given the opportunity to come to this office, I couldn't say no. I have a passion for public service."

Well-versed in issues

He also is well versed in the concerns of immigrants to the country. His parents came to California in the 1970s and worked as migrant farmers, with his mom taking seasonal work in a tomato cannery.

His father saved up enough money to start a small dairy with his two brothers, with Rivas getting up at 3 a.m. to help milk their 120 cows.

At age 15, Rivas went to work in the fields, picking cotton, melon, and watermelon until age 18 when he left to attend UC Berkeley.

"It was very difficult work. It taught me a lot about discipline. My dad would tell me, 'Don't be afraid of work. Just go for it,'" recalled Rivas, whose father now grows alfalfa on his farm.

The oldest of four sons, with an older half-sister, Rivas was the first in his family to receive a college degree, he earned a B.A. in urban studies, then went on to earn a Master's of Planning from the University of Southern California. While at Cal at age 20, Rivas had a "clarifying conversation," he said, with his Catholic family about being gay. "It was a tough time but now a whole different story."

He is now a godfather to a nephew and two nieces and will attend church with his family around the holidays. His mom will talk about having a gay son at church retreats, allowing other parents to feel comfortable talking to her about having their own LGBTQ children.

"I remember one time I found PFLAG brochures in Spanish in a drawer at my parents' house. It brought tears to my eyes," recalled Rivas, who this year joined the board of LGBTQ youth service provider LYRIC. "They were trying to find that info and support."

June is not only Pride Month but also Immigrant Heritage Month. As such Rivas' office and the Immigrant Rights Commission host a leadership awards ceremony each year to honor those working in the city's immigrant community.

Free and open to the public to attend, it will take place at 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 10, in City Hall's North Light Court. Among this year's honorees is ABADÁ-Capoeira San Francisco founder and artistic director Márcia Treidler, the first woman to hold the title of "Mestra Cigarra" in the art form of Capoeira. She is receiving the Entrepreneur Leader Award.

Profiled by the B.A.R. in 2022, Treidler arrived in San Francisco as a lesbian undocumented immigrant from her native Brazil. Among last year's honorees was the LGBTQ Asylum Project founder Okan Sengun.

"I want to be intentional in uplifting LGBTQ immigrant voices," Rivas told the B.A.R.

It is another way the city commission and his office aim to change the narrative and conversation around immigration and immigrants. Too often the discussion comes off as "divisive," noted Rivas, and can be detrimental to the city's immigrant communities.

"We have to play a role locally to uplift those voices who contribute positively to our immigrant population," said Rivas.

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