From City Hall to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, lawmakers are responding to public dismay over the apparently random killing of a woman in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant. The death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle at the hands of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez angered many, because Lopez-Sanchez has been deported five times before and has been convicted of seven felonies, yet before the killing he had been released by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department under the sanctuary city policy that deters cooperation with federal immigration officials (via Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE). Critics say if ICE had been notified as they had requested about Lopez-Sanchez’s release, Lopez-Sanchez would have been on his way back to Mexico and Steinle would be at home with her family.
In 1989, San Francisco approved a sanctuary policy that keeps city employees from cooperating with federal immigration authorities regarding investigations and arrests unless required by law or a warrant. There are many so-called “sanctuary cities” across the country, and the roots of the movement go back to the refuge from deportation provided by some churches in the 1980s to people fleeing the brutal civil wars raging in Central American countries.
Justification for the sanctuary policies has evolved in more recent years to focus on protecting undocumented immigrants from being deported and thereby separated from their families, as well as concern that immigrant communities will be reluctant to cooperate with police on criminal investigations if they are fearful of having to reveal their immigration status.
Critics of the policies argue that they are politically motivated efforts by Democrats to court Hispanic voters, and that they protect potentially violent criminals — and they see the Steinle murder as an all-too-obvious confirmation of their fears.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, defended sanctuary city policies that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation when they are involved in minor infractions, such as traffic violations. But she strongly distanced herself from the more expansive policies followed by San Francisco. “The city made a mistake not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported,” she told CNN. “I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on.”
Local politicians have largely continued to defend the sanctuary city policy, even as they direct the focus toward Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who has been unpopular with many politicians and even his own staff of deputies throughout his time in office.
“The public safety of San Francisco residents unequivocally comes first,” said District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. “Our sanctuary city law has been a pillar of public safety policy for decades in San Francisco, but unfortunately this sheriff has implemented additional ideological policies that fly in the face of not only our local laws but federal law as well, and it must come to an end.”
In late July, Farrell put forward a package of proposed reforms, including legislation confirming the Board of Supervisors’ support for the city’s sanctuary city policy while calling for Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to “immediately rescind his department-wide gag order banning any communication with federal immigration authorities”; a request for the city attorney to require the sheriff to get confirmation from the district attorney that the office will prosecute any outstanding warrant before it transports prisoners to San Francisco from other jurisdictions; and a letter of inquiry to the sheriff asking why the sheriff held Lopez-Sanchez in jail after he should have been released. (For more on Farrell’s response, see page 5.)
Mayor Ed Lee also reiterated his support for the policy and said it was necessary for good policing. He added that the city needs to balance its responsibilities to civil liberties and public safety, “which is why … I promised to veto any legislation that completely eliminated the sheriff’s ability to make a case-by-case determination about honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers. Our sanctuary policies should not create a safe harbor for convicted, violent felons,” Lee said in a statement issued by his office. “I am concerned about the circumstances that led to the release of Mr. Sanchez. All agencies involved, federal and local, need to conduct quick, thorough, and objective reviews of their own departmental policies and the decisions they made in this case.”
Those reviews might take place at all levels, but the one that will be most watched across the country will be the one done in San Francisco, where Sheriff Mirkarimi is facing intense scrutiny about whether he and his office followed proper procedures. On the federal level, critics in Congress are pushing to deny funding for sanctuary cities, and the issue has become a political punching bag for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has made opposition to immigration policies a centerpiece of his campaign.
That this all happened in San Francisco, long a target of the conservative movement, only fueled the temptation by some to use it as an opportunity to talk about how left-wing and out of touch the city is.
Conservative Fox news personality Bill O’Reilly sent a camera crew to San Francisco City Hall to catch on-the-run city officials with questions about the Steinle killing and the sanctuary city policy. They managed to make some folks look silly, but it sprang back in their face when District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener told the film crew “Fox News isn’t real news,” and the phrase became a rallying cry for defenders of the city and its sanctuary policy. Wiener later quipped in an online comment, “They didn’t like that much.”
Despite the rallying around the policy, it is likely to be reigned in in the future.
“Donald Trump, Fox News, and everyone else who sought to take political advantage of the recent tragedy should be ashamed of their behavior,” said Supervisor Farrell. “Nevertheless, we cannot be afraid to examine our existing laws and policies and look at common-sense reforms.
“I believe this is a public safety question, not an immigration issue, and it is time we re-framed the discussion,” stated Farrell. “Regardless of the specific charges, it makes zero sense to transport an individual in custody outside of our jurisdiction back to San Francisco, only to have the district attorney immediately dismiss the charges, and the sheriff release the individual onto our city streets.”