San Francisco’s sanctuary policy has recently come under scrutiny in light of the recent shooting of a woman named Kathryn Steinle. The 31-year-old woman was walking with her father on Pier 14 along the Embarcadero near the San Francisco waterfront when she was fatally shot by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.
The suspect had been deported five times, and had seven felony convictions. After having served 46 months for the felony of re-entering the U.S., he was sent from a prison in Victorville in San Bernardino County to San Francisco by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When he returned to San Francisco, federal immigration officials requested that he be held so that he could be deported to his native Mexico. But the sheriff’s department did not honor that request. He was released on April 15th after drug charges against him were dropped.
While many have criticized the sheriff’s department for releasing Mr. Sanchez, the department was merely following San Francisco’s 26-year-old sanctuary law, under which the city does not honor requests for immigration detention. Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi stated that his agency released Mr. Sanchez in accordance with an October 2013 city ordinance that was signed by the mayor.
Under that ordinance, law enforcement officials “shall not detain an individual on the basis of a civil immigration detainer after that individual becomes eligible for release” unless there is a very strict exception. According to the exception, the city is allowed to hold an inmate for immigration officials if he or she was convicted of a violent felony within the previous seven years, and is being held on a pending violent felony. There is nothing to suggest that Mr. Sanchez met either provision.
However, the San Francisco Chronicle gained access to city records that indicate Mr. Mirkarimi acted beyond the directions stated in the ordinance. Just two weeks prior to the transfer of Mr. Sanchez to San Francisco, on March 9th, Mr. Mirkarimi issued an order to the members of his staff forbidding all holds of inmates requested by federal immigration officials. His memo stated that the detainer policy of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is that Immigration Detainers from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not to be honored or booked. This represented a change from his previous policy, which permitted detainers in specific critical cases.
According to SFGate, an attorney named Freya Horne, who works with the Sheriff’s Department, stated that federal authorities should have acquired a court order if they wished Mr. Sanchez to be detained. Without a court order, he was to be released based on the city’s ordinance. Immigration holds are not perceived as orders that are legally binding; they are considered to be requests. In response to Ms. Horne’s statement, Virginia Kice, a representative from ICE, said that acquiring such orders would not be feasible.
Nevertheless, there must have been something that the authorities could have done to prevent this tragedy from occurring. While neither the sheriff’s department nor ICE seems willing to accept responsibility for the release of Mr. Sanchez, both must take steps to ensure that tougher measures are in place. Perhaps San Francisco’s sanctuary policy needs to be revised so that it does not protect individuals who repeatedly commit crimes, even if they are not violent crimes. Mr. Sanchez was first arrested in Arizona, where he was charged with “inhaling toxic vapors.” He was later arrested because of drug charges in Arizona, California, Washington, and Oregon.
Mr. Sanchez claims that the shooting was an accident because the gun, which he alleges he discovered wrapped in a shirt, fired, and he did not intend to shoot Ms. Steinle. Some have described what happened as an isolated incident, and that any change to San Francisco’s sanctuary policy will only serve to foster distrust on the part of undocumented immigrants toward authorities. And as a result, undocumented immigrants will be less likely to come forward in the event that they are victims of, or witness, a crime.
However, according to Jeff Stone, a Republican state senator who represents Riverside, there have been many other cases in California, Texas, and other states in which undocumented felons were not deported, and went on to commit egregious crimes. Mr. Stone has submitted a proposal for a bill to amend the 2013 California Trust Act, which currently restricts cooperation between local authorities and federal officials. If the proposed bill were to become law, such cooperation would be required in cases where undocumented immigrants who are being held are felons, particularly if they have been arrested on drug charges.