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Is there Middle-Ground in the Sanctuary City Debate?

— July 8, 2015


32 year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed on a San Francisco pier by undocumented immigrant, Francisco Sanchez. Sanchez was apprehended shortly afterward and has confessed to the killing. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News
32 year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed on a San Francisco pier by undocumented immigrant, Francisco Sanchez. Sanchez was apprehended shortly afterward and has confessed to the killing.
Photo courtesy of New York Daily News

The senseless killing of 32 year-old Kathryn Steinle, who was shot in the upper torso by a complete stranger, 45 year old undocumented immigrant Francisco Sanchez on July 1st on San-Francisco’s popular Pier 14, has re-inflamed the immigration debate. Sanchez, a seven-time felon, had been deported back to Mexico on five separate occasions, yet nearly universal blame is being put on San Francisco’s “Sanctuary City” policy, which restricts federal immigration authorities’ ability to apprehend undocumented individuals within the city’s jurisdiction. The immigration debate had already been a hot issue in the infancy of the 2016 presidential race, as President Obama’s November, 2014 executive order easing deportation measures has been tied up in the federal court system, with its constitutionality in question. While some, like Republican presidential candidate and known bigot, Donald Trump, have used the killing to incite outrage towards all Mexicans and undocumented migrants, the incident has also spurned a more level-headed debate regarding Sanctuary Cities, and the level of communication needed between federal and local authorities. San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, called the killing “tragic and senseless,” however he defended the city’s policies towards undocumented immigrants. Lee said, “Let me be clear: San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy protects residents regardless of immigration status and is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons.”

The question is whether or not the sanctuary policies can prevent the latter while enabling the former. The crux of the debate is what level of compliance should cities with sanctuary policies be required to follow with federal immigration officials. Although there is no technical definition for “Sanctuary City,” the concept began in the 1980’s by churches looking to help Central American refugees fleeing war-torn regions, who were met with federal-level reluctance to allow them to remain. Cities like San Francisco have created resolutions, ordinances, and other measures to limit the cooperation between their locality and the U.S. Department of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In 1989, the city of San Francisco passed the City and County of Refuge ordinance, which prohibits city employees from assisting ICE unless they are compelled to by state law or a court order. In the Sanchez case, ICE sent a detainer, which is a non-legally binding request for detention, when Sanchez completed a federal sentence for illegally entering the country in March. The city detained him for a month afterward while he faced another warrant for a 20 year-old marijuana charge; however the judge dismissed that charge due to antiquity, as well as citing that a 2013 ordinance “deemed him ineligible for extended detention.” Over 300 localities nationwide have some kind of policy limiting cooperation between local authorities and federal immigration enforcement. The state of California has declined the vast majority, 10,516 of 17,193 total declined detainer requests nationwide between January 1st 2015 and June 15th 2015.

This is where many believe that the locus of the sanctuary debate should begin. Sanchez was ultimately released back on the street in April despite the federal detainer request. Many civil rights attorneys and advocates contend that ICE often issues erroneous requests, including those involving the detention of U.S. citizens for months and diverse and liberal-leaning cities have cited overzealous enforcement as a detriment to the morale of the population. The states of Colorado, Washington, and New York have all been sued or incurred financial liability from wrongful detention and a landmark 2014 ruling in federal court declared that an Oregon county violated an immigrant’s fourth-amendment rights while being illegally detained. San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I firmly believe it makes us safer. We’re a world-renowned city with a large immigrant population. From a law enforcement perspective, we want to build trust with that population.” However, in a terse statement, ICE spokesperson, Gillian Christensen said, “As a result, an individual with a lengthy criminal history, who is now the suspect in a tragic murder case, was released onto the street rather than being turned over to ICE for deportation.’’

Currently facing murder charges for the shooting, the Sanchez case may be an extreme example of the disconnect between federal and local officials in some locations, however it may be enough to tip the scales somewhat against sanctuary policies. Last month, ICE announced that it would use detainers only in “special circumstances,” in an effort to foster more cooperation with these municipalities. It may serve San Francisco well to revisit the zero-cooperation mandate stemming from the 1989 and 2013 legislation regarding non-binding detainers. Another ICE spokesperson, Virginia Kice, believes that the detainers are “an approach that is balanced and represents a common-sense strategy to put focus on criminals and individuals who threaten public safety,” adding that, “Obtaining judicial warrants is not only unnecessary, it would place an immense burden on both ICE and the federal courts.” California ACLU attorney Jennie Pasquarella acknowledged that, “What happened in San Francisco is tragic,” although clarifying that the detainer request was not legally binding. It would be hard to find many people from any walks of life who believe that Sanchez should have been released given his history. Even Trump may have a point despite the hateful rhetoric when he called the killing “a senseless and totally preventable violent act committed by an illegal immigrant.” Civil rights advocates caution, however, not to use this one incident in broad terms, noting recent tragedies in Charleston, Sandy Hook elementary school, and a theatre in Aurora, Colorado as examples of random killings conducted by U.S. citizens. A recent tweet by the Nashvillian might have the answer, suggesting that the solution “lies somewhere between Donald Trump’s hate speech and San Francisco’s sanctuary law.”



CNN – Michael Pearson

Las Vegas Review Journal – Reuters/CNN

Wall Street Journal – Miriam Jordan and Zusha Elinsone

Washington Post – Jerry Markon




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