SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Officials in famously progressive San Francisco have long sanctioned protections for people in the country illegally, going so far as to prohibit city workers from asking about a person’s immigration status.
But the deadly shooting of a 32-year-old woman along a popular pier last year and the arrest of a Mexican national sparked a national debate over how the city handles such criminal suspects, putting San Francisco’s leaders on the defensive as critics and outside politicians called for a change in the so-called sanctuary law.
The backlash helped sweep out of office the unpopular sheriff at the time, who cited the law in defending the suspect’s release several months before the shooting, despite a federal order to keep him in jail pending deportation.
A year later, San Francisco has split among the old guard looking to bolster the city’s history of safeguarding immigrants so they will report crimes and a new sheriff who wants greater discretion to cooperate with federal immigration authorities after winning office by promising a change from her predecessor.
The Board of Supervisors is taking a vote Tuesday on whether to reaffirm its strict protections and spell out when immigrants can be turned over to the U.S. government.
The proposed ordinance directs law officers to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement only if a defendant is charged with a violent crime and has been convicted of a violent crime within the last seven years. That would be the only time city workers, including police officers, could disclose immigration status.
But new Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, as a constitutionally elected official, does not have to follow board orders. Her stance is unique in putting her at odds with the supervisors and other officials who have largely supported the sanctuary law for decades. It’s unclear what she will do if the board approves the proposal.
Under the stricter ordinance, the suspect accused of shooting Kate Steinle as she walked with her father along the San Francisco waterfront July 1 would still have been released from jail because his convictions were related to drugs and immigration.
It’s not clear, however, whether he would have been held for federal pickup under the criteria of Hennessy, who beat her embattled predecessor, Ross Mirkarimi, in the November election.
“I’m not going to say with certainty, but what I can say with certainty is that he would have been looked at,” Hennessy said before the vote Tuesday.
After the shooting, Republicans in Congress sought to punish cities like San Francisco, which is among hundreds of jurisdictions that decline to honor federal immigration requests to detain certain suspects.
Even prominent Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, criticized Mirkarimi, saying ICE should have been notified.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Steinle’s mother, Liz Sullivan, declined to comment on the board’s proposal, although the family has pushed for legislation to jail or deport dangerous criminals in the country illegally.
“It’s disappointing that San Francisco is standing tough despite evidence that it’s not what people want,” said Joe Guzzardi, national media director for Californians for Population Stabilization, a Santa Barbara-based organization that opposes sanctuary protections.
Sanctuary advocates protest the possibility of communications with ICE, saying that people in the country illegally need to feel secure talking to local police without fear of deportation.
“We want to keep that clear separation,” said Supervisor John Avalos, the legislation’s chief sponsor.
Advocates cite Pedro Figueroa-Zarceno, an El Salvador native detained for two months by ICE after reporting his car stolen to San Francisco police. He was picked up by federal authorities after local officers apparently disclosed his legal status.
Police are looking into possible discipline for the officers involved.
“What happened to me was an injustice,” Figueroa-Zarceno said through an interpreter Monday. “They unjustly deprived me of my liberties for two months.”
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