San Francisco and its liberal policy toward people in the U.S. illegally were thrust into the national political debate this weekend after the fatal shooting of a woman at a popular tourist destination, allegedly by a man with a criminal record who had been deported to Mexico several times.
The Board of Supervisors adopted a law in 2013 that limited the conditions under which those arrested could be placed in federal immigration holds. Since then, dozens of cities and counties across the country have stopped complying with immigration "detainer" requests after a federal judge ruled that an Oregon county violated one woman's 4th Amendment rights by holding her for immigration authorities without probable cause.
The San Francisco law allows holds only for people with violent records. The suspect in the shooting, Francisco Sanchez, 45, had several felonies but no major violent crime conviction in recent years, according to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department.
On March 26, Sanchez was booked into the San Francisco County Jail on a 10-year-old drug-related warrant. The following day, local charges against Sanchez were dismissed in San Francisco County Superior Court. Despite his undocumented status, Sanchez was released from custody after the Sheriff's Department confirmed that he had no active warrants and had completed a federal prison sentence on separate charges, officials said.
San Francisco's ordinance made Sanchez ineligible for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold because he did not have "a violent felony conviction within the last seven years, or a probable cause for holding issued by a magistrate or judge on a current violent felony," said Freya Horne, an attorney for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. "Nothing in his background showed anything like that."
Sanchez was freed even though ICE sought to hold him for deportation, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the federal agency.
"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," Kice said. "We're not asking local cops to do our job. All we're asking is that they notify us when a serious foreign national criminal offender is being released to the street so we can arrange to take custody."
The San Francisco Sheriff's Department announced last year that it would only honor such requests if a judge had vetted them or a warrant was obtained.
San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said Kice misses the point. "ICE was informed about San Francisco's position on detainers," he said, "but did not seek a court order for Sanchez's transfer as required under the law."
"That's all they had to do," he said. "Get a court order and we'd be happy to honor it."
Sanchez was arrested Wednesday after police responded to reports of a shooting on Pier 14 near the Embarcadero and Mission Street. Police found Kathryn Steinle, 32, with a fatal gunshot wound to her upper body. After she fell to the ground, Steinle, who had recently moved to San Francisco, reportedly kept saying, "Dad, help me, help me."
She was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The motive for the shooting remains under investigation, but police believe it was a random attack.
An hour later, working on tips provided by witnesses, authorities arrested Sanchez, who has seven felony convictions and has been deported five times, most recently in 2009, authorities said. Four of his convictions involved narcotics charges.
In 1989, San Francisco passed the "city and county of refuge" ordinance that barred city money from being used to enforce immigration law and prohibited authorities from stopping people based solely on their immigration status or country of origin. The city has since expanded its sanctuary policies.
The original ordinance grew out of the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches across the country provided refuge to Central Americans fleeing civil strife in their homelands. Since then, hundreds of cities and counties across the country have adopted "sanctuary" laws or policies, most recently in response to immigration raids that have torn thousands of families apart.
Civil rights organizations argue that ICE's detention requests are unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment because they are not based on any finding of probable cause.
Angela Chan, senior staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, pointed out that many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, decided to reexamine their practices after a 2014 federal ruling determined that an Oregon county was liable for damages after holding an inmate beyond her release date so she could be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Nationally, over 320 jurisdictions do not respond to ICE holds because they violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution," Chan said. In San Francisco, "even if the sheriff had a policy of responding to ICE holds, if he'd respond he would be liable. He'd be sued."
It's not the first time San Francisco has found itself at the center of an immigration controversy.
In 2008, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was the target of criticism over the city's policy of shielding convicted juvenile offenders who were in the country illegally from federal authorities, either escorting them to their home countries at city expense or transporting them to group homes, often outside the city.
Newsom, who was positioning himself to run for governor at the time, said the city had stopped the practice.
But news reports that eight young drug dealers in the country illegally from Honduras who were convicted in San Francisco walked away from unguarded facilities in San Bernardino County created an uproar.
The case against Sanchez became a divisive political campaign topic Friday after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has come under blistering criticism for comments about Mexican immigrants, described it as "a senseless and totally preventable violent act committed by an illegal immigrant."
Immigrant rights groups say the San Francisco tragedy is being exploited politically to promote practices that have already been called into question in federal courts.
"Unfortunately, some will utilize this tragic, senseless death to try to impose immigration policies, city policies that are archaic and that are more harmful to the community than they are good," said Jorge-Maria Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Activists pushing for stricter enforcement of immigration laws disagree. "If you can't deport an illegal immigrant who has been deported five times and is guilty of seven felonies, then who exactly is deportable?" asked Joe Guzzardi, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization.