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Don't blame San Francisco for refusing to do ICE's job in the Steinle case

Don't blame San Francisco for refusing to do ICE's job in the Steinle case
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is led into a courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi on July 7. (Michael Macor / Associated Press)

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has exaggerated, distorted, mischaracterized and blundered so often in service of her truth-defying boss, it’s hard to keep working up the energy to roll your eyes.

And then she puts out a statement like the one she issued Friday morning, and the forehead-slapping begins anew.

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At issue was a San Francisco jury's verdict in the case of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen, seven-time (nonviolent) felon and five-time deportee. In July 2015, Zarate fired a single shot near the San Francisco waterfront that ricocheted off the pavement and struck Kathryn Steinle in the back, killing her.

That incident made Garcia Zarate one of the central figures in presidential candidate Donald Trump’s promise to build an insurmountable, unbroken border wall between the United States and Mexico, as well as to ramp up deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. Four months before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had been released from federal prison — he’d been convicted of illegally reentering the country — and sent to San Francisco authorities on an old drug charge, with the understanding that federal officials wanted to deport him. But local officials released him without notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement, enabling him to stay in the country illegally.

Inconveniently for Trump, who'd called the defendant an "animal," the jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of murder and manslaughter charges, finding him guilty only of unlawful gun possession — a blow to Steinle's family and to Trump's narrative about the case. Defense lawyers had argued that Garcia Zarate had found the gun and discharged it accidentally, not intending to use it.

The president responded on Twitter that the "disgraceful" verdict was a "travesty" because the jury had not been told of Garcia Zarate's criminal record — the sort of information that's routinely excluded in criminal trials.

Garcia Zarate wasn't being tried for entering the country illegally; he was being tried for murder. His immigration status had zero relevance to whether he intended to kill Steinle, or whether he fired the gun with reckless indifference to human life.

Sanders followed up a few hours later with her own gloss on the verdict. The opening paragraph sticks both to the Trump script and to the facts:

"Yesterday's verdict in San Francisco underscores the danger to public safety when our nation fails to enforce its laws," Sanders wrote. "Kate Steinle was killed by an illegal immigrant and convicted felon who had been deported from the United States five times. He, and countless other criminal illegal immigrants like him, should never be allowed to threaten our citizens."

That's pretty much the position taken by the Obama administration, which removed far more people who were in the U.S. illegally than its predecessors did (even as the number of people trying to enter the U.S. illegally declined dramatically, thanks in large measure to the recession). Sanders then reiterated the usual Trump administration list of demands: more money for border security and deportations, and more pressure on sanctuary cities to change their policies.

Her conclusion, though, veered sharply into fantasyland. "Had San Francisco enforced our nation's immigration laws," Sanders intoned, "the Steinle family would be celebrating this holiday with all of their loved ones."

First, the Steinle family deserves privacy and respect as well sympathy. Their misery has been amplified by the politicization of Kate's killing.

Second, no city enforces immigration law. That's entirely the federal government's job. San Francisco makes it harder for ICE to deport the people the agency has targeted, but that's hardly a new development — it declared itself a sanctuary city in 1989, making clear that its employees would not help enforce federal immigration law. Among other things, that means it won't detain people for ICE without a court order.

If the feds know a city isn't going to hold deportable inmates for them, shouldn't they come up with a workaround, rather than just blaming these cities time and again when something goes wrong? In this case, ICE could have put Garcia Zarate into deportation proceedings in early 2015. Instead, the agency handed him over to San Francisco to be prosecuted on an old marijuana bust, even though it knew (or should have known) that the city wouldn't hold a suspect accused of a nonviolent offense.

Steinle's death was, in the eyes of a jury, a tragic accident in which someone who wasn't supposed to be in the country discharged a firearm he wasn't supposed to have. Trump and Sanders could easily have reacted to the verdict by blaming Obama administration bungling — that one never seems to get old for them. But trapped in their past vitriol about the case, they blamed San Francisco for not doing ICE's job.

Twitter: @jcahealey

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