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San Francisco D.A.'s program trained illegal immigrants for jobs they couldn’t legally hold

The assault on Amanda Kiefer at dusk in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights was extraordinary enough for its cruelty.

A stranger, later identified as Alexander Izaguirre, snatched her purse and hopped into an SUV, police say. The driver sped forward to run Kiefer down. Terrified, she leaped onto the hood and saw Izaguirre and the driver laughing. The driver slammed on the brakes, propelling Kiefer to the pavement. Her skull fractured. Blood oozed from her ear.

Only after the July 2008 attack did Kiefer learn of the crime’s political ramifications. Izaguirre, police told her, was an illegal immigrant who had pleaded guilty four months earlier to a drug felony for selling cocaine in the seedy Tenderloin area.

He had avoided prison when he was picked for a jobs program run by San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, now a candidate for California’s top law enforcement post. In effect, Harris’ office had been allowing Izaguirre and other illegal immigrants to stay out of prison by training them for jobs they cannot legally hold.

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The program, Back on Track, is a centerpiece of Harris’ campaign for state attorney general. Until questioned by The Times about the Izaguirre case, Harris, a Democrat, had never publicly acknowledged that the program included illegal immigrants. In interviews last week, she and her office offered inconsistent explanations.

Izaguirre’s trial this fall for the Kiefer attack -- his arrest forced him out of the program and into jail -- will put Harris in the middle of the controversy over San Francisco’s lax policies toward illegal immigrants.

The city has a history of shielding some illegal immigrant criminals from deportation. The assault on Kiefer occurred just a month after a triple homicide in San Francisco that put Mayor Gavin Newsom on the spot over the city’s repeated release of Edwin Ramos, the illegal immigrant accused of the slayings.

Izaguirre’s assault arrest, by contrast, drew almost no public attention.

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Kiefer, then 29, was walking with a friend to a restaurant when the attack occurred. To her, it makes no sense that the D.A.'s office would set Izaguirre free after his earlier drug arrest -- or enroll him and other illegal immigrant felons in Back on Track.

“If they’ve committed crimes and they’re not citizens, then why are they here?” Kiefer asked. “Why haven’t they been deported?”

Harris said she first learned that illegal immigrants were training for jobs in Back on Track when Izaguirre, then 20, was arrested for the Kiefer assault and other crimes on a purse-snatching spree.

Izaguirre had been selected for the program after two arrests within eight months; an alleged purse-snatching preceded his arrest for selling cocaine. Because completion leads to the expunging of a felony conviction, the program has a waiting list of potential entrants. Selections are made solely by the district attorney’s office.

It was a mistake, Harris said, to let illegal immigrants into the program, a “flaw in the design.”

“I believe we fixed it,” Harris said in an interview at her office in San Francisco. “So moving forward, it is about making sure that no one enters Back on Track if they cannot hold legal employment.”

Exactly how many illegal immigrants have been included since the program began four years ago is not publicly known.

Harris said that after Izaguirre’s arrest she never asked -- and has never learned -- how many illegal immigrants were in the program. Sharon Woo and Sharon Owsley, the prosecutors who oversee the program, said they too never asked and have never learned the number.

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But after the interviews, Harris spokeswoman Erica Derryck said the D.A.'s office had in fact “assessed who would not have been able to meet” the new requirement for legal papers to obtain a job.

“We deliberated on how best to handle this group, given that they entered the program under different criteria,” Derryck said -- in other words, as illegal immigrants.

The San Francisco chapter of Goodwill Industries International handles day-to-day oversight of Back on Track participants for the D.A.'s office. Carlos Serrano-Quan, a Goodwill supervisor, said it appeared that fewer than a dozen illegal immigrants had been in the program.

Whatever the number, Harris said that once she realized that illegal immigrants were enrolled, she allowed those who were following the rules to finish the program and have their criminal records cleared. It is not the duty of local law enforcement, she said, to enforce federal immigration laws.

“My issue was more, what are we going to do to prevent this from happening in the future?” she said.

Some of the illegal immigrants were allowed to graduate before finishing an entire 12 months of the program, as normally required, according to the D.A.'s spokeswoman.

“The whole point of the program,” Harris said, “is that these people would be able to obtain and hold down lawful employment, and if they’re undocumented, they probably would not be able to do that, so it would go against the very spirit of the program” to continue admitting them.

Harris, 44, was elected district attorney in 2003 and reelected in 2007. She designed Back on Track to help young adults who are arrested once for selling drugs; the goal is to help them avoid falling into a life of crime. Like cities and counties across the nation, San Francisco was already running several programs with that goal.

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Back on Track participants agree to plead guilty to a drug felony and spend a year in the program, a mix of community service, employment and life-skills training, family counseling and English lessons for those who need them. While in the program, they are free to live where they wish.

Even natural adversaries of the district attorney have applauded Back on Track.

“It’s very innovative for the district attorney to have a program like this,” said Simin Shamji, a deputy public defender in San Francisco. It might work better, she said, if the D.A.'s office ceded some control and collaborated more with social service agencies.

Over the last four years, 113 admitted drug dealers have graduated from the program, while 99 were yanked for failing to meet the requirements and sentenced under their guilty plea, according to the D.A.'s office.

Harris said graduates of the program are far less likely than other offenders to commit crimes again, but her spokeswoman declined to provide detailed statistics.

In her campaign for attorney general, Harris calls Back on Track a model for a statewide approach to preventing crime and easing prison overcrowding.

The campaign has consumed much of Harris’ time in recent months. Last week, she was raising money at homes in Calabasas, Studio City, Pacific Palisades and Hollywood.

Harris’ liberal San Francisco pedigree will pose challenges in a statewide race, particularly her 2004 vow to “never charge the death penalty.” That pledge will be put to the test in the upcoming murder trial of Ramos, the illegal immigrant accused in the shooting deaths of a man and his two sons. Harris has not announced whether she will seek the death penalty.

Now, the Izaguirre case adds a new complication to her campaign.

“The immigration issue, as it relates to the Izaguirre case, obviously is a huge kind of pimple on the face of this program,” Harris acknowledged. An instant later, she regretted the metaphor, saying, “I don’t mean to trivialize it, nor do I mean to cover it up.”

Handcuffed and wearing an orange jail uniform, Izaguirre appeared Wednesday in a San Francisco courtroom. He told a judge he would plead guilty to robbery for the July 2008 purse-snatchings. But for reasons that were left unclear, he then abruptly withdrew the plea and backed out of a deal with prosecutors that would have put him in prison for three years and four months. His trial is set to begin Sept. 4 and he could be deported afterward.

“He is being prosecuted, and he will be deported with my full encouragement and support,” Harris said.

Kiefer, who packages medical devices for a living, said she has left California for good, in part because of the trauma of nearly having been killed on her way to dinner last summer in Pacific Heights. Nearly a year later, she remains baffled that San Francisco authorities ever let Izaguirre and other illegal immigrant felons back onto the streets.

“If they’re committing crimes,” she said, “I think there’s something wrong that they’re not being deported.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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