It’s the issue that just won’t go away, as much as Mayor of San Francisco and Candidate for Governor Gavin Newsom might wish it would.

And there may be no way of triangulating his way out of it by staking out a politically expeditious and comfortable compromise position.

Starting in July 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jaxon Van Derbeken started to draw back the curtain on the city’s practice of shielding from federal immigration officials juvenile offenders who had been arrested on drug charges and other felony offenses.

It seemed to some a case of San Francisco’s sanctuary law–designed to encourage cooperation between immigrant communities and government officials–being taken to an extreme.

Juveniles in the country illegally who had been arrested were being ferried across the border or stowed away in group homes, allowing them to avoid deportation hearings and orders barring them from returning to the United States. Some youths who had benefitted had prior convictions. Some had returned to San Francisco to commit new offenses, including homicide. Some weren’t even juveniles but had lied about their age, knowing the benefits.

Mayor Newsom’s intitial stance was to state that the shielding was a practice begun under prior administrations and was one that he was powerless to do anything about since jurisdiction lay with the Superior Court.

“I don’t have authority here,” Newsom was quoted as saying. “I have a bully pulpit. The courts have authority here.”

It wasn’t a tenable posture for the mayor and candidate for governor–particularly as we heard from judges saying they had been following the recommendation of the city’s Juvenile Probation Department, which is run by someone Newsom hired and is overseen by a commission of mayoral appointees.

He could probably see the closing of his path to Sacramento, which for a Democrat requires being able to appeal to voters outside of San Francisco, Alameda and Los Angeles.

A day later, he tried to do something about it.

“All I can say is, I can’t explain away the past,” Newsom said at the time, announcing a new policy course correction for juvenile justice authorities. “I take responsibility. I take it. We are moving in a different direction.”

The new protocols, still in place, require juvenile probation officers to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials when anyone suspected of being in the country illegally is taken into custody on a felony charge.

Damage contained? Maybe not.

Today, the Board of Supervisors took up and passed a resolution adopting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on governments to protect youths against violence, abuse and economic exploitation as well as to reunite families separated by deportation, where it is in the interest of children.

Citing the U.N. Convention, the resolution also declares it city policy “to provide every youth who has contact with the juvenile system his or her right to full due process under the law before any City employee initiates communication with federal immigration officials regarding said youth’s disposition.”

Put more simply, no more calls to the feds until after a juvenile is actually convicted of a felony, rather than just arrested.

“I think most San Franciscans would be surprised that we are not giving people the benefit of the doubt,” Supervisor David Campos said.

Passage puts the Board of Supervisors squarely at odds with new Newsom administration protocols for dealing with undocumented juveniles booked on felony charges.

It also would result in the mayor being recast, in San Francisco terms, as the relative moderate or conservative in this policy debate.

That might be all well and good if Newsom didn’t have to win a Democratic primary before he can be elected Governor.

One of Newsom’s chief opponents in the gubenatorial primary election is expected to be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose appeal to immigrant Latino voters could prove the biggest card in the deck next year.

For now, the Newsom team seems satisfied with where the story stands today.

“The Mayor supports sanctuary city, but it was never intended to shield criminals,” said Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s chief spokesman. “If you’re an undocumented person who is booked on a felony in San Francisco–regardless of your age–ICE will be notified.”

Protest against Minutemen at San Francisco City Hall July, 2008. Photo: Steve Rhodes

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