Immigrant rights groups stirred by opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law turned their attention today to a federal program newly begun in San Francisco that they say is terrorizing their community.
Dozens rallied outside San Francisco’s state building this morning, expressing their displeasure at a recent decision by Attorney General Jerry Brown to reject the San Francisco sheriff’s request to opt out of the Secure Communities program.
Brown, who is now also the Democratic candidate for governor of California, told Sheriff Michael Hennessey in late May that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Secure Communities program “serves both public safety and the interest of justice.”
The program, which is being implemented nationwide and started in San Francisco June 8, allows for the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail after an arrest to be shared with ICE’s federal database to help determine if they are in the country illegally.
“Because of these programs we’ve seen many deportations,” said Guillermina Castellanos, director of a women’s program at La Raza Centro Legal, a community law center working on behalf of the immigrant community.
Castellanos spoke in Spanish to the assembled crowd, who were waving signs and chanting.
“We don’t want our children to suffer being separated from their families,” she said. “Here in this city, it is right that we not be terrorized.”
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco supervisor, also spoke at the rally.
“We need Jerry Brown to be governor, and I support him, but we also need to remind him of his moral responsibility to this issue,” Ammiano said. “We need him to say that this program is an outrage.”
Though ICE officials have said Secure Communities helps them identify and deport violent criminals, less serious offenders are also being deported, ICE statistics have shown.
Sheriff Michael Hennessey opposes the program, saying it conflicts with San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance that shields undocumented immigrants accused of minor crimes.
“It’s pretty much gutted the sanctuary ordinance as it relates to the criminal justice system,” Hennessey said following an unrelated event at City Hall today.
Sheriff’s department statistics on the impact of Secure Communities so far are inconclusive.
Spokeswoman Eileen Hirst said today that since June 8, ICE has placed immigration holds on 160 people booked into San Francisco County Jail. She stressed that those people have not yet been deported as resolutions to their criminal cases are still pending.
The department did not keep comparable statistics in 2009, Hirst said.
In his May 24 letter to Hennessey, Brown wrote, “I believe that working with the federal government in this matter advances important and legitimate law enforcement objectives.”
A spokeswoman for Brown indicated today the attorney general would not change his stance on the program.
His confidence in Secure Communities has not allayed the fears of many in the immigrant community that anyone arrested by police could be deported, even if the charges are later dismissed, speakers at the rally said today.
“We are honorable, hardworking workers who come to this country not desiring to take anything from anyone,” speaker Maria Aguilar said.
Aguilar worried that police will use Secure Communities to “intimidate” the immigrant community.
Other speakers said that despite a federal judge’s ruling in Arizona Wednesday temporarily blocking the most controversial parts of the state’s new immigration law, they will continue to fight both that law and Secure Communities.
San Francisco police Chief George Gascon–a former police chief in Mesa, Ariz., who has been vocal in his opposition to the Arizona legislation–said today that he is trying to convince federal officials to allow San Francisco and other jurisdictions to begin a pilot program that would exempt those booked for minor crimes from participation in Secure Communities.
Under Gascon’s proposal, only those booked for felonies, serious drug offenses, gang activity, threats to national security, and as repeat offenders would be referred to ICE.
“We want to make sure that we deal with serious crime,” and not target low-level offenses, he said.
Gascon said he sent letters a couple of months ago to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice officials about his proposal, but he has not heard back yet.
Mayor Gavin Newsom today defended Brown’s decision not to allow San Francisco to opt out.
“Jerry Brown is right. You can’t,” he said.
Newsom insisted that the city would continue to protect immigrant families.
“But if you commit a crime, all bets are off,” he said. “That’s a different story.”