The shooting death of a 32-year-old woman at a San Francisco pier last week renewed a debate over the city’s sanctuary city policy after an undocumented immigrant, who is accused in the shooting and has felony convictions, was released by local law enforcement instead of being handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the man suspected of killing San Francisco resident and Pleasanton native Kathryn Steinle, has been deported from the U.S. five times and has a criminal history with seven prior felonies, including four involving narcotics, according to immigration officials.
San Francisco has a “sanctuary city” policy that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining an individual on the basis of an immigration detainer when they would otherwise be eligible for release from custody.
Among those who are challenging the wording of the sanctuary city policy is San Francisco resident Jamie Whitaker, who started a petition on MoveOn.org Monday urging San Francisco policymakers to revaluate the city’s policy on civil immigration detainers and the wording of San Francisco’s sanctuary city law.
Whitaker, who lives near Pier 14 in the city’s Rincon Hill neighborhood, is a former District 6 Supervisor candidate and has operated the San Francisco neighborhood blog, RinconHillSF.org, for over eight years.
According to Whitaker’s LinkedIn profile, he works as a property tax manager for the city.
Whitaker’s petition, which as of this evening had more than 100 signatures, states that the current administrative code failed “to prioritize public health, safety, and welfare of San Franciscans” and goes on to say that “Anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, violent or non-violent, should not be given a ticket to freedom.”
Following Steinle’s death, Angela Chan, policy director at the Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, said that ICE hold requests, “are in fact unconstitutional.”
Chan said ICE requests to hold individuals for additional time at local jails violate the Constitution because they are not signed by a judge and are not based on probable cause findings.
The city’s sanctuary city ordinance, the due process for all ordinance and the sheriff’s department’s policies are “merely complying with Fourth Amendment Constitutional protections,” Chan said.
She said policies are in place to improve community confidence in law enforcement and the actions of one person should not be used to stereotype or criminalize entire communities.
It’s important people refrain from “blaming all immigrants or all undocumented immigrants for the actions of one accused person,” she said.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) expressed her concern in the days following Steinle’s death, arguing that Steinle might still be alive if not for the release of a convicted felon and undocumented immigrant onto city streets by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
“The tragic death of Ms. Steinle could have been avoided,” Feinstein said.
In an open letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Feinstein urged the mayor and the city to participate in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new Priority Enforcement Program, which was created as part of President Barack Obama’s Nov. 20, 2014 executive actions on immigration.
Feinstein said the program would enable federal law enforcement to better cooperate with state and local counterparts and take custody of individuals who pose a danger to the public before they are released.
It also facilitates the removal of undocumented convicted felons, she said.
The homicide of Steinle is an indicator that San Francisco needs a program that will focus federal immigration enforcement efforts on convicted criminals and public safety threats, Feinstein said.
Lopez-Sanchez should not have been released and Feinstein said she blamed the sheriff’s department for not responding to the detainer and for failing to notify ICE when the individual was released.
“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I am looking at whether additional federal legislation may be necessary,” Feinstein said.
A Facebook post by the San Francisco Police Officers Association on Monday was far more critical of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy and Lopez-Sanchez’s immigration status.
The Facebook post reads: “Bottom line is a young innocent woman has been murdered in cold blood, in front of her father, by a five-time deported illegal alien drug dealer. He is an ILLEGAL ALIEN [sic] not an undocumented immigrant and if he was where he belonged (Mexico) this innocent victim would still be alive.”
However, Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who is representing Lopez-Sanchez in court, said that while Steinle’s death was tragic, it is “very likely this was an accidental shooting.”
Gonzalez maintained that there is an “aggressive narrative that this case is about immigration,” but he said he believes this case is “more about the ubiquitous nature of guns in our country.”
Mayor Ed Lee said he has made sure that no legislation eliminates the sheriff’s “ability to make a case-by-case determination about honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.”
Lee said the sanctuary city policies should not create a safe harbor for convicted, violent felons, yet for some reason the sheriff’s department failed to turn Lopez-Sanchez over to ICE.
In a statement released by the sheriff’s department following Steinle’s death, the department maintained that Lopez-Sanchez was deemed ineligible for extended detention because of the city’s 2013 ordinance that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining an individual on the basis of an immigration detainer after the individual becomes eligible for release
The sheriff’s department noted that despite hundreds of municipalities throughout the country, including San Francisco, having amended their policies regarding ICE detainers, “ICE has not changed its policies or procedures to reflect that detainers are requests and not a legal basis to hold an individual.”
The online petition started by Whitaker can be viewed at petitions.moveon.org/sign/san-franciscos-sanctuary.
Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News