San Francisco shooting puts scrutiny on big-city 'sanctuary' policies

Sanctuary policies prevent city workers from helping federal immigration officials identify and possibly deport people without immigration papers. The shooting has laid bare the different philosophies about that approach.

Since the 1980s, many US cities, including San Francisco, have instituted “sanctuary” policies that prevent city workers from helping federal immigration officials identify and possibly deport people without immigration papers.

But with an undocumented immigrant accused of fatally shooting California resident Kathryn Steinle last week, apparently at random as she walked with her father in a popular San Francisco waterfront area, the nation’s mostly blue-state and big-city sanctuary policies have once again come under fire.

Most major US cities have either passed ordinances or instituted executive orders keeping municipal employees and police from assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in efforts to investigate or arrest illegal immigrants. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and other cities also offer such immigrants the chance to get an official municipal ID – often the key to get a bank account, sign a lease, or even apply for city services.

States such as Tennessee and Georgia, however, have state laws that forbid their cities from instituting such policies. This year, the state Senate in Texas shelved such a measure after opponents used a parliamentary tactic to thwart the legislation. Some of that state’s biggest cities, including Austin, Dallas, and Houston, have sanctuary policies of some sort, legal observers say.

Indeed, immigration continues to be one of the most fiercely partisan issues in the nation, with sharp divisions among conservatives and liberals on how to approach to the problems. Last week’s shooting has laid bare the different philosophies about how federal and local officials should or shouldn’t interface, and how cities can best address the issues related to undocumented immigrants.

For progressives and other supporters of the decades-long sanctuary movement, the shooting does not change their commitment to what they see as a humanitarian and pragmatic approach.

"The purposes of these policies is effective law enforcement and the belief that immigrants are more likely to cooperate with police if they are not likely to be deported by cooperating with them," Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law, told the Pleasanton Weekly, a local paper in the town where Ms. Steinle grew up.

But for many conservatives, the shooting is a cautionary tale about what can happen under sanctuary policies, and they see last week’s incident as embodying the kinds of problems that illegal immigrants bring, especially those from Mexico.

"Unfortunately, a lot of cities in this country have decided they don't want to cooperate with ICE," Julie Myers Wood, former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told CNN on Monday. "They think that cooperating with ICE causes them problems with respect to the immigrant community and public safety, but in fact it does exactly the opposite, as we've seen here."

The shooting came just after presidential candidate and celebrity real estate tycoon Donald Trump started a furor when he said illegal Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “killers” who bring crime and drugs into the country, prompting many companies and television networks to disassociate themselves from him.

Though the term “sanctuary city” is a catchall term for various municipal policies that discourage cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, the movement has its origins in the efforts of churches and faith-based organizations that actively sought to help hundreds of thousands of immigrants from war-torn regions in Central America, supporters say.

Also, after enactment of a federal immigration law in 1996 that made it easier to deport immigrants who committed minor crimes, many cities ordered police and municipal workers not to inquire about the immigration status of city residents. The reasoning was that such inquiries would keep many immigrants from seeking health care and education, complicating public safety issues.

In 2010, however, Arizona passed a law requiring law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone stopped or detained when there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person may be in the country without immigration papers.

Critics called the law legalized racial profiling, and the Obama administration sued the state. Although much of the law was declared unconstitutional, the US Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the provision requiring police to check immigration papers.

The suspect in last week’s shooting, Francisco Sanchez, is a Mexican national and seven-time nonviolent felon. He had already been deported five times, according to reports, and had served time in federal prison, but returned to the United States illegally again and again.

Mr. Sanchez told a local ABC affiliate that the shooting was an accident, after he took some sleeping pills he found in a dumpster and then picked up a gun wrapped in a T-shirt, which went off unintentionally.

ICE said in a statement that Sanchez had been turned over to the San Francisco Police Department in March to face drug charges, and it requested to be notified if he was released so they could take him back into federal custody.

According to the Associated Press, police said they had no "legal basis" to hold Sanchez without a full federal warrant, which is required by the city’s ordinance.

In March, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña told Congress she would support new legislation to force local authorities to cooperate with her agents as they seek to find and possibly deport illegal immigrants. But after a torrent of criticism, she backtracked.

“Any effort at federal legislation now to mandate state and local law enforcement’s compliance with ICE detainers will, in our view, be a highly counterproductive step and lead to more resistance and less cooperation in our overall efforts to promote public safety,” Ms. Saldaña said in a statement.

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