San Francisco shooting: a game-changer for immigration policy?

Before the shooting, liberal-leaning states and cities had been moving to integrate millions of undocumented workers into the fabric of American life with a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' approach to public services. That may be on hold. 

Noah Berger/Reuters
Matt Gonzalez (l.), chief attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender's office, speaks with reporters following an arraignment for Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez in San Francisco on Tuesday. Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, a convicted felon who had been deported five times from the US to Mexico, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to first-degree murder in a San Francisco shooting that has spawned passionate debate about the city's immigration policies.

After a seven-time felon and five-time deportee from Mexico apparently shot and killed a California woman at random last week, the nation’s long-standing partisan divides over immigration and deportation policies took a sudden and unexpected twist.

Before the shooting, liberal-leaning states and cities had been moving to take the reins of immigration reform, legal experts say, even as such efforts stalled in a rancorously divided Congress.

From expanded access to driver's licenses, new forms of municipal IDs, as well as expanded access to education and health services, many liberal states and local jurisdictions were working to integrate more of the nation’s 11.7 million undocumented workers into the fabric of American life with a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to public services.  

“I think the weight of the momentum over the past few years has really been in favor of these policies of inclusion,” says Melissa Keaney, staff attorney in the Los Angeles office of the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for low-income immigrants in the US. “States are filling in the gaps where they can to make do while awaiting immigration reform.”

And for the past two years, many states, including California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as hundreds of counties and cities, passed laws to bolster decades-old “sanctuary” policies, which generally prohibit municipal employees from helping the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) identify and possibly deport people without immigration papers.

These new "TRUST acts" take sanctuary policies one step further by requiring law enforcement officials not to honor “detainer” requests for undocumented immigrants being held in local jails unless there is a federal warrant or the individual has been convicted of a serious crime.

But the case of Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is promising to bring this momentum of progressive immigration reform, at the local level, to a dramatic halt.

Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, who was released by the San Francisco sheriff's office even though it had received a “detainer” request from ICE agents, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to what police described as a random shooting of Kathryn Steinle as she walked with her father on a popular San Francisco pier. 

Indeed, many Republicans have begun to pounce on the logic of sanctuary laws, saying the case illustrates the dangers posed by such resistance to deportations. And many this week are calling for these jurisdictions to be stripped of federal funds.

This week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California is planning to reintroduce legislation to penalize sanctuary cities like San Francisco that do not assist federal authorities with deportation of undocumented immigrants.

“States and cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws directly undermine enforcement efforts and – as recent events have shown – present a real danger to citizens,” Representative Hunter said in a statement.

On Thursday, too, GOP presidential aspirant and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also proposed pulling federal funds from places that do not cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. 

“The case has strengthened the hand of those in the party who want to draw a clear focus on border enforcement as a first step before anything else happens on immigration,” says John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and managing director of High Lantern Group, a management consulting firm in Washington.

“There are a lot voters in the base of the party in particular who do not want to have anything to do with immigration reform and think it’s just a matter of closing the border," he adds.

Since 2010, conservatives have called for an “attrition through enforcement” approach to illegal immigration, in which local law enforcement and government agencies take the initiative to find those in the country without papers.

The strategy includes proposals to require workplaces to verify immigration status and to enact regulations that discourage settling into the normal routines of civic life – in other words, the exact opposite of the expanded services and sanctuary policies being offered by liberal jurisdictions.

Indeed, a number of conservative states, including Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, and others have passed so-called “show-me-your-papers” laws that require police to seek to determine whether a person stopped or arrested was an undocumented immigrant, if there was a “reasonable suspicion” that they may be.

Critics said this would be a form of racial profiling, but the Supreme Court upheld these provisions in 2012.   

And states such as Tennessee, Georgia, and others also have laws forbidding their cities from instituting sanctuary policies. This year, Texas shelved such a measure, after opponents used a parliamentary tactic to thwart the legislation.

“Sanctuary policies are especially harmful when they let criminal immigrants be released back to the street instead of removed to their home country, giving them the opportunity to continue preying on the community, creating needless new victims,” wrote Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank. More than 200 cities and local jurisdictions across the country have such policies, according to CIS.

Progressives, however, contend that such hard-line policies against undocumented immigrants only force them underground, thwarting necessary cooperation with law enforcement and directing time and resources away from fighting crime.

“The main mission of local police should be to ensure public safety,” says Ms. Keaney at the National Immigration Law Center. “So if they’re in the business of immigration enforcement and handing people over to ICE, that really endangers that mission because immigrant communities will then fear that interactions with the police could lead to their own deportation.”

But though Mr. Sanchez says he simply found the gun – which later was discovered to be a weapon belonging to a federal agent – and that it went off accidentally, the high-profile case has put Democratic leaders in an awkward position.

This week Democratic leaders, including presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, began to distance themselves from some of the sanctuary and TRUST policies that resist cooperation with ICE officials after the furor over the San Francisco shooting.

But on Thursday, the Clinton campaign clarified her position: “Hillary Clinton believes that sanctuary cities can help further public safety, and she has defended those policies going back years,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a campaign spokeswoman, in a statement.

"As she made clear, this particular individual should not have been on the streets.... She believes that we need a system where people like this don't fall through the cracks and that is why she continues to fight for comprehensive immigration reform," she added.

At the same time, Republican leaders worry that an over-aggressive focus on deportations and border enforcement could continue to alienate Latino voters.

On Wednesday, Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, urged presidential candidate Donald Trump to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric about undocumented Mexican immigrants, the Washington Post reported. When he announced his candidacy (before the Sanchez shooting), Mr. Trump said undocumented Mexican immigrants were bringing drugs and crime, and were “rapists.”

While the Sanchez case has, for now, put a negative spotlight on progressive reforms, such radically polarized, partisan approaches to undocumented immigration again promise to be a major campaign issue in 2016, political experts say.

“The case highlights the need to address the lack of coordination and adequate communication among local and federal law enforcement,” says Christina Bejarano, professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

“However, it is risky to rush to deport more undocumented people in the country ... and it is not fair to rush to extreme action, since that can endanger people, as well as foster more racist and xenophobic commentary toward immigrants without actually thinking through how to best solve our immigration problems.”

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