Fault Lines
8 December 2017

Why Didn’t San Francisco Deport Francisco Sanchez?

July 10, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Predictably and with good reason, the senseless shooting and death of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old who was taking a stroll with her father on a San Francisco pier, has stoked the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment Donald Trump has been warning us against since launching his presidential campaign.

The details of what caused the shooting in the first place remain unclear and under investigation, but Steinle’s father told The Daily Mail the account that will control among politicians and the media: that his daughter’s last words were, “Help me, dad,” and that he hopes her death will lead to immigration fixes that will save lives.

That’s because the alleged shooter, Francisco Sanchez, is the prototypical bad immigrant — a man with multiple felony convictions and illegal border crossings on his record. The kind of undeterred invader who deserves to be punished and banished to the fullest extent allowed by criminal and immigration laws.

Of course, what the media won’t say or will obscure is that Sanchez’s record consists chiefly of nonviolent drug offenses, or that his last recorded conviction came in 1997. And the media have failed at parsing Sanchez’s supposed “admission” to killing Steinle; an ABC affiliate in San Francisco freely claimed Sanchez admitted to the crime in a post-arrest interview, but the man barely speaks English, his answers were contradictory and noncommittal, and there was no defense counsel by his side.

Along with Sanchez, the greatest target of criticism has been San Francisco, a longtime “sanctuary” city that prides in its treatment of immigrants. If federal law often views immigrants as aliens and enforcement priorities, city sanctuary ordinances may view them as allies and contributors to the economy, and shields them from discrimination on account of their immigration status. A number of localities have adopted sanctuary policies, which often come with specific directives to police departments to not share information with federal authorities about immigrants under their control. The debate around sanctuary cities is only getting started, and some are predicting it will be an important bone of contention in the run-up to the 2016 election. Maybe Trump was right all along.

But did San Francisco err in not turning over Sanchez to federal authorities? It turns out that not long before the shooting, Sanchez had finished serving a federal sentence for illegal reentry, by far one of the most common federal crimes in the United States. But rather than turning him over to immigration authorities, the federal Bureau of Prisons turned him over to San Francisco officials, based on a 20-year-old drug charge that was yet unresolved. Why this happened is unclear, but what is clear is that there is little chance that a 20-year-old charge will lead to any meaningful local prosecution.

What’s also clear is that movement of immigrants accused of crimes happens all the time across federal and local systems, based on historic cooperation agreements. But increasingly, local governments have moved away from these old commitments. And San Francisco, being a sanctuary city, has a policy of not honoring most immigration detainers, which instruct local authorities to hold immigrants suspected of violating immigration laws.

The reasons for this noncompliance are pragmatic: A number of federal courts across the country have ruled that immigration detainers violate the Fourth Amendment, exposing cities to liability. After a federal judge in Oregon did just that last year, the California attorney general, Kamala Harris, responded by issuing a bulletin to state and local law enforcement warning them of the “legal risk” of mishandling immigration detainers. But as Professor César Cuauhtémoc correctly points out, San Francisco, like other sanctuary cities, provide carve-outs for immigrants with criminal records — meaning there’s no sanctuary for immigrants with criminal records. So it is not feasible to blame San Francisco’s sanctuary policy itself. Rather, another breakdown must have led to the disconnect that freed Sanchez.

All of this context matters, and much of it still remains under investigation. The interplay between criminal law and immigration law is often complex and not easily discerned. But it’s important to take a step back whenever stories of immigrant criminality take over the news cycle — lest we ourselves are overtaken by the fear that all immigrants are criminals.

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