August 31, 2015
San Jose Mercury News
The fate of a 31-year-old illegal immigrant from Nicaragua with a history of domestic violence and assault with a deadly weapon rested entirely on where he was recently caught in the Bay Area.
If it had been in San Francisco or Santa Clara County, he would have walked out of a jail a free man after serving time for violating probation. But because he broke the law in another part of the Bay Area — where local jailers recently started cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — federal agents were able to retrieve him from jail two weeks ago and lock him up in a federal detention center pending possible deportation.
Kate Steinle and Francisco Sanchez. (Steinle family/San Francisco police)
Cooperating with immigration authorities is such a politically touchy issue in the Bay Area that ICE officials wouldn't say where they picked up the Nicaraguan man. But in the two months since Kate
official that federal agents took about 20 of them into custody.
Steinle's death in San Francisco at the hands of an illegal immigrant with a criminal record ignited a national immigration policy debate, four Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Marin — have agreed to notify ICE when inmates flagged by the agency for possible deportation are about to be released.
"We simply help ICE out and allow them to do their job," said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern. His agency has already notified ICE of nearly 100 inmates in the past seven weeks, and was told by an immigration official that federal agents took about 20 of them into custody.
The Contra Costa County sheriff, however, is still evaluating the new notification program and has been telling ICE only about inmates who have committed serious or violent crimes. And in other counties, including Santa Clara, where a committee is set to discuss the matter Monday, officials have yet to change their "sanctuary" policy of refusing to assist ICE in enforcing immigration law, even for the possible deportation of criminals.
Before Steinle's July 1 death, most California counties, including all in the Bay Area, had stopped cooperating with ICE by mid-2014. Initially, many had complied with requests from ICE to hold inmates for an extra 48 hours after their official release dates to give agents the option of detaining some for possible deportation. But the California State Sheriff's Association advised its members to stop complying with "ICE holds" after federal courts ruled the practice was unconstitutional.
Steinle, 32, was fatally shot on a San Francisco pier, allegedly by an illegal immigrant whom San Francisco authorities had released without notifying ICE despite his lengthy record of drug crimes and five deportations. A homicide investigator testified last week at Juan Francisco
Lopez-Sanchez's preliminary hearing that Lopez-Sanchez had admitted shooting Steinle in the back as she strolled along the waterfront with her family. Lopez-Sanchez's attorney claims the shooting was accidental.
Her death triggered calls from even California's two liberal senators for increased cooperation between communities and ICE regarding illegal immigrants with extensive criminal records and a history of being deported. However, the state's Democratic U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have not introduced any legislation on the matter, though Feinstein's office said she may do so in the future.
On the other side of the issue, immigrant-rights advocates contend that notifying ICE of a pending release undermines immigrant communities' trust in the police, making people afraid to report crimes as a witness or even a victim. They allege abuses of authority by ICE, even though the agency now says it's focusing on more high-risk immigrants, and note that many defendants were brought to the U.S. when they were young children and have deep roots here.
"We just don't think one case should dictate federal or local policy," said Angie Junck, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco who sits on a Santa Clara County working group on the issue.
Despite the pressure, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has no plans to cooperate with ICE, according to his office. In an email, a spokeswoman said doing so would violate the department's own policy as well as a city ordinance that requires due process for all residents.
In Santa Clara County, officials this week will begin weighing whether to start notifying ICE at least 48 hours before the release of inmates who have committed serious or violent crimes. A group made up of Supervisor Cindy Chavez, community groups and representatives of the Sheriff's Office, probation and the District Attorney's Office is set to debate the issue Monday at a public meeting and recommend a policy to the Board of Supervisors, which controls jail policy.
This will be the third time the board weighs how to deal with ICE. In 2011, the county became one of the nation's first sanctuary communities, voting to refuse to hold any inmates unless ICE paid for the cost of detaining them — which the agency refuses to do. In fall of 2014, the board voted 3-2 to reject a new proposal by Supervisor Joe Simitian to hold "the worst of the worst" inmates 24 hours past their release date.
Since Steinle was killed, Chavez and Supervisor Dave Cortese have expressed interest in giving ICE advance notice of pending releases, but only when illegal immigrants who present a danger to public safety are about to be released. The list would probably not include people with nonviolent criminal records who have repeatedly been deported — like Steinle's alleged killer.
"We need to be careful that it's people who would put the community in fear of imminent physical harm," Supervisor Dave Cortese said.
But Sheriff Laurie Smith and District Attorney Jeff Rosen want the board to adopt broader criteria for detaining illegal immigrant inmates.
"Public safety requires that the county notify ICE before releasing serious and violent criminals back into our community," Rosen said last week in a written statement. "Justice requires that the county limit its cooperation with ICE to this small number of perpetrators, and not individuals who have committed minor crimes. This is the balance that I have long sought."
In contrast, Alameda County's Ahern has leapt at the chance to start cooperating with ICE again. And Ahern said he's not interested in restricting ICE notifications to only inmates who commit the most violent crimes, "just as we don't tell the Highway Patrol at what speed to issue citations."
ICE cooperation policies
San Mateo County: full cooperation
Alameda County: full cooperation
Contra Costa County: cooperation for serious and violent inmates
Marin: full cooperation
San Francisco: no cooperation
Santa Clara County: no cooperation but is considering limited cooperation