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Long History of Sanctuary Laws, Debate in San Francisco

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Protesters demonstrate against Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, whose staff have notified ICE when undocumented immigrants are released from county jails. A proposed state law would restrict state and local law enforcement's communications with immigration officials.  (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Donald Trump put a national spotlight on so-called sanctuary cities, but in San Francisco the conversation has raged on and off for decades.

The debate began in the 1980s, as civil wars raged in Central America and churches began providing refuge to fleeing immigrants.

The Reagan administration refused to recognize these refugees as asylum seekers. So cities stepped up: First Berkeley, then dozens of others, including San Francisco, began adopting policies prohibiting local officials from cooperating with immigration enforcement.

San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy was working as a deputy in the county jail back then.

"Up until that time, ICE agents, or at the time immigration agents, were allowed to come into our jails and check at all the booking cards and see who and question anybody they wanted to question," she said during a recent talk to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.


The city’s early sanctuary policies stopped those visits. But in 1989, they didn’t stop immigration officials and San Francisco police from conducting a joint raid on a Latin dance club in San Francisco, Club Elegante. Dozens of people were handcuffed and detained for hours — including many U.S. citizens.

Former state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a longtime San Francisco activist and then politician, lived near Club Elegante. He said the raid "ignited a sleeping giant" in the city.

"It was obvious that this was a big snafu that should never have happened," he said. "That was it, boom, that was a benchmark. And then there were demands made on the mayor, 'What are you going to do, what is the solution?'”

Immigrants were scared and city leaders were troubled, agreed civil rights attorney Robert Rubin. He helped write what would become the city’s sanctuary law later that year. The goal was to ensure the immigrant community didn’t fear minor encounters with police. Rubin said even then-Police Chief Frank Jordan was on board.

"It wasn't even as much that he that he loved immigrants, it was I think more a sense of, we need this type of policy because without it, we lose the trust and cooperation of the immigrant community that we are devoted to serve," he said.

Rubin and others working in the city at the time say the federal government pushed back against these policies, even threatening to jail city leaders or strip federal funding.

But as time passed, the city’s law remained. So did outside pressure to change it. Now it is under perhaps its most serious threat: President Trump issued an executive order within days of taking office in January directing his administration to strip federal funding from jurisdictions deemed to be "sanctuary" cities and counties. The threat already has sparked lawsuits, including from the city of San Francisco, and is helping drive state legislation that could make California, in the eyes of Trump, a sanctuary state.

But even before this political firestorm, there's always been a robust debate within San Francisco about the sanctuary law and how far it should go to protect undocumented immigrants who are accused or convicted of a crime.

The Bologna murders 

In June 2008, the slaying of a San Francisco man and his two sons by a gang member who was an undocumented immigrant shook San Francisco to the core.

Danielle Bologna lost her husband, Tony, and two of her four kids in a heart-wrenching case of mistaken identity.

Within weeks, conservative pundits came calling. Here’s Danielle Bologna on the talk show of conservative commentator Laura Ingraham a month after the murders, talking through sobs.

"This shouldn't happen to any family. Any family should not have to go through what I am going through right now. I can't even tell you guys, we were such a close family. We did everything — we did everything right. But yet these immigrants have more rights than we do," Bologna said tearfully.

San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy was immediately blamed. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the accused shooter, Edwin Ramos, was convicted of two violent felonies as a juvenile but wasn’t deported because of the city’s policy not to hand over minors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in any circumstance.

The revelations fanned the flames of anger among critics, including Laura Ingraham, who vowed to help the Bolognas end sanctuary policies.

"Three good people, innocent people gunned down, add them to the list of all the other people who have been gunned down, knifed, raped or brutalized by illegal aliens in this country," she told Bologna.

San Francisco’s politically ambitious mayor, Gavin Newsom, defended the sanctuary law but also rushed to change how the city handled juvenile offenders. Under the changes, any undocumented kid merely accused of a felony was given to immigration officials, even though adult suspects were still protected.

Over the next year, the city turned over more than 100 juveniles to ICE. A year later, the Board of Supervisors amended city law to clarify that only juveniles convicted of a felony should be reported to ICE.

But in those early months, said Ammiano, a key fact was lost in the flurry of outrage: "It was the feds that dropped the ball."

Bologna family friend Marti McKee agreed. She said the federal government, including ICE, knew exactly who and where the Bologna shooter was. Ramos had applied for legal status multiple times, and was the subject of a larger federal investigation into gang activity that eventually led to more than two dozen indictments.

"They were communicating with him because he was trying to get his status changed. They knew where he worked, they knew where he lived, they knew where he hung out, they knew where he committed criminal activities. They were following him around," she said.

Some of those details arose in the weeks after the killing, but didn’t attract the same attention as San Francisco’s role. Others didn't come out publicly for years, as the court cases against Ramos and other gang members moved forward.

Danielle Bologna declined to be interviewed for this story. But McKee, who sat with the family through Ramos’ trial, believes federal authorities didn’t deport Ramos because they were working to build a bigger case. She said in the beginning, it wasn't fully clear to anyone on the family's side of things what exactly happened or how the sanctuary law played into the case — and that opponents of the sanctuary law took advantage of that confusion.

Supporters of sanctuary laws say it’s not unusual for critics to attack those policies even if there’s blame to go around.

"You can imagine the level of grief when you’ve lost your husband, two of your children, your home, your livelihood, everything is gone," McKee said. "But I believe Danielle was completely used as a poster child to rail against the sanctuary city."

Obama administration crackdown

While the Bologna case roiled San Francisco, the Obama administration started rolling out a new, controversial deportation enforcement program in 2008, known as Secure Communities. It automatically sent the fingerprints of every person booked into a U.S. jail to immigration officials so they could check their legal status.

Controversially, it also let ICE send requests to jails to hold on to undocumented immigrants after they’d otherwise be released.

Secure Communities rolled out nationally in 2011. But by then, some counties had already begun ignoring the requests.

In 2012, those counties opting out of the program were buoyed by a memo issued by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris advising them that the detainer requests were indeed voluntary.

And in 2014, a federal appeals court judge ruled that the jails could be sued for unlawfully holding someone because the detainer requests were not warrants, issued by a judge, but simply requests from an ICE agent. More and more counties around the nation started ignoring the detainer requests after the court ruling.

San Francisco again took a strong stand against federal immigration authorities, passing legislation in 2013 limiting its cooperation to violent felons. At the same time, San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano was pushing statewide legislation to limit all California jails’ cooperation. After two years — and a veto of a measure that went even further by Gov. Jerry Brown — Ammiano's state bill, a milder version of the San Francisco measure, became law in 2014.

The Kate Steinle murder

Then, again in 2015, a horrific murder roiled San Francisco and made national headlines. Kate Steinle, 32, was shot and killed while walking along the San Francisco waterfront. Her accused killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is an undocumented immigrant who’d been deported five times and had just been released from jail in San Francisco.

The case sparked national outrage, with even some Democrats pointing the finger at San Francisco's sanctuary city policy. But again, there was blame to go around: The gun used in the shooting was stolen from a federal park ranger. And questions remain about why federal officials sent him to San Francisco, knowing the city wouldn’t cooperate with immigration detainer requests.

Lopez-Sanchez had just finished a four-year term in a federal prison for crossing the border illegally when the federal government transferred him to San Francisco jail based on a 20-year-old marijuana charge. Shortly after prosecutors declined to file charges, he was released.

While some of San Francisco's more moderate politicians sought to narrow the city's sanctuary ordinance after the Steinle killing, it was another case — in which San Francisco police apparently called ICE on an undocumented immigrant reporting a stolen car — that most informed a 2016 tweak to the sanctuary law.

That change altered the circumstances under which city officials can cooperate with ICE. It allows the sheriff to notify immigration officials about an inmate who is accused of a violent felony if that person was convicted of a violent or serious felony in the past seven years and if a judge decides there's probable cause for the current charge.

Sheriff Hennessy said no one has met this criteria since she became sheriff in January 2016. But requests to detain local inmates have increased under Trump: In the last six months of 2016, the Sheriff's Department received 41 ICE requests, Hennessy said; this year, it has already received 45 requests.

"It's a high standard," Hennessy said, adding that she personally reviews each request.

In all, there have been 10 amendments to San Francisco’s sanctuary law since 1989. Most were made in response to aggressive deportation policies implemented by the Obama administration — and most of them made it even harder for local officials to cooperate with ICE.

And while the policies remain unpopular among conservatives outside San Francisco’s borders, a recent poll found that 79 percent of San Franciscans approve of the sanctuary law.

A sanctuary state?

Now, state lawmakers are considering a bill that could make California a sanctuary state in the view of the Trump administration, by prohibiting state and local governments from using any local resources to assist in deportation actions. Senate President Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat, says the bill will keep communities safe. It passed the state Senate on Monday and now heads to the Assembly for consideration.

"The last thing we need is for crime to increase in neighborhoods because police officers have left their beats, their duties to help set up a perimeter around a church, a shelter, or an elementary school, and serving as an extension of ICE agents. Local police departments protect and serve, they don’t enforce federal immigration law," de León said.

Sheriffs and others are fighting the bill. But de León and his supporters reject the "sanctuary" label as a misnomer. He said it’s important to note what so-called sanctuary laws don’t do. They don’t prevent local jails from sharing fingerprints with ICE: every county in the nation does that. They don’t prevent ICE from conducting raids on their own, or from coming into prisons or jails if they secure a warrant from a judge to take custody of an undocumented prisoner.

"People needed to understand, that nothing in the city-of-refuge ordinance could do anything to stop the federal government from enforcing its own immigration laws," said Robert Rubin, the author of San Francisco’s original law. "It simply said we are not going to help you, we are not going to be a part of it. We think this is the wrong way to go."

It’s still unclear what the fiscal consequence for California or San Francisco may be. The city receives about $2 billion a year from the federal government, but many legal observers believe most of that money is legally untouchable by the Trump administration because it has no connection to law enforcement.

The city isn’t waiting to see what the president does, however: In January, San Francisco sued over Trump’s funding threat, saying it is unconstitutional. De León agreed.

'You just can’t , with a signature, with a pen say I am going to punish San Francisco, Los Angeles or any other city," he said. "The reality is this: It’s illegal, and it’s unconstitutional."

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