July 08, 2015
The killing of a 32-year-old woman allegedly by a felon who is also an undocumented immigrant has ignited a debate over “sanctuary cities” where local law enforcement is prevented from turning over to federal officials for deportation people in the country illegally.
San Francisco, the city where the woman was killed, is considered a sanctuary city. So is Philadelphia.
Last year, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order preventing law enforcement from handing the undocumented to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
The order said, in part, that no "notice of (an undocumented person's) release be provided [to ICE], unless such person is being released after conviction for a first or second degree felony involving violence.”
But that kind of order is now being debated in the wake of the San Francisco killing.
Francisco Sanchez, a suspect in the killing of Kathryn Steinle earlier this month, has been deported multiple times and has several felonies on his record, many for drug offenses, although none are for violent crimes.
He was picked up by police on a two-decades-old drug crime, which was eventually dismissed. Instead of providing his name to ICE for deportation, he was released.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit dedicated to improving border security and stopping illegal immigration, described sanctuary policies as misguided and "purely political."
"It is not up to Philadelphia or San Francisco [to determine] what is a significant enough crime to get you deported," Mehlman said. He added that law enforcement was built on the idea that different departments cooperated with each other - an idea violated by sanctuary laws, which forbid such communication.
Proponents of local policies that protect individuals from deportation argue they are advantageous because they prevent a "dragnet" approach to deportation where anyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system could be kicked out.
"What was happening [before] is people were being arrested and then handed over to ICE without ever being convicted of anything," said William Stock, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Some officials in San Francisco defended the policy.
“The focus should be on substance and not on political points that people want to score,” David Campos, a member of the city’s board of supervisors, told sfgate.com. “My fear is that we’re going to let the act of one individual - horrific as it was - dictate a policy and lead to an overreaction that makes the entire community unsafe.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, denounced San Francisco’s policy in a letter to the city's mayor.
“The tragic death of Ms. Steinle could have been avoided if the Sheriff’s Department had notified ICE prior to the release of Mr. Sanchez, which would have allowed ICE to remove him from the country,” Feinstein wrote in her letter. "As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I am looking at whether additional federal legislation may be necessary."
She said San Francisco should follow ICE’s “Priority Enforcement Program.” That program, which was initiated in November 2014, sought to limit the number of individuals the government deported.
“Unless the alien poses a demonstrable risk to national security, enforcement actions through the new program will only be taken against aliens who are convicted of specifically enumerated crimes,” Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a policy address.
But while the federal policy provided for the deportation of individuals considered a threat, a definition that included certain drug dealers and repeat offenders, Philadelphia's policy focuses specifically on violent felons.
When asked about the city following the Priority Enforcement Program, Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald wrote in an email, "To the extent that PEP comports with our policy, then we are cooperating with them."
For Stock, the question is, in part, about what the police should prioritize.
"Do we, the taxpayer of the city of Philadelphia, want our police forces to be worried about the immigration status of our fellow citizens who they may encounter?" Stock said.