San Francisco?s Sanctuary Saga

For more than two decades, San Francisco has had a "sanctuary" policy protecting illegal immigrants. Under this policy, local officials don’t report illegal immigrants to the federal authorities.

What Are the Advantages of a Sanctuary Policy?

Shielding immigrants from deportation benefits not only immigrants, but other San Franciscans, too. For example, if an undocumented person is a witness to a crime, they won’t report the crime to the police due to fear of deportation. The sanctuary policy ensures that illegal immigrants feel safe reporting crime and engaging in civic life without fear.

However, the policy came under fire last year after an illegal immigrant with a juvenile criminal record was accused of murdering a family of three in a drive-by shooting. As a minor at the time of his crimes, he was not reported to immigration. Later, a debate sparked between city leaders about how to treat undocumented minors suspected of committing crimes.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

After the crime and outcry, Mayor Gavin Newsom stiffened the city’s policy and ordered city officials to report all undocumented juveniles accused of a felony to the federal authorities.

This policy received protest. David Campos, San Francisco’s city supervisor, explained, “There is a public safety need to report people who engage in criminal conduct,” he reminded. There’s also a need to “recognize that there is the very basic principle that in this country you are innocent until proven guilty.”[1]

The main debate is that kids accused of a crime, but ultimately found innocent, may end up deported and separated from their families. As a result, Campos and his supervisors believe that undocumented kids accused of a crime should only be reported to federal authorities if they’re found guilty of a felony, not before.

The Conflict

Thus, San Francisco police are facing a dilemma: Should they report undocumented minors who have committed a felony at the time they're arrested, or must they wait until there is a guilty conviction?

According to the mayor, minors should be reported at the time of arrest. He believes sanctuary laws aren’t meant to shield people who commit crimes. That was the existing policy until November.

The Showdown

In early November, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (the “Board”) changed the existing law to shield immigrant minors unless and until they’re convicted of a felony. Mayor Newsom then almost immediately vetoed the new measure, arguing it can’t be enforced because it violates federal law. The Board rejected the mayor’s veto 8 to 3. The current policy protects minors so they can’t be reported until found guilty.

Still, Newsom insists he’ll ignore the Board’s new policy, calling it unenforceable, and he ordered city employees to continue reporting any undocumented kids arrested for a felony, because federal law requires the reporting of felonies.

"We are not going to put our law enforcement officers in legal jeopardy just because the Board of Supervisors wants to make a statement."[2] However, on the other spectrum, as Campos’s points out "We expect the mayor's office to follow the laws of the city and county of San Francisco - that's his job."[3]

Questions For Your Attorney

  • I'm an undocumented immigrant and my child, who is also undocumented, has been arrested. What steps should I take?
  • I suspect that a kid, who is an illegal immigrant, committed a crime in my neighborhood. How do I report it?
  • What should I do if the police do not report the undocumented minor that committed a crime against me or a family member to the federal authorities?
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