Exploiting a tragedy to bash immigrants

July 22, 2015

Diana Macasa writes from San Francisco on the anti-immigrant furor being stoked in a famously liberal city after a tragic shooting--and how activists are standing their ground.

POLITICIANS ARE exploiting a tragic murder committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco to try to roll back decades of hard-fought gains to protect some of the most vulnerable people in U.S. society. And it's Democrats who are leading the charge.

On July 1, Kate Steinle was shot in front of her father in broad daylight on Pier 14 in San Francisco by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Soon after the shooting, it was later revealed that Lopez-Sanchez had numerous prior convictions for nonviolent drug offenses and illegally re-entering the country, and had been deported on multiple occasions. This sparked a political and media firestorm about supposedly "lax" immigration policies.

The specific policy under attack is the "sanctuary city" law, which in San Francisco and other locales prevents local law enforcement and political officials from fully cooperating with federal deportation efforts.

Prior to the shooting, Lopez-Sanchez had been released by the San Francisco's Sheriff's Department in April after his charges from a 20-year-old warrant were dropped. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had asked for an "immigration detainer," a request that the department hold onto Lopez-Sanchez until ICE could seize him.

Katie Steinle's parents appear on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor
Katie Steinle's parents appear on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor

But Sheriff Ross Mirikami and his department did not honor the ICE request, in keeping with the city's Due Process for All ordinance, which dictates that local law enforcement cannot hold a person on an ICE detainer without a warrant. Now Mirikami is under fire, as is the very concept of sanctuary cities.

THESE SANCTUARY policies, which exist in over 200 cities across the country, are based on the idea, as the San Francisco ordinance states, of "equal protection and equal treatment for all our residents, regardless of immigration status." In most cases, the policies have been adopted due to inaction by the federal government on immigration reform measures that could improve the lives and conditions of the undocumented.

San Francisco's sanctuary city policy was first instituted in 1989, in part out of frustration at the reluctance of the federal government to grant refugee status to Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries--often enough, carried out by U.S.-backed right-wing military and paramilitary forces.

But even prior to Steinle's shooting, there have been numerous measures to break down sanctuary city statues, including federal policies like 287(g) and Secure Communities (S-COMM), which immigrants rights activists have been fighting for years.

One of the first major attacks on San Francisco's sanctuary status came in May 2008 under Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom, when the city cooperated with ICE on the first set of raids against workers at El Balazo restaurants across San Francisco and the East Bay.

Immigrant rights activists immediately initiated a defense campaign for these workers. "I am not a criminal," eight-year El Balazo employee José Luis Sánchez told an emergency rally of 250 supporters in May 2008. "I pay my taxes every year."

Further raids continued to involve ICE agents terrorizing immigrants in their own homes--there were even reports of ICE vans camping out in front of schools.

At the time, the increased repression was justified by invoking the case of Edwin Ramos, an undocumented person from El Salvador and alleged gang member who was facing trial for a triple homicide--the same arguments we're hearing now about how Juan Francisco Sanchez-Lopez's case shows what's wrong with San Francisco's sanctuary policy.

With the implementation of S-COMM, dozens of immigrants told stories of being stopped by the police and immediately turned over to ICE for misdemeanors, such as running a stop sign or a domestic violence dispute.

In response, activists held a sit-in at the office of Jerry Brown--who at the time was the attorney general and running for governor--to demand that he rescind the state of California's cooperation with ICE. Brown refused, but immigrant rights activists continued to fight against S-COMM. By October 2013, they had pushed the legislature and Brown--by now the governor--to pass the TRUST Act, which limited implementation of parts of Secure Communities.

Following this success, San Francisco activists pressed for more. By the end of the year, they had won passage of Due Process for All under Mayor Ed Lee. The ordinance has resulted in an estimated 10,000 ICE detainers being ignored--and hundreds of people not having to face the threat of deportation.

The fight wasn't just taking place in California. Across the country activists have pushed for cities and states to opt out of cooperating with the Feds. In fact, as the ACLU pointed out in a recent report regarding the legality of the Lopez-Sanchez case, there have been multiple federal court cases that dispute how ICE handles detainers.

There is nothing irrational or even unusual about the policy that San Francisco law enforcement followed when they released Juan Francisco Sanchez-Lopez--who, it bears repeating, did not have a record of violence. But that hasn't stopped the mainstream media and politicians from using this tragedy to try to erase years of hard-won gains made by the immigrant community.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Republicans wasted no time in using the tragic shooting of Kate Steinle to justify their anti-immigrant platform.

"This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately," claimed Donald Trump, the bigoted buffoon who is currently leading opinion polls among candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. "This is an absolutely disgraceful situation, and I am the only one that can fix it."

These comments come after Trump's official campaign launch, during which he stated, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

Jeb Bush, another Republican presidential candidate, called for withholding federal funds from cities that refuse to work with ICE agents. Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly called for Republican leadership to introduce "Kate's Law"--an automatic five-year sentence in a federal penitentiary for immigrants caught in the U.S. after a prior deportation.

But it's not just Republicans jumping onto the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, stated that San Francisco law enforcement made a mistake in obeying the sanctuary city law and not turning over Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez to ICE.

"I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should have been acted upon," Clinton told CNN--before lambasting Donald Trump for his anti-immigrant stance, in her continuing effort to draw support from the Latino community for her presidential bid.

Clinton wasn't the only Democrat to come out against sanctuary policies. California's Sen. Diane Feinstein wrote a letter to Mayor Ed Lee's office stating, "I strongly believe that an undocumented individual, convicted of multiple felonies and with a detainer request from ICE, should not have been released."

Possibly facing political pressuring during his re-election year, Lee himself wrote in a letter to the sheriff's department that Sanchez-Lopez should have been released to ICE--which would have been in defiance of the law that Lee signed--and calling for a reopening of how San Francisco handles immigration detainers.

MUCH OF this backpedaling is the typical cowardice and opportunism of politicians looking ahead to elections. However, let's be clear: Both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit in crafting the current immigration policy, which is geared to destroy immigrants' lives for the needs of American capital.

Federal policies implemented under both Democratic and Republican presidents have led to increased numbers of deportations and a weakening of sanctuary policies across the U.S.

Bill Clinton led the way with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, which began to detain large numbers of people at the border. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama continued on Clinton's path by implementing 287(g) and S-COMM--both of which require local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE--along with E-Verify, which requires employers to report any potential undocumented persons to ICE.

These policies, along with the outrageous goal set by the Department of Homeland Security of carrying out 400,000 deportations every year, have contributed to the record number of expulsions under Barack Obama.

These policies, created to control the flow of immigration according to the needs of American capitalism, dehumanize millions of people as dispensable and have created an atmosphere of terror in immigrant communities. The fight to maintain sanctuary city policies must be a core part of fighting for immigrants' rights.

Another question is raised by the furor in San Francisco: Do Latino lives matter?

There's no question that the shooting of Kate Steinle is a tragic event. But where is the same outrage among the media and the politicians over the police killing of Alex Nieto last year? Born and raised in San Francisco, Nieto was shot more than a dozen times by SFPD officers--his only "crime" was being a brown person eating a burrito in his neighborhood park.

Then there is Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant gunned down by the SFPD earlier this year for allegedly carrying a knife and stealing a bike--an accusation witnesses have disputed throughout.

Both shootings--and the current attack on the sanctuary city policy--have happened amid a scandal engulfing the police department that stems from revelations of officers' text messages, which expose the deep roots of racism and bigotry inside the SFPD.

IN RESPONSE to the anti-immigrant backlash following the killing of Kate Steinle, dozens of immigrant rights activists from groups all over San Francisco and the Bay Area came together to offer heartfelt condolences to Steinle's family, but also to firmly declare that a tragedy should not be used to further justify the attack on immigrants.

Each person who spoke placed white carnations in a vase while offering silent prayers to Kate Steinle's family. Each person also spoke to the importance of San Francisco's sanctuary city policy in protecting undocumented immigrants and their families. "I am undocumented," Sandy Valenciano told the crowd. "My earliest memories are of the fear my parents carried whenever they saw a cop car approach."

One day after the rally, Causa Justa/Just Cause (CJJC) posted a Facebook and e-mail message stating that the National Lawyers Guild had confirmed that 45 ICE agents will be conducting raids through the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP-COMM), which is basically latest version of S-COMM.

As they have before, activists will need to challenge these raids and the terror tactics used by both ICE and the police. But was also emphasized at the rally, we need to fight for more.

We need to struggle for the livelihood of both documented and undocumented persons. In San Francisco, that not only means stopping PEP-COMM raids, but fighting for justice for Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez-Lopez, against the building of a new jail, and against the evictions that continue to displace immigrants as San Francisco is further gentrified.

We have much work to do to keep San Francisco a sanctuary city for all.

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