Francisco Sanchez, right, is lead into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia, center, for his arraignment Tuesday in San Francisco. Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

San Francisco has become an anti-immigration punching bag in the wake of a grisly killing. But there’s little evidence that the city’s sanctuary law was to blame.

An undocumented immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez allegedly shot and killed Kathryn Steinle on San Francisco's Embarcadero last Wednesday. And it turns out that the city's Sheriff's Department had released Lopez-Sanchez earlier this year after refusing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement request to detain him—all to comply with a city policy protecting everyday undocumented immigrants from deportation.  

The political forecast of this case is, as you might guess, pretty stormy. It’s become an occasion to discuss America's "unsecured" borders and Mexicans' imaginary criminal proclivities, and to make cities into a convenient punching bag for conservatives, caricatures of out-of-touch liberal moral laxity toward dark-skinned criminal elements (if this sounds familiar, remember Baltimore).

More than 200 local U.S. jurisdictions have limited their cooperation with ICE, according to the agency, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. But what better city to star in this politico-morality play than gay, hippie, permissive San Francisco?

Bill O'Reilly, for one, is "disgusted with the cowardice of our elected officials from the crazy left San Francisco people to the President to the Congress." Former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord writes in The American Spectator that the alleged assailant was "shielded by left-wing San Francisco authorities" (in a piece titled, "A question for Trump critics: What if Kathryn Seinle had been black?").

Congressman Duncan Hunter, a San Diego-area Republican, announced legislation to penalize so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with ICE, saying that "states and cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws directly undermine enforcement efforts and—as recent events have shown—present a real danger to citizens."

Donald Trump, of course, seized on the killing as vindication of his charge that Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

Indeed, this case, thanks to the morbid forces behind our 24-hour news cycle, is getting very, very big.

The killing “has catapulted itself onto the national stage, because it allows those who are running in the heartland to talk about all the liberal icons and all the stereotypes associated with San Francisco," David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of liberals, who often run screaming into the law-and-order fold at moments of panic over crime, have also jumped on board. Hillary Clinton criticized San Francisco for deciding "not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported," adding that she has "absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on." Senator Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, likewise blamed the Sheriff for failing to cooperate with ICE.

But does this killing really, as Wednesday's sensational New York Times headline asserts, expose "lapses in immigration enforcement"?

Lopez-Sanchez—who also reportedly goes by the names Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate and Juan Jose Dominguez de la Parra—had been deported five times and convicted of seven felonies, according to ICE. Four of the felonies were drug-related. The rest, according to Feinstein, were for illegal reentry. Mayor Edward M. Lee, who has also slammed Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, said that "the sanctuary city ordinance was never designed to harbor repeat serious offenders." But there has been absolutely no suggestion that Lopez-Sanchez has any violent crime on his record.

*****

According to an ICE statement, Lopez-Sanchez was transferred from a federal prison (where he was serving multiple years for illegally reentering the United States) to the San Francisco Sheriff because of an outstanding warrant. That warrant, according to the Chronicle, stemmed from a 1995 arrest for allegedly selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer. The charges were dismissed and, after an unclear series of deliberations, Lopez-Sanchez was released. The Sheriff's Department has stated that it was determined that he had completed his prison sentence, and had no active warrants. It's strange that he was sent to San Francisco at all (controversially, it turns out, because the Sheriff's Department requested that he be) since ICE had lodged a detainer request with the federal Bureau of Prisons prior to his transfer, and Lopez-Sanchez's warrant was for a crime that was both old and minor, something that prosecutors would never have bothered to pursue.

There are also hints that Lopez-Sanchez—who appears to claim the shooting was an accident, and that he had taken sleeping medication before finding the gun wrapped in a T-shirt and doesn't remember much—may have a more complicated biography. Take this rambling interview with a local television station, and the report that a federal court once recommended that he be sent to "a federal medical facility as soon as possible."

But the details of this murky, sad and strange killing (like, for example, that the gun in question appears to have belonged to a federal agent) is being taken up as an opportunity to attack the hundreds of cities and other jurisdictions that have limited their cooperation with ICE in recent years, including by denying many "detainer" requests. In San Francisco, the Sheriff's Department has stated that it did not turn Lopez-Sanchez over to ICE because he did not have "a violent felony conviction within the last seven years, or a probable cause for holding issued by a magistrate or judge on a current violent felony." (Some media reports are claiming Lopez-Sanchez says that he kept coming back to San Francisco because it was a sanctuary city; but, and you can watch the interview for yourself, it's not at all clear that he understood the question.)

The sanctuary policies currently in place in so many American cities were a response to loud protests against the federal government's Secure Communities program, which automatically shares fingerprints of people booked into local jails with ICE. City leaders understand that immigrant communities, from Mexicans in Detroit to Vietnamese in Philadelphia, are critical to urban vitality. For non-citizens, Secure Communities turned local police into proxy immigration agents, fracturing trust and thus posing a risk to public safety.

But sanctuary cities are also responding to the reality that holding on to someone at ICE's request, without probable cause, is likely unconstitutional, as recent federal court rulings have found. As Angela Chan, senior staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, told the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Sheriff might have been unable to hold on to Lopez-Sanchez even if he had wanted to.

"Even if the sheriff had a policy of responding to ICE holds, if he'd respond he would be liable. He'd be sued."

*****

ICE press secretary Gillian Christensen quickly joined the anti-immigrant effort to smear San Francisco, claiming that their "officers lodged an immigration detainer asking to be notified prior to his release," and lamenting that "an individual with a lengthy criminal history, who is now the suspect in a tragic murder case, was released onto the street rather than being turned over to ICE for deportation."

"Bottom line," Christensen's statement continues, is that "if the local authorities had merely NOTIFIED ICE that they were about to release this individual into the community, ICE could have taken custody of him and had him removed from the country — thus preventing this terrible tragedy… ICE desperately wants local law enforcement agencies to work with us so we can work to stop needless violence like these [sic] in our communities."

ICE's position is not just dangerously provocative. It also makes very little sense: they are no doubt aware of how things work in San Francisco and apparently could have sought a judicial order if they thought Lopez-Sanchez posed a serious threat. But it's not clear why they would have, given that he had no known record of violence. An ICE spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that "obtaining judicial warrants is not only unnecessary, it would place an immense burden on both ICE and the federal courts."

This killing also provides the agency with an opportunity to argue that the Obama Administration's new Priority Enforcement Program, which is replacing Secure Communities, is a necessary tool to preserve public safety. PEP is supposed to rely more on requests for notification and less on detainers than Secure Communities, and prioritize criminal aliens over everyday undocumented immigrants. But immigrant rights advocates note that PEP relies on the same fingerprint-sharing mechanism as Secure Communities, and worry that the reforms might just be window dressing for a continued dragnet approach. If this is ICE's motive, their strategy appears to be working: Mayor Lee now says that he favors more communication with ICE.  

"ICE's rush to judgement to blame San Francisco is akin to Donald Trump's rush to judgement in blaming all immigrants for the actions of one individual," says Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "There's something nefarious about those that exploit tragedy for political purposes. There's something very wrong with the way ICE so quickly sought to blame others when all the facts weren't even in yet."

ICE did not respond to an interview request by press time.

We've seen this movie before, most every time a person who might have been detained for some reason by the government commits a violent crime on the streets. Of course, the only way to never have a prior offender later commit a violent crime is to never let anyone, arrested for anything, out of prison, ever. In some key ways, this case is Willie Horton all over again, with American cities playing the role of Michael Dukakis and anti-Mexican racism at the fore.

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