Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
Since the July 1 killing of Kathryn Steinle, anti-immigrant sentiment has defined the Republican primary.
For many U.S. conservatives, the most important incident of the summer was the July 1 killing of a young San Francisco woman, Kathryn Steinle, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.
While it was certainly a hot topic before, since Steinle’s death, anti-immigrant sentiment has transformed the Republican presidential primary race. This in turn has once again encouraged moderates in both parties to pursue harsher stances and measures on immigration policy.
How did a single Bay Area homicide end up having this much influence on national politics? What follows is a guide to understanding this summer’s most misrepresented controversy.
The case so far
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez allegedly shot Steinle, maybe accidentally and possibly under the influence of sleeping pills, with a gun that he’s said he found on the street (this gun, by the way, was reportedly stolen from a federal agent). Lopez-Sanchez had served time in federal prison for illegally reentering the United States after previously being deported. But instead of being deported again after serving that prison term, he was transferred to San Francisco at the request of the Sheriff's Department because of an outstanding warrant stemming from a minor 1995 marijuana arrest.
Lopez-Sanchez was released onto city streets by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which like many local law enforcement agencies, limits cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement under a set of policies sometimes referred to as “sanctuary.” It was after this release that Lopez-Sanchez allegedly shot Steinle.
Here’s where the controversy starts: ICE had issued a request that Lopez-Sanchez be detained, and that ICE receive advance notification of his release. "That detainer was not honored," according to an ICE statement. "As a result, 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."
The killing has been pivotal to Trump’s candidacy and the GOP race
Steinle's killing remains obscure to many on the left but has proved cataclysmic on the right, proof that immigrants pose a lethal threat and that left-leaning cities like San Francisco are coddling them. Recall that in his June 16 campaign announcement, Donald Trump declared that Mexico is "sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
So when just weeks later Steinle’s killing made headlines, for Trump, it was political gold.
"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," Trump declared. "This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won't happen if I become President."
By mid-July, Trump had pulled ahead in polls, according to Real Clear Politics.
"Something happened in July to send Trump’s numbers soaring," writes The Atlantic’s David Frum, one of many establishment conservatives who believes the real estate mogul is channeling, however clownishly, legitimate outrage over immigrant crime. "That something may have been the murder of Kathryn Steinle."
There may be no more striking example than the Steinle case of the siloing of American political information. Liberals at least know that conservatives are fixated on Benghazi, even if they can't comprehend why. By contrast, the Steinle killing is practically unknown outside the orbit of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. For anti-immigrant conservatives, Steinle’s death has seemingly confirmed a number of core beliefs—that immigrants are dangerous, and that the liberal politicians governing "left-wing loony-bin cities" betray Americans and put them at risk.
In reality, Steinle's death is a tragedy that offers no real lessons about immigration, or cities with so-called “sanctuary” policies.
There was no apparent reason to believe Lopez-Sanchez was dangerous
Perhaps the most pervasive idea to come out of the fervor over the Steinle case is this: a dangerous criminal like Lopez-Sanchez should never have been released.
The Washington Post, for example, reported that Lopez-Sanchez "has seven felony convictions since 1991 and has been deported five times from the United States to Mexico." That sure is a lot of felony convictions. But according to ICE, four of those felonies were drug-related, while the other three were apparently for illegal reentry. (You might not know, given the pervasive sense that America doesn't enforce its immigration laws, that a huge portion of the federal prison population is made up of people convicted of reentering the United States without authorization. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the average sentence in 2014 was a not-so-lenient 17 months.)
Lopez-Sanchez, who had just served time for his last illegal reentry, had no (so far as yet) known history of violent offenses. There was no reason, as far as publicly available information is concerned, that authorities should have suspected that he posed a safety risk.
It’s highly doubtful that Lopez-Sanchez kept going back to San Francisco on purpose only because it was a "sanctuary city"
Lopez-Sanchez is frequently said to have admitted that he kept going back to San Francisco because of its “sanctuary” policies.
Marco Rubio, for one, told Fox News that Steinle died because of "liberal local officials who refused to comply with the law," and claimed that Lopez-Sanchez repeatedly "found his way to San Francisco because he knew it was a city and a jurisdiction that would not turn him over to federal authorities."
But it’s not at all clear that this is true. Watch the television interview with Lopez-Sanchez where he supposedly said this. Whether due to a language barrier or other issues, not only is it not clear he understands the question, it’s not clear he understands what’s going on around him.
It's not just "left-wing loony-bin cities" that aren't working with ICE
Even conservative jurisdictions like Finney County, Kansas, are now "sanctuaries" in the sense that they refuse to hold onto immigrants at ICE's mere request. That's because of federal court rulings against such detentions. Over the past year, it has become clear that no city can comply with an ICE request to imprison someone without a sufficient legal basis.
In the case of Lopez-Sanchez, ICE requested that the San Francisco Sheriff both detain him after he would have otherwise been released and that they notify ICE as to his release, according to a copy of a detainer request, using the name of a reputed alias, obtained by CityLab. In San Francisco, the Sheriff not only refuses to honor most such requests for detention but limits notifying ICE about an immigrant's release.
San Francisco's policy allows for detainers to be honored if an immigrant has been convicted of a violent felony in the prior seven years, or if there is probable cause to believe they have committed one. The policy is silent on the question of notifying ICE before a release, and this refusal to notify ICE could go beyond what has been required by recent federal court rulings.
The San Francisco Sheriff’s refusal to notify ICE is in line, however, with the spirit of most “sanctuary” policies, which is to stop local law enforcement from routinely facilitating deportations. Notifying ICE of an immigrant's release is effectively facilitating their deportation. Many, many cities have moved to restrict cooperation with ICE on their own at the behest of law enforcement—more than 360 jurisdictions, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. There had long been broad concerns that the Secure Communities program, which shared local jurisdiction fingerprints with ICE, made cops into de facto immigration agents—and thus made communities more fearful of law enforcement and cops' jobs harder.
"The only reason to now notify federal immigration officials of an individual’s release would be to facilitate the release of the individual to the federal immigration officials," Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi wrote in a July 16 letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who harshly criticized Mirkarimi in the wake of Steinle's killing. "This would completely circumvent the requirements and intent of the Sanctuary City Ordinance, the Due Process For All Ordinance and lead to unconstitutional detentions."
This is true: If the San Francisco Sheriff's Department had facilitated Lopez-Sanchez's transfer to ICE custody, then he could not have shot Steinle. He would have been either in custody, or in Mexico. You could say, by the same logic, that any crime committed by anyone who had ever committed a previous crime—even for, say, shoplifting—could not have done so had they been given a life sentence without parole. If San Francisco were not a sanctuary city, Steinle might very well be alive. But that does not in turn in any way suggest that cooperation with ICE would make cities safer as a whole.
The point of sanctuary city policies is to stop local law enforcement from facilitating the deportation of those undocumented immigrants who don't pose a public safety risk. And prior to Steinle’s killing, there was no evidence that Lopez-Sanchez was a threat. It will always be the case that some immigrants who seem to pose no threat will ultimately commit a violent crime. The same is true for native-born Americans. Which brings me to another important point.
Immigrants commit less, not more crime, than native-born Americans
It's hard to believe that this bears repeating, but: immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans. This is a fact substantiated by research.
And yet, Republicans this summer have insisted on scapegoating immigrants and sanctuary cities.
"We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country," declared Jeb Bush, the purported immigration moderate, in last week's GOP primary debate. "It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that… local governments are not following the federal law."
Ted Cruz even went so far as to pledge to “defund” sanctuary cities and boasted of having authored "Kate Steinle's law," which would strip sanctuary cities of some federal funding and hike penalties for illegally reentering the United States after deportation. Similar legislation has already passed in the House.
Democrats are exploiting Steinle's death, too
California Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbra Boxer have also floated the idea of legislation to curb sanctuary cities, and Hillary Clinton criticized San Francisco for standing in the way of deporting "someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported."
The Obama Administration has opposed legislation but has nonetheless used Steinle's killing as a cudgel to push cities to submit to cooperation with ICE. ICE's new Priority Enforcement Program is replacing Secure Communities. It maintains the same fingerprint sharing mechanism, the only difference being that ICE will mostly request notifications, and not detentions, and has once again pledged to focus attention on serious criminals.
"ICE is now issuing detainers and requests for notification with respect to individuals who meet our heightened enforcement priorities under PEP to ensure individuals who pose a threat to public safety are not released from prisons or jails into our communities," according to an ICE statement. "PEP is a balanced, common-sense approach, that places the focus where it should be: on criminals and individuals who threaten the public safety."
Immigrant advocates worry that the new program will suffer from the same old problems.
"Routine use of notification requests raises the same concerns that immigration detainers (also known as 'holds') do--namely, the undermining of community-police trust and creation of an unsafe environment where immigrant victims of or witnesses to crime fear contacting the police," emails Saira Hussain, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. "These concerns remain the same whether it is local law enforcement facilitating deportation through holding people for extra time on immigration detainers or through notifying ICE of release dates and home addresses."
The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department did make an error, and that was that they requested, for unknown reasons, that Lopez-Sanchez be returned to San Francisco to face marijuana charges so minor and old that they never would have been prosecuted. Steinle’s death is no doubt a tragedy. But politically, if you look at the facts, it signifies nothing.