Up against ICE

Immigrant-rights groups challenge the mayor to stand behind SF's sanctuary ordinance


The San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a newly formed coalition of more than 30 community groups, is asking Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors to sign a pledge supporting San Francisco's immigrant community.

By signing the pledge, city officials would agree to uphold the city's sanctuary ordinance, ensure that San Francisco police officers don't act like immigration agents, and denounce racial profiling. They would also agree to denounce Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and ensure that immigrant youth get due process, that funding for immigrant communities continues, and that the city announce a specific date for implementing San Francisco's municipal identification program.

The move could put Newsom in an awkward situation — the mayor doesn't want to appear to be snubbing immigrant-rights leaders, but he also has moved in the past few months to distance himself from the city's liberal sanctuary law.

So far the coalition has not heard back from Newsom, but some supervisors-elect and returning supervisors have already signed it, and the Mayor's Office has signaled that the municipal identification program will kick in Jan. 15.

The move to get elected officials to sign a pledge comes at the end of a difficult year for the immigrant community. In May, the federal government challenged San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance after immigration agents stopped a city juvenile probation officer in Houston.

The officer, who was repatriating a group of Honduran youths who had been busted for selling crack, believed he was acting in accordance with city's policy. The federal agents, who took the young people into custody, eventually released the officer.

And it wasn't long before US Attorney Joseph Russoniello, a staunch opponent of the sanctuary ordinance, convened a grand jury to see whether the city used the sanctuary policy to harbor immigrant felons from federal prosecution.

The city countered this attack by hiring high-powered criminal defense lawyer Cris Arguedas. But by then the damage to the city's sanctuary policy had already been done: in June, someone leaked the details of confidential juvenile court cases to the San Francisco Chronicle. One day after the story hit the newsstands, Newsom — who until then was a staunch sanctuary ordinance supporter — did an about-face, announcing that he would require city officials to refer youth suspected of being undocumented and of having committed a felony to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even before they have a hearing.

Immigrant rights groups decried Newsom's new direction, calling it an overly broad policy that had the potential to lead to deporting innocent people who may not have family or relatives in their county of origin.

As Angela Chan of the Asian Law Caucus pointed out, based on Juvenile Probation Department data, in 2006 there were 288 petitions filed against Latin American juveniles, but only 211 were sustained. Had Newsom's policy been in place, 77 juveniles who weren't actually found to have committed a felony in San Francisco could have been reported to ICE when they were booked and might have been wrongly deported.

While Newsom's gubernatorial ambitions were blamed for his sudden change of heart, critics also pointed the finger at his criminal justice director, Kevin Ryan.