Crossing the line

How Mayor Newsom's policies are tearing apart families, imprisoning and imperiling children, and creating a climate of fear in immigrant communities
Immigration rally at City Hall
Photo by Lars Howlett

Estella (a fake name she used to protect her identity) is a single mother of five who came to the United States from Latin America when her oldest daughter was a baby, hoping for a better future for her family.

But thanks to a shift in San Francisco's sanctuary policy that Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered last year, Estella's daughter — we'll call her Maria, now 15 — was seized by federal immigration authorities this fall, ripped from her family and community, and shipped to a detention center in Miami.

Her crime: she got in a fight with her younger, U.S.-born sister.

The experience shattered Estella's dreams and terrified her family, whom immigration experts describe as "mixed status" because Estella also has U.S.-born children.

It also convinced Estella to speak out publicly to try to convince Newsom that legislation that ensures due process for kids like her daughter is the right thing to do.

Last month, a veto-proof majority of the Board of Supervisors voted to support amendments to Newsom's current policy in an effort to make sure juveniles get their day in court before being hastily and needlessly referred to federal immigration authorities.

But the next day, Newsom vetoed the legislation introduced by Sup. David Campos, claiming it violates federal law. And now Newsom is refusing to debate the issue with Campos or meet with the community whose kids are at risk of being deported because someone in local law enforcement suspects them of being here without paperwork and accuses them of committing a serious crime.

Under Newsom's policy, which he ordered without public review in June 2008, city officials are required to refer juveniles whom they suspect of being undocumented felons to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they book them at Juvenile Hall.

Last month Newsom defended his policy, saying that the city's sanctuary ordinance, as originally conceived and adopted, was designed to protect law-abiding city residents.

"It was never meant to serve as a shield for people accused of committing serious crimes in our city," Newsom wrote in his veto letter.

His comments followed close on the heels of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial claiming the majority of these juveniles detained are subsequently found guilty of serious crimes.

But this is not true: the Juvenile Probation Department's 2008 statistics show that 68 percent of the young people arrested in San Francisco that year were found to be innocent.

And as Estella's story shows, under Newsom's policy juveniles who have not committed serious crimes are at risk of being reported and detained for possible deportation.

This means a teenager — a 15-year-old girl in this case — could get dropped off in a country she last saw when she was a baby, with no family to meet and take care of her. These kids are at risk of being preyed upon by criminal gangs or "coyotes," often-unscrupulous human traffickers known to abuse and abandon young people during the perilous border crossing.

Most kids in Maria's situation would want to return to their U.S. home — to their parents, families, friends — the only community they know. But since the federal government has made border crossings increasingly perilous, getting back to the U.S. often requires several thousand dollars in smuggler fees — leaving teens open to harsh exploitation.

In other words, deportation — in Maria's case, for the crime of a fight with her sister — could be a sentence to years of forced labor, life in a violent gang ... or death.


It's not clear how Maria got into the altercation at school with her sister; fights between siblings and friends in high school are hardly a rare or even terribly remarkable experience.