SF supervisors approve policy of denying federal immigration hold requests

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Sup. John Avalos sponsored the legislation and opposed the effort to carve-out exceptions to its protections.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Chambers erupted in raucous celebration and chants of “Si se puede!” this afternoon as the board gave unanimous approval to a new city policy of refusing most detention hold requests from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has used its controversial Secure Communities program to learn when undocumented immigrants end up in local jails and to have them held for deportation.

The legislation by Sup. John Avalos is intended to build trust between law enforcement and immigrants, which can be reluctant to report crimes such a domestic violence or buglaries for fear of deportation. “People who have to deal with the devastation that Secure Communities causes, they’re the ones who brought this forward,” Avalos said.

Those advocates had to wait a week for this momentus occasion because of amendments that were introduced last week, prompted by opposition to the measure by Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr, who expressed concern that it would shield violent felons from deportation.

Those amendments were introduced by Sup. Jane Kim, who had supported the original measure without them but sought to broaden support for the measure. Her amendments make exceptions for those convicted of violent felonies, sex trafficking, child molestation, and use of a gun in commission of a felony, although they call for police to consider factors such as a dependent child before allowing ICE to take custody of an undocumented immigrant.

Avalos opposed the amendments, saying “any carve-outs deter the victims of crimes from reaching out to law enforcement.” The amendments were also criticized by Sup. David Campos, who called them “counterproductive to public safety.” But both accepted them and called the measure an important victory.

“What’s happening in this chamber is a victory for the immigrant communities of San Francisco and all communities in San Francisco,” Campos said in English before repeating it in Spanish. “Let’s emphasize the common ground that we have found.”

The ordinance is set to receive final approval next week when it’s heard on second reading. Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi -- who has supported the legislation since its inception and who will oversee its implementation in the jail -- said his office had just received the latest amendments and is still reviewing them.

“It’s the unintended consequences that bring me here before you today,” Mirkarimi told his former colleagues at the board, saying he wants to make sure the new policy is clear enough so that even deputies working in the middle of the night would know how to handle ICE requests. “Changes in the legislation do pose some operational concerns.”

Mirkarimi had already instituted policies of resisting many federal immigration hold requests, joining with San Jose, Berkeley, and other cities who oppose the S-Comm program, and this ordinance broadened and codified those policies.

The legislation was strongly supported by the city’s Domestic Violence Consortium, representing an ironic turn of events when Mayor Lee -- who waged a protracted and unsuccessful campaign to remove Sheriff Mirkarimi from office for grabbing his wife’s arm last year -- threatened to veto it. Avalos also placed second in a crowded field of candidates when Lee was elected mayor in 2011.

It was Lee's veto threat that ultimately weakened the legislation, a move opposed by activists who work on domestic violence issues. But Kim made clear that despite her amendments, she strongly opposes S-Comm and its local impacts.

“We believe the S-Comm program is deeply flawed,” Kim said, telling the story of a constituent who feared calling the police after their home had been burglarized. “No one should fear calling the police when they need help.”