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US Immigrant 'Sanctuary' Policies Under Fire After Alleged Murder by Man Deported 5 Times

The shooting death of a San Francisco woman has federal officials and others criticizing the city for refusing to detain undocumented immigrants for ICE without a warrant.

by Colleen Curry
Jul 7 2015, 9:20pm

Photo by Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP

Kathryn Steinle was enjoying a stroll along the San Francisco waterfront with her father in the city's busy Embarcadero neighborhood last week when tragedy struck. At around 6:30pm on July 1, Steinle was fatally shot through the heart, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Lopez-Sanchez has a long history of drug and assault arrests, as well as multiple deportations and illegal re-entries into the US. He had been deported five times in recent years, but snuck back across the border each time. The case has triggered a heated controversy over San Francisco's "sanctuary" policies, which allow local police to ignore detention requests placed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over concerns about the constitutionality of the so-called "ICE detainers."

In March, Lopez-Sanchez finished serving time in a federal prison for illegally re-entering the US and violating his parole. He was then handed over to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department on outstanding drug charges that were later dismissed in court. The Sheriff's Department released Lopez-Sanchez, later saying that they never received a warrant or judicial order ICE to hold him. They received only a request for detention, which they said was not a legal basis to hold him. Lopez-Sanchez has since pleaded not guilty to Steinle's murder.

Related: The Feds Are Deporting Legal Immigrants for Non-Violent Drug Crimes

San Francisco, like more than 300 other jurisdictions around the country, has policies that prohibit police from detaining immigrants based merely on requests from ICE and without arrest warrant. ICE officials and others are now criticizing San Francisco's policy.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement that the agency had lodged an immigration detainer asking to be notified prior to Sanchez's release, but that it was not honored. She said that ICE detainers serve "to ensure dangerous criminals are not released… into our communities," according to the Los Angeles Times.

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi placed the blame on ICE, saying the agency should have issued a warrant to keep Sanchez detained. An attorney for the Sheriff's Department, Freya Horne, told the Associated Press that they had no legal basis to detain Sanchez on merely a federal detention order without a warrant. The Sheriff's Department did not respond to a VICE News inquiry about the case.

'These policies put the interest of people who are violating immigration law ahead of public safety.'

In response, critics, including California State Senator Jeff Stone, have said there should be laws in place that require police to cooperate with ICE. "The murder of this woman may have been prevented had there been a state law in place to prohibit so-called 'sanctuary cities,' like San Francisco, from releasing previously convicted felons who are in the United States illegally," Stone said in a statement announcing his new proposed legislation.

Stone's stance was echoed by anti-immigrant groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), whose spokesman Ira Mehlman went so far as to blame the city of San Francisco for Steinle's death. "These policies put the interest of people who are violating immigration law ahead of public safety, and that's clearly the case in San Francisco," Mehlman told VICE News. "The government authorities in San Francisco are unindicted co-conspirators in the murder of Kate Steinle."

Related: The Business of Life: What's the Price of US Citizenship?

Mehlman said that there is a long history of sanctuary cities harboring criminals. "This is the price that we're paying. The psychic comfort of people violating federal immigration laws should not come before safety of the community," he said, also blaming the federal government for failing to address immigration policy.

Advocates for sanctuary policies sharply criticized Mehlman's line of thinking today, saying that one man's actions should not determine policy for an entire group, and that constitutional protections must be upheld for all people regardless of their immigration status.

Melissa Keaney, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said that the sanctuary policies are often driven by concerns over legal liabilities, explaining that if cities detain individuals without a warrant, they could be violating the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

"Several court decisions have been made about how local agencies can be liable for constitutional violations if they uphold a request by immigration officers, who are not judicial officers, that [are] not supported by probable cause for anything," Keaney said.

Grisel Ruiz, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, emphasized that the civil immigration system is separate and distinct from the criminal justice system, and that the two should not be conflated. "Whether or not someone is turned over on an ICE hold doesn't affect how they're charged or sentenced," she said. "None of this is affecting the efficacy of the criminal justice system."

Related: Escaping Into Prison: The Battle Over Immigrant Mothers and Children Detained by the US

Ruiz pointed out that most California counties now have policies similar to San Francisco's to ensure immigrants are treated equally under the Constitution. Both Keaney and Ruiz argued that sanctuary policies actually make communities safer because they allow undocumented immigrants to cooperate with police without fear of deportation.

"Generally we think sanctuary policies are good and that a properly, locally-based line between policing and immigration enforcement is important for public safety and the ability to gain the cooperation and trust of the community in order to effectively police," Keaney told VICE News. "That can't happen if the community distrusts police."

Mehlman called that a "straw-man argument," claiming that police do not generally inquire about immigration status when someone comes forward about a crime. In some states, however, including Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, police are required under state law to inquire about citizens' immigration status. "That's highly problematic in our minds," Keaney said.

"San Francisco required a court-ordered warrant, which is something ICE could have gotten if it wanted," she added.

Ruiz noted that undocumented immigrants essentially face "double punishment" because they can be sentenced twice for the same crime. "People could go through criminal justice system and then suddenly get deported," she said. "They face disproportionate effects."

Related: Activists Say New US Immigration Guidelines Fail to Protect Transgender Detainees

In a jailhouse interview with San Francisco's KGO-TV, Lopez-Sanchez seemed to admit firing the shot that killed Steinle, saying he took sleeping pills and found a gun wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench. The local news network later reported, citing unnamed sources, that the gun used in the shooting belonged to an agent from an undisclosed federal agency, and may have been stolen from the agent's car.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Lopez-Sanchez's attorneys said their client, who speaks limited English, did not understand what he was being asked during the interview, and suggested the shooting may have been accidental.

"This very well could be a completely accidental discharge of a firearm," Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, reportedly said. "You've got an individual who does not know the victim in the case, has no interest or desire in injuring her in any way, and no witness or anybody to allege that there was any crime going on at the time the shooting occurred."

Lopez-Sanchez was also asked by the TV reporters whether he came to San Francisco specifically because of the city's sanctuary policy. His reply was simple: "Yes."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Watch the VICE News documentary, Immigrant America: The High Cost of Deporting Parents