‘Sanctuary city’ policy threatened by federal database

SF Public Press
 — May 10 2010 - 5:13pm

 A new federal program is reigniting a longstanding debate about whether San Francisco can shield criminal suspects who have not been convicted of a crime from immigration authorities.

Secure Communities, a Department of Homeland Security initiative to place information from local law enforcement into a federal immigration database, will be installed in the San Francisco jail system next month.

By feeding biometric information on anyone arrested and booked in the city’s jail to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the new program would dismantle a critical piece of the city’s 21-year-old “sanctuary city” ordinance, under which only information in felony cases is referred to federal officials.

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office told the San Francisco Chronicle that the city’s sanctuary program was never intended to shield criminal suspects.

However, Supervisor David Campos, who supports limiting the sharing of information about immigrant prisoners, said he was very concerned about the new program.

“As I understand the process, the sheriff’s office has no choice in the matter,” Campos said. “Based on the information we have, it does appear that implementation of this program would essentially undermine the city’s sanctuary policy.”

City still won’t cooperate

While this is true in the case of people booked into the jail system, the city’s sanctuary ordinance is also broader in scope, and includes a severability clause. That means that different policy points exist independently of each other, so the policy is still in effect.

Although San Francisco is compelled to cooperate with the new federal program, the sanctuary city program still prevents city employees from helping ICE with other immigration investigations or arrests. It would also continue to protect the personal information of those seeking city services.

San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance is not unique. Dozens of cities across the nation passed such resolutions in the 1980s in response to perceived inadequacies in federal treatment of refugees from war-torn Central America.

ICE program director David J. Venturella and San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey have disagreed publicly on the scope of enforcement. Hennessey’s perception of the program is that it would allow ICE officials to take into custody those arrested for minor crimes if there might also an immigration violation.

“This federal-state cooperative agreement will dramatically increase the number of San Francisco residents reported to ICE,” Hennessey told the Chronicle. “It is likely that more local residents will be taken into ICE custody while their residency status is being reviewed.”

Venturella said detaining individuals on minor infractions is not a priority, although ICE does maintain its authority to take enforcement action toward any person subject to removal from the U.S. Those arrested for felonies and violent crimes are the stated enforcement priority.

Dramatic cases

Such cases have been raised as a concern in the past, including the July 2008 murder of 14-year-old Ivan Miranda in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood by an illegal immigrant from Honduras with a criminal record in the United States.

Julia Harumi Mass, a staff attorney with the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, said that as of November 2009, of the 111,000 people the program has identified, only 11,000 have been listed as the class 1 felons that the program purportedly focuses on.

“There is no apparent standard of rules about who ICE brings in under this program, and who they don’t,” Mass said.

The ACLU also has expressed concerns that there has been no comprehensive study of how the screening affects racial profiling at the time of arrest. There has been some indication that in jurisdictions where the program has been implemented there has been an increase in immigrants arrested for petty crimes.

Some immigrant advocacy groups have also suggested that the program could have unintended consequences for public safety, fearing that immigrants will be less likely to cooperate with police.

The city maintains that the sanctuary city policy increases public safety for all San Franciscans by making sure residents feel comfortable calling the police and fire departments during emergencies.

“We fear the program will cause a reluctance on the part of the victim of a crimes like domestic violence to go to the police, especially if you don’t want the consequences to be deportation,” Mass said.

The Secure Communities program, started at the end of the Bush administration, plans to integrate its biometric data sharing system nationwide by 2013. ICE sets the priorities for which jurisdictions join the national system first.

Before being named by Bush to direct the Secure Communities program, Venturella was an executive at L3 Communications, a Defense Department and Homeland Security prime contractor.

San Francisco would be the 18th jurisdiction in California to be included in the Secure Communities program. In the Bay Area, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano and Sonoma counties already participate.

(For a complete list of counties in California covered by the Secure Cities program, visit the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement website).