With the Death of Kate Steinle, SF’s Sanctuary Laws Come Under Fire

Under the most unfortunate of circumstances, San Francisco has been thrust into the national spotlight.

On Wednesday last week, Kathryn Steinle was walking with her father along Pier 14, a popular tourism destination for its views of the bay, when she was struck by a stray bullet. She was rushed to the hospital but died a few hours later. Police immediately began a manhunt and soon apprehended a suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Lopez-Sanchez, it turns out, is an undocumented immigrant who has had multiple run ins with the law. He has been deported five times and has been convicted of seven felonies, most of which are either drug related or have to do with him re-entering the country illegally. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had been holding Lopez-Sanchez for close to four years, but sent him to San Francisco this past March to face a long pending drug charge.

How, then, did Lopez-Sanchez come to be walking freely in the streets? The answer has to do with the city’s particular immigrations laws, laws that make San Francisco what is called a “sanctuary city.”

During the 1980s, when civil wars were raging across several Central American countries, religious congregations in the United States began to openly defy federal immigration laws that limited the number of immigrants who would be granted political asylum. These congregations became knowns as sanctuaries and offered shelter, food, and legal advice for the fleeing individuals and families. During the same time, cities began to institute sanctuary policies – in 1989, San Francisco adopted its “City and County of Refuge” Ordinance, which prevents city employees from assisting in ICE investigations unless specifically required by law or a warrant.

Over the years, San Francisco has affirmed its commitment to its sanctuary status. Throughout 2007, ICE conducted raids around the country – under such names as “Operation Return to Sender” –  to sweep up undocumented immigrants who had ignored deportation orders. Many of those arrested, however, were not wanted fugitives, and the operations resulted in thousands of families split apart, neighborhoods decimated, and challenges from constitutional scholars and policy experts around the legality of the raids. In response, San Francisco adopted policies to shield immigrant communities, for example its 2007 resident identification card program which is available to all city residents regardless of immigration status and helps people to access city services.

It is in this policy context that Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez arrived in San Francisco this past March to face a twenty-year-old marijuana charge. ICE officials claim to have asked city authorities to notify them once his case had been dealt with so that they could re-take and deport him, however this request came at odds with a sanctuary policy adopted by the city in 2014: the “no-holds ICE policy” states that the city will not honor ICE detention requests unless there is clear probable cause or a specific arrest warrant for the immigrant in question. San Francisco authorities determined that neither was the case with Lopez-Sanchez, and so released him on April 15th after he was cleared of his drug charges.

Lopez-Sanchez is now in prison and faces murder charges. He has admitted to firing the weapon, but says he never meant to kill Steinle. City police have issued a statement saying the killing appeared to be a random shooting.

By now the story has erupted on national stage. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump leapt at the opportunity to claim validation for his uncompromising stance on immigration. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee came out with a statement assuring that the city’s sanctuary laws are not meant to protect, “repeat, serious and violent felons.” California Secretary of State Kamala Harris cautioned against overhauling policy based on a single event.

But this is, indeed, the question that now faces San Francisco. In light of this incredibly tragic circumstance, should the city’s sanctuary laws be changed? And if so, how? Vote and comment below.

Should San Francisco’s Sanctuary Laws Be Changed? If So, How?In early July, Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed while she was walking along Pier 14. Police arrested Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant with several felonies. Up until March of this year, Lopez-Sanchez had been held by immigration officials and was set to be deported, but was sent to San Francisco to face an old marijuana charge. San Francisco is considered a “sanctuary city,” because it places limits on how much it complies with immigration officials. This is to protect immigrant communities. Instead of turning Lopez-Sanchez back to officials, he was released once his charges were dropped.

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