The Political Exploitation Of One Undocumented Murderer

CREDIT: AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach

A mourner lays down flowers following a vigil for Kathryn Steinle, Monday, July 6, 2015, on Pier 14 in San Francisco. Steinle was gunned down while out for an evening stroll at Pier 14 with her father and a family friend on Wednesday, July 1.

The murder of San Francisco resident Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant who was deported five times has generated renewed debate over the president’s deportation policies.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant, confessed to shooting and killing 32-year-old Steinle on a sightseeing pier last week. He said he found a gun wrapped in a T-shirt and accidentally shot it three times, not realizing that he had shot someone.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez

CREDIT: San Francisco Police Department

Steinle’s death has unfurled anti-immigrant sentiment against so-called “sanctuary cities” — places that generally have large immigrant populations where local law enforcement officials do not detain immigrants solely on the basis of their legal status, largely ceding immigration enforcement to federal authorities. In his confession, Lopez-Sanchez indicated that he returned to San Francisco every time he was previously deported because it was a “sanctuary city” and that he felt protected from deportation, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

GOP lawmakers, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, are citing the tragedy to double down on calls to secure the border and to get rid of sanctuary cities. But forcing cities to cooperate with federal immigration officials is a misrepresentation of the actual crime rates among undocumented immigrants, and could leave both immigrants and Americans less safe.

What it means to be a sanctuary city

San Francisco is one of about 300 municipalities that have “amended their policies regarding ICE detainers” to dissuade local law enforcement officials from pursuing immigrants for deportation proceedings, according to the San Francisco Sheriff’s department. In 2007, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom said, “I will not allow any of my department heads or anyone associated with this city to cooperate in any way shape or form with these raids. We are a sanctuary city, make no mistake about it.”

According to CNN, after Lopez-Sanchez completed a prison sentence for illegally re-entering the United States, ICE requested an immigration hold to keep him in jail until federal immigration authorities could pick him up for potential deportation proceedings. But a 1989 ordinance expanded by Mayor Ed Lee in October 2013 prohibits local San Francisco police from honoring immigration holds “unless such help is required by federal or state law or a warrant.” In a statement, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department indicated that “there was no active Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) warrant or judicial order of removal” for Lopez-Sanchez.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department also released a set of procedures seriously restricting local and state law enforcement officials to detain or release immigrants to ICE authorities. “We do not hand over people to ICE,” San Francisco Police Officer Grace Gatpandan Gatpandan explained at the time.

Some Republicans have seized on Steinle’s death to attack the use of sanctuary cities — particularly Trump, who has been making headlines since his incendiary remarks about Mexicans rapists and drug dealers entering the country.

“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said in a statement. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) echoed those comments on ABC’s “This Week” this weekend. “The tragic murder of Kate Steinle once again underscores the need to end these reckless policies,” Goodlatte said. “Why did they ever turn him over to them when they could have deported him, or they could have prosecuted him for illegally re-entering the country four times and send him to prison? Either way, Kate Steinle would be safe.”

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), who enacted draconian anti-immigrant measures as a small-town Pennsylvania mayor, added, “These so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ are safe havens for everyone but law-abiding citizens.”

Missing their intended targets

Sanctuary cities have emerged as a response to policies that haven’t done a good job of finding their intended targets: Immigrants with serious criminal records who may pose a threat to Americans.

Late last year, President Obama announced an executive action to eliminate the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, which allowed local and state jails to share biometric information with federal immigration and asked local precincts to honor immigration holds. That move ostensibly shifted away from targeting immigrants with low-level offenses to focus on those who have committed serious crimes.

A 2014 Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report found that just 12 percent of all deportees caught through the Secure Communities program just the previous year committed a serious or “Level 1” offense — people who pose a serious threat to public or national safety.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent escorts a handcuffed undocumented immigrant convicted of a felony during an early morning operation.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent escorts a handcuffed undocumented immigrant convicted of a felony during an early morning operation.

CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

Secure Communities’ replacement, the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), now requests detainers for notification, “a request that the local agency notify ICE of a pending release during the time the person is in custody under state or local authority,” according to the immigration reform advocacy group National Immigrant Law Center (NILC). “ICE should seek the transfer only of people who have been convicted of certain offenses, or who have intentionally participated in an organized gang to further the illegal activities of the gang, or people whom ICE has found present a ‘demonstrable risk to national security,’” a recent NILC fact sheet indicated.

It’s unclear whether PEP has done a better job at catching more immigrants who commit serious crimes. But in a recent week-long, national raid, nearly half of the convicted criminal immigrants were individuals whose most serious crimes were misdemeanors. In another incident, ICE accosted both a U.S. citizen child and a legal immigrant grandmother at their homes.

Officials enforcing immigration policies are most successful at driving out college educated immigrants into other parts of the United States, an indication that some enforcement policies are “missing their intended targets,” a report found last year. The report finds that the only place where the vast majority of undocumented immigrants do leave the country is in Maricopa County, Arizona — in part due to intense immigration enforcement tactics. But those extreme measures also come at a great price: Anti-immigration Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County has racked up numerous violations, lawsuits, and was ordered a court-appointed monitor for his unconstitutional racial profiling tactics.

Sanctuary cities foster better relationships

Though immigration restrictionists are going after the more than 70 cities and states that have adopted policies preventing police from asking residents to prove their immigration status, sanctuary cities have made community policing safer, a 2011 Immigration Policy Center report asserted. The report stated, “State and local police departments around the country support community policing policies because they encourage immigrants to work with the police to put criminals behind bars.”

One immigrant who provided critical testimony to the police to help put a convicted murderer behind bars was deported following the trial. When asked whether he would come forward again “knowing that doing so would lead to his deportation, Sigui replied: ‘If I had known they would take my liberty, that they would take my children away from me, that they would put me [in immigration detention], I would not do this.’” 

Some law enforcement officials support building relationships with their immigrant population. One Massachusetts police chief stated in 2009, “When immigrant residents of Lowell are afraid to report crimes because they worry that contact with my officers could lead to deportation, criminals are allowed to roam free and the entire community suffers as a result.”

Earlier this year, law enforcement officials wrote a letter in opposition to the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, a bill that requires state and local law enforcement to take on the role of immigration agents. The letter partially stated, “When state and local law enforcement agencies are required to enforce federal immigration laws, undocumented residents may become fearful that they, or people they know, will be exposed to immigration officials and are less likely to cooperate. This undermines trust between law enforcement and these communities, creating breeding grounds for criminal enterprises.”

Most immigrants are not criminals

Studies have shown that the vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrant population are not criminals. They also commit considerably fewer crimes than Americans. One study found that “among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the immigration-restrictionist organization Center for Immigration Studies previously said, “we found no strong evidence one way or the other for the notion that immigrants commit either more or less crime than the American population. And a 2013 Criminology and Delinquency study found that first-generation immigrants commit crime at a lower rate than second-generation immigrants and native-born, non-Hispanic whites.

Still, anti-immigrant lawmakers have been keen on using flawed statistics to paint undocumented immigrants as dangerous. Earlier this year, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) stated that undocumented immigrants are responsible for killing Americans “every day.” As evidence, Sessions’ spokesman pointed to a now-defunct Texas Department of Public Safety graphic, which reportedly showed that immigrants were responsible for more than 3,000 homicides in 2014. But that graphic didn’t break down the legal status of immigrants.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has made the argument that undocumented immigrants killed more Americans in a four-year period than the number of people who perished during the September 2001 terrorist attacks. But he also took the number of homicides committed by undocumented immigrants over a 51-year period, instead of a snapshot of “a four year window,” as he stated.

King’s citation statistics comes from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found that more than 25,000 foreign nationals were arrested for homicides over a 51-year period between August 1955 to April 2010, but not all of them were undocumented immigrants, nor ultimately convicted. Among the general population, there were 11,200 arrests for homicides in 2010 alone, the Department of Justice reported.