Immigration Law

Is San Francisco's sanctuary policy to blame for release of immigrant who became a murder suspect?

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San Francisco authorities’ release of a repeat offender who had been deported five times led to public condemnation after the man became a murder suspect.

The suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was charged Monday in last week’s fatal shooting of 31-year-old Kathryn Steinle as she was walking with her father along the San Franscisco waterfront, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle report.

Lopez-Sanchez had seven felony convictions but was released in April after a 20-year-old marijuana charge against him was dropped, despite a request by federal immigration officials who wanted to take him into custody. Lopez-Sanchez told KGO-TV that he shot Steinle but it was an accident.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons had transferred Lopez-Sanchez to San Francisco on the marijuana warrant, rather than to immigration officials, after he served a sentence for illegal re-entry into the country. Officials said the old marijuana warrant trumped the civil immigration case.

San Francisco is a “sanctuary city” that generally does not assist in federal immigration enforcement. Sanchez-Lopez told KGO-TV that he knew San Francisco was a sanctuary city.

About 300 communities limited or refused participation in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that had asked local police to hold immigrants targeted for deportation beyond their scheduled release date until federal agents could detain them. That program, which ended in November, is being replaced with a new program in which ICE asks for advance notice before such immigrants are released.

ICE followed the new guidelines, even though they hadn’t yet taken effect, when it asked for notice of Lopez-Sanchez’s release, according to the Washington Post. The Chronicle, however, says immigration officials had sought an immigration hold, which the city did not honor.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department said it was following a city ordinance when it released Lopez-Sanchez. The law bars local police detention of an individual on an immigration matter—unless the person has been convicted of a violent felony in the past seven years and is in custody on a pending violent felony. Neither condition appears to have been met in Lopez-Sanchez’s case, the San Francisco Chronicle says.

A lawyer for the sheriff’s office told the Chronicle that ICE should have obtained a court order if it wanted San Francisco authorities to hold Lopez-Sanchez. An ICE spokeswoman countered that it’s not possible to obtain such orders in every case. “We deported 177,000 people last year,” spokeswoman Virginia Kice told the newspaper. “The whole system would collapse.”

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee says San Francisco’s sanctuary policy “is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons.” The intent, he said, is to encourage reporting of crime, as well as access to social services and school for the children.

Lee said he is concerned about the circumstances of the release of Lopez-Sanchez, and all agencies involved need to review what happened.

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