The fallout from a seemingly random fatal shooting at a crowded tourist spot in San Francisco last week has ignited a national debate over the city's decades-old tradition of offering safe haven to undocumented immigrants. Now used as fodder in political rallying cries on immigration, the shooting mounts pressure on these so-called "sanctuary cities" -- municipalities that have openly defied federal immigration policies and taken a more welcoming tact toward undocumented immigrants.
San Francisco is one of the oldest such cities in the country, having joined the movement in 1989 when city officials passed an ordinance barring funds from being used to enforce federal immigration law. Those protections have since been expanded repeatedly, and in 2013, a new ordinance was signed into law preventing local law enforcement from subjecting undocumented immigrants to extended detention to allow time for federal immigration agents to take the individual into custody. Under San Francisco law, only such immigration "detainer" requests apply to people with violent records.
This was the case with Francisco Sanchez, a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant with a lengthy rap sheet, who has been charged with killing Kathryn Steinle on the San Francisco pier last Wednesday. He had been booked previously into the San Francisco County Jail in March on a 10-year-old drug warrant. Despite his long rap sheet -- Sanchez had been deported five times and had seven felony convictions to his name, four of which were on drug charges -- he was released from custody.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that the agency had requested that local authorities hold Sanchez for deportation, but the request was denied.
"An individual with a lengthy criminal history, who is now the suspect in a tragic murder case, was released onto the street rather than being turned over to ICE for deportation," spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. "We're not asking local cops to do our job. All we're asking is that they notify us when a serious foreign national criminal offender is being released to the street so we can arrange to take custody."
A crucial pillar of President Obama's executive actions on immigration announced last November relied on enforcement mechanisms to root out undocumented criminals and make them a top priority for enforcement. ICE reported that 56% of all immigrants deported in 2014 were previously convicted of a crime.
Agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement have relied on state and local law enforcement agencies to flag undocumented immigrants whom they come into contact with. "ICE detainers" are a formal written request to detain an individual for an additional 48 hours to allow immigration agents additional time to take over custody.
But the dynamic became complicated for municipalities after a federal court in Oregon last year ruled that immigration holds violated a women's 4th amendment right in denying her due process. Unwilling to remain vulnerable to potential lawsuits that could stack in the millions for unlawfully detaining an immigrant without a warrant, sheriff's departments around the country have rejected ICE detainer requests and released individuals. More than 300 municipalities across the country have since signed onto the movement.
The shooting played into 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump's repeated comments disparaging Mexican immigrants, claiming the incident only proves him right.
"They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc. This was evident just this week when, as an example, a young woman in San Francisco was viciously killed by a five-time deported Mexican with a long criminal record, who was forced back into the United States because they didn't want him in Mexico," Trump said in a statement Monday. "This is merely one of thousands of similar incidents throughout the United States."
What remains unclear is the circumstances of this weekend's tragedy in which Steinle was seemingly a random victim. According to local news reports, Sanchez says he was in a drug-addled haze during the time of the shooting, claiming that he reached for a T-shirt that was wrapped around a gun when the fatal shot rang out.
"Then suddenly I heard that boom boom, three times," Sanchez said in the interview with local TV station WABC-TV. "I'm feeling sorry for everybody."