As cops pushed their way through City Hall’s crowded hallways the day after the presidential inauguration, telling immigrant-rights demonstrators to make a clear pathway, a woman pulled her friend closer to the wall.
"Be careful," she said in Spanish. "You don’t want to be detained."
The mostly Latino protesters placed a candle and an invitation to an immigrant rights meeting in front of each supervisor’s door. The event was meant to bid good riddance to George W. Bush and demand policy change from both President Barack Obama and Mayor Gavin Newsom in light of the escautf8g nationwide crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.
Angered by what they see as a lack of local political leadership in the face of federal assaults on San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance, the protesters, numbering in the hundreds, sang social justice songs and chanted "Si se puede" before stopping in front of the Mayor’s Office to shout, "Let us in!"
Organized by the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a coalition of 30 organizations that has been working on an immigrants’ rights platform since last July, the action was intended to place additional pressure on Newsom to meet directly with activists.
Newsom has refused to hold a public meeting with immigrant-rights groups since announcing last summer that the city would contact federal authorities whenever youth suspected of being undocumented are arrested on felony charges. That means even innocent kids, arrested by mistake, could be deported.
Newsom’s abrupt policy shift came on the heels of a series of racially charged San Francisco Chronicle articles that hit newsstands just as he was announcing his intention to run for California governor.
Since then, SFIRDC has organized protests and met individually with nine supervisors to persuade them to uphold the city’s sanctuary ordinance and municipal ID program, and to work to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, police checkpoints, and budget cuts to immigrant community programs.
To date, the four newly elected supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu, and Eric Mar, all direct descendants of immigrant families along with two returning board members, Sups. Chris Daly and Bevan Dufty, have signed SFIRDC’s pledge.
But while Sup. Sophie Maxwell is said to be open to the idea and Ross Mirkarimi is likely to sign it, Sups. Michela Alioto-Pier, Sean Elsbernd, and Carmen Chu, Newsom’s closest allies on the board, have not.
SFIRDC co-organizer and Asian Law Caucus staff attorney Angela Chan said the coalition hopes Newsom will be receptive to the idea of a Feb. 25 town hall meeting, and that Obama will heed calls to stop raids and suspend detentions and deportations moves that have increased in frequency locally since Joseph Russoniello was appointed U.S. Attorney for Northern California in December 2007.
"Russoniello’s priorities don’t seem to be in line with the Obama administration," Chan told the Guardian, further noting that the success of SFIRDC’s February 25th meeting, which will be held at the office of St. Peter’s Housing Committee, hinges on the presence of the mayor: If he doesn’t show, the discussion cannot move forward.
San Francisco’s 1989 Sanctuary Ordinance prohibits the use of city funds to enforce federal immigration law, but a 1993 amendment requires the city to report immigrants suspected of felonies to the federal government.
But San Francisco law-enforcement officials chose not to apply that rule to young people until last summer’s policy shift. Since then, the Juvenile Probation Department has referred an estimated 100 San Francisco youth (who were arrested on suspicion of a crime, but not yet convicted) to ICE. The feds can detain undocumented youth in county jails with adult criminals or transfer them to other facilities, often in other states, without notifying an attorney or a family member.
"We want to narrow the 1993 felony exception to be applied only if a youth has gotten due process and been found to have committed a felony," Chan said.
The city’s crackdown is part of a larger national picture. The amped-up federal campaign against undocumented immigrants, a product of post-9/11 programs, began when ICE was created to replace the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 2003.
"There are victims of domestic violence who will not call the police because they are afraid of their families getting deported," Guillermina Castellano, a domestic worker and activist with Mujeres Unidas and La Raza Central, said at the protest."The main difference between now and before is the scale," said Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer with the Immigrant Legal Education Network. "It’s hard to describe the kind of fear that exists now."