Up against ICE

Pub date December 23, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a newly formed coalition of more than 30 community groups, is asking Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors to sign a pledge supporting San Francisco’s immigrant community.

By signing the pledge, city officials would agree to uphold the city’s sanctuary ordinance, ensure that San Francisco police officers don’t act like immigration agents, and denounce racial profiling. They would also agree to denounce Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and ensure that immigrant youth get due process, that funding for immigrant communities continues, and that the city announce a specific date for implementing San Francisco’s municipal identification program.

The move could put Newsom in an awkward situation — the mayor doesn’t want to appear to be snubbing immigrant-rights leaders, but he also has moved in the past few months to distance himself from the city’s liberal sanctuary law.

So far the coalition has not heard back from Newsom, but some supervisors-elect and returning supervisors have already signed it, and the Mayor’s Office has signaled that the municipal identification program will kick in Jan. 15.

The move to get elected officials to sign a pledge comes at the end of a difficult year for the immigrant community. In May, the federal government challenged San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance after immigration agents stopped a city juvenile probation officer in Houston.

The officer, who was repatriating a group of Honduran youths who had been busted for selling crack, believed he was acting in accordance with city’s policy. The federal agents, who took the young people into custody, eventually released the officer.

And it wasn’t long before US Attorney Joseph Russoniello, a staunch opponent of the sanctuary ordinance, convened a grand jury to see whether the city used the sanctuary policy to harbor immigrant felons from federal prosecution.

The city countered this attack by hiring high-powered criminal defense lawyer Cris Arguedas. But by then the damage to the city’s sanctuary policy had already been done: in June, someone leaked the details of confidential juvenile court cases to the San Francisco Chronicle. One day after the story hit the newsstands, Newsom — who until then was a staunch sanctuary ordinance supporter — did an about-face, announcing that he would require city officials to refer youth suspected of being undocumented and of having committed a felony to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even before they have a hearing.

Immigrant rights groups decried Newsom’s new direction, calling it an overly broad policy that had the potential to lead to deporting innocent people who may not have family or relatives in their county of origin.

As Angela Chan of the Asian Law Caucus pointed out, based on Juvenile Probation Department data, in 2006 there were 288 petitions filed against Latin American juveniles, but only 211 were sustained. Had Newsom’s policy been in place, 77 juveniles who weren’t actually found to have committed a felony in San Francisco could have been reported to ICE when they were booked and might have been wrongly deported.

While Newsom’s gubernatorial ambitions were blamed for his sudden change of heart, critics also pointed the finger at his criminal justice director, Kevin Ryan. A Republican loyalist, Ryan was the only US Attorney to be fired for cause during US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ infamous purge of the Justice Department in December 2006.

His December 2007 hiring by Newsom was seen as a calculated move to make the mayor-who-would-be-governor look tough on crime and immigrants — cards that play well among voters in more conservative parts of the state.

It didn’t help that Ryan’s hiring coincided with Russoniello’s second term as US Attorney for the Northern District of California.

Public records obtained by the Guardian show that as the Chronicle series unfolded, Ryan and Newsom’s communications director, Nathan Ballard, began to question whether the city should even fund programs or organizations that serve undocumented youth.

With ICE raids intensifying — May 2 at El Balazo Taqueria, Sept. 11 at a private residence — and the community accusing the police of racial profiling, the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee chose Dec. 18, International Migrants Day, to publicize its pledge.

As of press time, Newsom has refused to meet with the committee, and Chan from the Asian Law Caucus, told us that members are "feeling snubbed."

But Chan reports that SFPD Chief Heather Fong, who announced Dec. 20 that she will be retiring in April, 2009, did meet and listen to the coalition’s concerns. "She reiterated her position that the SFPD only collaborates when ICE is seeking a specific list of people," Chan said.

With Fong under attack from within her own department for her refusal to let officers collaborate with ICE, the community is now abuzz with rumors that a hardliner could now be handed the chief’s reins.

Meanwhile, Supervisor-elect John Avalos and Sups. David Campos and Chris Daly have signed the pledge, while Supervisor-elect Eric Mar and Sup. Bevan Dufty have signed modified versions. And at the Dec. 18 Migrants Day protest, Sups. Jake McGoldrick and Ross Mirkarimi and Supervisor-elect David Chiu (who noted that Sup. Carmen Chu, while absent from the rally, is an immigrant rights supporter) joined gay rights and labor and religious leaders in announcing support for the coalition’s platform, which seeks to make dignity, equality, and due process a reality for all San Franciscans, including immigrants.

As Eric Quezada, Dolores Street Community Services executive director, told the crowd, "We’re here to defend the fundamental human rights of all immigrants." *

P.S. The San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee is a growing alliance encompassing immigrant rights advocates, labor groups, faith leaders, and LGBT activists. The committee includes the ALDI, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Asian Law Caucus, Asian Youth Advocacy Network, Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, Central American Resource Center, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Communities United Against Violence, EBASE, Global Exchange, H.O.M.E.Y., Filipino Community Center, Instituto Familiar de la Raza, La Raza Centro Legal, La Voz Latina, Legal Services for Children, Mission Neighborhood Resource Centers, Movement for Unconditional Amnesty, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, PODER, POWER, Pride at Work, SF Immigrant Legal & Education Network, SF Labor Council, SF Organizing Project, St. Peter’s Housing, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and Young Workers United.