Harris, Newsom duck on immigration

Pub date June 30, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL So let’s get this straight.

Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, has set up a laudable program called Back on Track that offers counseling and job training for first-time drug offenders who otherwise would be clogging up the local jail.

A handful of the people who went into the program were undocumented immigrants. Some completed the program successfully and were allowed to graduate.

This is a problem?

Apparently so — because between them the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner have devoted at least five major stories, one horrible column and at least one editorial to exposing the fact that some people who otherwise would have been jailed and deported for minor nonviolent crimes have been allowed to stay in the country, with new skills that might help them find jobs that don’t involve selling drugs on the street.

And Harris, who is running for state attorney general, is scrambling to cover herself, announcing that undocumented immigrants will no longer be allowed to go through the program. In other words, to get rehabilitation instead of jail time in San Francisco, you now have to submit proof of citizenship.

There’s a whole lot wrong with this picture. The critics attacking Harris claim that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve job training since they can’t work in this country legally anyway. That’s just silly — tens of thousands of immigrants who lack legal documentation are working in San Francisco right now, and tens of thousands will continue to work in San Francisco. And they’re generally a productive part of the economy and community. These immigrants already face barriers to attending college. The only thing that denying first-offenders job training does is increase the chance they will return to crime.

Yes, the L.A. Times was able to find one person enrolled in the program who went out and committed robbery and assault. He was the only one of seven undocumented people in the program who had legal problems while attending. The others were allowed to graduate, had their criminal records erased, and, given the overall results of the program, were far less likely than people who had served jail time to re-offend.

Unfortunately, the daily newspaper stories are just the latest attack on San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policy, which is supposed to bar local law enforcement from turning people over to federal immigration authorities. Mayor Gavin Newsom has backed away from the sanctuary policy — and now Harris is backing away, too.

The district attorney says that allowing undocumented immigrants into her program was a mistake, and that it’s been "fixed." That’s the wrong approach. Prisons and county jails in California are jammed beyond capacity. The cost of incarcerating all those people is staggering and helping to bankrupt the state. And the threat of deportation has created a climate of terror and desperation in immigrant communities, where families are being ripped apart and lives shattered by overzealous federal agents.

And the weak responses by San Francisco city officials are just empowering the radical nativists, who want to blame all of society’s problems on immigrants.

Harris did nothing wrong and has no need to apologize or change her program. Job training as an alternative to jail is good public policy — for citizens and noncitizens. She and Mayor Newsom ought to be defending the Sanctuary City laws instead of running away from them. If this is what it takes to seek statewide office, the mayor and district attorney would better serve their constituents by staying at home. *