Sanctuary showdown

Pub date October 28, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

City Hall echoed with delighted whoops of Si se puede! last week, as a veto-proof majority of the Board of Supervisors voted to give juvenile immigrants their day in court before referring them to federal immigration authorities.

But the battle over the civil rights of immigrant kids is far from over, as Mayor Gavin Newsom, Police Chief George Gascón and U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello all insist that they will ignore or defy the city ordinance.

That puts the city in a strange legal position: the supervisors have passed a law that the mayor won’t implement — so it’s not clear what will happen next.

But here’s what is clear — and alarming: under Newsom’s policy, which the sanctuary legislation by Sup. David Campos would overturn, large numbers of immigrant kids are facing possible deportation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Virginia Kice told the Guardian that 150 juveniles from San Francisco have been referred to ICE since June 11, 2008 when Newsom began requiring that the city’s probation officials refer youth to ICE on arrest.Of those, 114 have come into federal custody (and may be facing deportation). Campos, who came to this country from Guatemala as an undocumented teen, said his legislation is a "balanced response" to the shift in sanctuary policy

Under Newsom’s policy, city probation officials are required to refer juveniles booked on a felony and appear undocumented to ICE at the time of arrest.

But under Campos’ amendment, ICE referral would not occur unless a juvenile justice court finds the youth guilty as charged.

Mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard short-circuited the immigrant community’s hopes for due process by announcing that Newsom simply plans to ignore Campos’ legislation.

"The Campos bill isn’t worth the paper it’s written on — it’s unenforceable and he knows that," Ballard told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Campos says that’s nonsense. "The whole point of having a sanctuary ordinance is that we choose not to be in the business of federal immigration enforcement," Campos said. "We are not an arm of ICE."

In a phone interview, Russoniello told the Guardian that Newsom’s policy accords juveniles due process at the federal level, and that federal immigration authorities are not interested in going after people who are obeying laws or are simply out of status.

"Our focus is guns, gangs, and drugs," Russoniello said. "But people who are detained should have no expectation that they will not be deported."

In other words, kids who are arrested on felony charges — who may not be guilty — could be deported anyway.

"Juvenile Probation Department alerts ICE when an individual comes in that they believe may be a deportable juvenile alien," Kice said. "We dispatch an officer to interview the juvenile, elicit biographical information, and do background checks to see if they have a legal basis for being in the country."

So where are the kids Newsom has turned over in the past year? Hard to say. Kice said the federal Human and Health Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for ensuring that kids receive appropriate care and protection. "We no longer deal with the custody issues related to juvenile cases," Kice added.

Russoniello said he doesn’t know the whereabouts of the 114 juveniles placed in federal custody since Newsom’s policy took effect in June 2008, but dismissed such concerns as "pretextual."

"Before June 2008, the city’s pretext for sending [Honduran teenagers] back home was to reunite them with their family. Now the complaints are they are being ripped away from their families," he said. "The Campos legislation is mute, it’s irrelevant, and it’s contrary to federal law, and I think the mayor and the chief of police both agree."

Chief Gascón, concerned about the lack of due process and kangaroo courts at the federal level that he experienced as police chief in Mesa, Ariz,, recently told the Guardian he hoped to see Campos and Newsom find a compromise.

Gascón, who was appointed by the mayor, now says he believes Newsom’s hands are tied because of federal laws. "I don’t think the mayor has a choice," Gascón told the Chronicle.

But Sheriff Mike Hennessey, whom ICE pressured to amend his department’s policy toward immigrant detainees last year, thinks the Campos amendment is reasonable. "I don’t think we want to be reporting people who aren’t worthy of prosecution," Hennessey said. "Federal law says that if a probation officer violated the Campos’ amendment, they could not be penalized, under federal law," Hennessey explained. "That’s different from saying they are mandated to report juveniles to the federal authorities."

Juvenile Probation Department Chief William Siffermann told the Guardian that his agency "will continue to discharge its duties and responsibilities in a manner that conforms with all laws and await the outcome of the San Francisco legislative process."

"At the conclusion of that, we will confer with the city attorney and outside legal counsel around any impacts this would have on existing protocols."