Thawing ICE

Pub date March 16, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen City

Top San Francisco officials are still refusing to implement legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors that requires due process to play out before immigrant youth accused of felonies are turned over to the federal government, despite recent developments that call into question arguments that have been made against that policy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose veto of the legislation was overridden by the board in November 2009, has been the main obstacle to putting the new policy in place. He has argued that it violates federal law, that the city faces civil liability for harboring undocumented immigrants accused of crimes, and that only serious criminals have been affected by his unilateral 2008 decision to turn minors over to federal authorities before they have been convicted.

But then Muni bus driver Charles Washington’s wife, Tracey Washington, and 13-year-old stepson, undocumented immigrants from Australia, were placed under the control of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ordered deported after the boy got into a fight at his middle school.

The case generated sympathetic media coverage because the felony charges and deportation order seemed excessive, so the federal government issued a 60-day reprieve to allow the family to finish applying for green cards and so the boy could have his day in juvenile court.

“All this got triggered by the non-implementation of a law that the board duly enacted last year,” Washington said March 11, a week after getting his reprieve, expressing exasperation with city officials. “The police are overcharging kids and waiting for someone else to whittle the charges down, and the probation officers are referring the kids to ICE, waiting for someone else to deal with the situation.”

Newsom’s policy required the city’s juvenile probation department to refer Washington’s stepson to federal immigration authorities after local police charged the boy with felony robbery, assault, and extortion in a dispute over 46 cents. Authorities then required his mother, rather than his stepfather, to come pick him up and placed an electronic monitoring device on her pending a deportation hearing.

Newsom’s policy has had a big impact in the city’s immigrant communities. Since July 2008 when the mayor ordered changes to Sanctuary City policies that had been in place for two decades, 125 youths have been referred to ICE, according to a March 9 report from the city’s Juvenile Probation Department.

In addition to the Mayor’s Office, the JPD has refused to enforce policies enacted through legislation by Sup. David Campos that are technically supposed to be the new city policy on referring undocumented youth, and the City Attorney’s Office has not required city employees to follow the new law, arguing it can only give advice and not compel departments to take action.

“With the benefit of legal advice provided by the City Attorney’s Office and outside legal counsel, and in light of current restrictions imposed by federal law, particularly the position taken by federal law enforcement authorities, the department has concluded that it cannot modify its policies and practices,” probation chief William Siffermann said at a March 4 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on why his department didn’t implement the legislation.

Grilled by Campos, Siffermann could not identify a federal law that requires city officials to report kids to federal immigration authorities upon arrest. Instead, Sifferman pointed to what many in the criminal justice community see as U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello’s overly broad interpretation of federal immigration laws, including his allegation that transporting arrested juveniles to court hearings amounts to “harboring aliens.”

But the Washingtons’ case struck a raw nerve at City Hall, and the Obama administration’s conciliatory response, along with other recent legal developments, indicate that it isn’t the feds that are preventing implementation of Campos’ legislation.

In February, Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard ruled in a civil case that the Bologna family — of which three members were murdered in 2008, allegedly by Edwin Ramos, an undocumented immigrant who had been in city custody as a juvenile — can’t hold the city liable for failing to prevent the murders.

That crime had been sensationalized by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and nativist groups, putting pressure on Newsom to change the Sanctuary City policy. Newsom’s spokespeople repeatedly have referred to it as an example of the civil liability the city faced.

On March 1 (the same day Washington first went public), City Attorney Dennis Herrera replied to allegations that his office has not done enough to implement Campos’ amendment by citing its victory in the Bolognas’ civil case, which sought punitive damages and to invalidate the city’s sanctuary ordinance.

Herrera also asked Gary Grindler, acting deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, to direct the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California to “not use its limited resources to criminally prosecute local officials and employees who abide by California and local laws regarding the reporting of undocumented juvenile immigrants to the federal immigration authorities.”

Herrera based his March 12 request on an Oct. 19, 2009 memo that Grindler’s predecessor, David Ogden, issued curtailing federal action against medical marijuana dispensaries, which Herrera argued could serve as the model for clarifying the federal position on the city’s sanctuary law.

“If city officials and employees follow the mandates of state law, including those regarding the confidentiality of records of juvenile detainees, and the requirements of the amendment permitting the reporting to ICE of juveniles only after they have been adjudicated as wards of the court for criminal conduct, then the U.S. Attorney should not make it a priority to use its scarce federal resources to prosecute those city officials on the theory that by not reporting them at an earlier point, the city officials or employees are guilty of harboring,” Herrera wrote.

Campos said he welcomes any effort to get clarification from the feds, but believes such clarification is not necessary — and may not be forthcoming anyway. “So San Francisco should move forward. The law, in my view, allows us to do so, and it’s the right thing to do.”