Last week San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed a law stating that undocumented youth arrested on felony charges would have to be convicted before city officials could turn them over to federal immigration officials.
The amendment was proposed by Supervisor David Campos and was adopted Oct. 27 in an 8-3 vote, making the law veto-proof. Yet the next day Mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, saying it was unenforceable. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on an overturn of the mayor's veto at its Nov. 10 meeting, and the override is expected to pass.
Angela Chan, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, said over 160 youth have been sent to immigration officials since last summer, when Newsom issued a draconian policy allowing juvenile probation officers to report undocumented youth to federal immigration officers after being arrested. Some of them were innocent, picked up for minor offenses, and some were U.S. citizens, she said.
Chan recalled one case last summer where an undocumented youth was charged with a robbery. The district attorney eventually withdrew the charge. By the time the case was dismissed the young man had already been alerted to immigration officials. He was eventually deported to Mexico, she said.
"It was time to change the Mayor's policy and it took us a year," said Chan, whose group is part of a coalition called the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee.
Chan said Campos' proposal is a balanced and moderate policy that will prevent youth from being sent to immigration officials.
The mayor wanted to look tough on crime and enforced a strict policy on immigrant youth, said Chan. When he issued the policy, Newsom, a Democrat, had just announced his candidacy for governor of California. He withdrew from the Democratic primary last week.
If Newsom continues to ignore the Board of Supervisors' decision after they overturn his veto next week, he will be acting outside of his authority and legal action could be explored, said Chan.
Before any legal action is considered, Chan is hoping that the mayor will sit down with the coalition and establish a reasonable and sensible agreement.
"He owes it to the 160 youth detained and their families," she said.
Supervisor Campos, a lawyer, is a naturalized citizen who came to the U.S. as an undocumented youth from Guatemala. He represents San Francisco's heavily immigrant community.
He says his proposal advances public safety, inclusion and anti-discrimination goals of the city's 20-year-old sanctuary ordinance. The measure was carefully vetted with the City Attorney's Office, he told reporters.
Campos and other civil rights and immigrant advocates say what's at stake is the protection of innocent immigrant children who have been unjustly separated from their families. Newsom's policy, they say, is destroying families by allowing innocent kids to be reported for deportation without the basic right to due process and often for minor offenses.
According to the Juvenile Probation Department's 2008 statistics, a majority (68 percent) of arrested youth in San Francisco were later found innocent of the charges.
Yet Newsom insists he will ignore the Board of Supervisors and has ordered city employees to continue reporting to federal officials any undocumented youth arrested for a felony.
For the past two decades San Francisco has declared itself a "sanctuary city." It is one of about 30 American sanctuary cities. San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance prohibits city employees from assisting immigration authorities, with exceptions for those booked for felony crimes. San Francisco's sanctuary policy dates to the late 1980s, when officials tried to keep Central American war refugees from being deported.
Chan said her group is part of a coalition of over 35 immigrant advocacy, youth and civil rights groups that, for the last year, have worked very hard in pressing the Board of Supervisors to support the city's sanctuary ordinance.
Critics of the mayor's stance argue that it allows someone who turns out to be innocent and was arrested in error to be deported. They add youth are at risk of being sent to detention facilities across the country, far from their families, without access to immigration legal services, based on accusations and racial profiling.
Civil rights groups said in a statement that Campos' legislation seeks to lessen the risk that the city will be liable for racial profiling, unlawful detention, and mistaken referrals of U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants for deportation. At the same time the law would bring the city's juvenile probation practices into compliance with state confidentiality laws for youth, they said. They pointed out that Campos' proposal won't prevent youths who have been found by a court to have committed a felony from being referred to immigration officials. The legislation is a measured step in the right direction that will help restore accountability and fairness in the city's treatment of immigrant youth, they said.
"The current policy is creating a climate of fear in immigrant communities, which means that immigrants who have been victims or witnesses to crimes are afraid to come forward," said Campos. "When we uphold the fundamental American value of due process for all of our city's youth, that will make all of us safer as well."
Speaking to wbur.org, Campos said, "We have been a sanctuary city for 20 years and, in fact we have stood for protection of civil rights. We have not been afraid to do the right thing even in the face of a legal challenge," he said.