Sanctuaries from Justice


The recent murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco has cast a harsh spotlight on “sanctuary cities,” a term given to communities that shelter illegal immigrants and where local law enforcement agencies are discouraged if not outright forbidden from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

The suspect in Steinle's murder, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is an illegal immigrant who had accumulated seven felony convictions and had been deported from the U.S. five times. He had been released from his most recent prison sentence shortly before he allegedly gunned down Steinle in broad daylight while she was walking with her father on a pier.

He was free to roam the streets because San Francisco is one of the cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In other words, had he been held for deportation this murder would never have happened. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he told authorities that he came to San Francisco specifically because he knew the city would not turn him over to the feds!

This criminal came to San Francisco for sanctuary and it was sadly everything but that for Steinle.

Backers of sanctuary city policies claim that crime victims and witnesses to crimes who are in the country illegally are reluctant to cooperate with police if they believe police will cooperate with immigration officials. But the policy of holding a criminal for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency simply doesn't apply to victims and witnesses. While their reluctance may sound plausible on the surface, it ignores one simple and inconvenient fact: there is no study or other empirical evidence showing that sanctuary city policies have helped solve crimes by increasing cooperation with police and prosecutors.

Some national leaders are pushing for passage of Kate's Law, a federal law that would provide that if an illegal immigrant who was already deported is re-arrested in a sanctuary city, local law enforcement would be required to immediately notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and to hold the illegal alien until ICE picks them up.

Some have seized upon Steinle's murder to promote xenophobic views to further their personal political goals. That is wrong and it is abhorrent. I'm not against immigration or amnesty for those who have established themselves in our country and who obey our laws. I am against criminal immigrants and protecting immigrants who come here and commit crimes.

But Steinle's tragic death has fueled an important public policy discussion, and it has exposed the fallacy of the feel-good, laissez faire attitude toward illegal activities.

The reality is that any policy that turns a blind eye to illegal activities – including those that make it easier for people to remain in this country illegally – is a bona fide threat to public safety. Take, for example, SB 1310.

This bill, which Gov. Brown signed into law a year ago, reduced the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor from 365 days to 364 days. Why the one-day reduction? Because under federal law, a sentence of 365 days or more classifies a crime as an aggravated felony, triggering deportation hearings for noncitizen legal immigrants.

But what the backers of SB 1310 didn't advertise is that the law is designed to benefit those who are here illegally and commit crimes. The law does nothing for legal citizens of this country. It was constructed solely to benefit legal immigrants who do crimes and those in the country illegally as well. So one must ask – what was the true motivation behind this piece of legislation?

We all know that sanctuary cities and flawed legislation such as SB 1310 are not the only public policies that are threats to public safety. Perhaps the greatest threat of all is Proposition 47 which we discussed in a previous blog. Along with SB 1310, we've turned felonies into misdemeanors and then these same misdemeanors into non-deportable offenses all so that we can keep criminal illegal immigrants from being deported. Why would we even want do that?

As we know all too well, Prop. 47, passed in 2014, coddles drug abusers and thieves – regardless of whether they are citizens, legal noncitizens or illegal noncitizens – by turning serious felonies into misdemeanors. Not surprisingly, violent crime surged 21 percent across Los Angeles during the first six months of 2015 following Prop. 47's passage. Is that a mere coincidence? I'm sure some want to believe that.

It's becoming clear that poor public policies promoted by callow elected officials are creating a perfect storm in which crime is able to thrive because it goes unpunished. In fact, the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association called the Department's order that mandates “limited contact and communication with ICE representatives absent a court-issued warrant, a signed court order, or other legal requirement authorizing ICE access” reckless.

One has to wonder when that perfect storm will become a tipping point that will mark a descent into the violent lawlessness that plagued the state in the 1980s and 1990s. This isn't just the natural swing of the pendulum back from the movement that led to Three Strikes. This is a concerted effort by some pushing hard on the pendulum to further a reckless social agenda.

One also has to wonder how many more Kathryn Steinles will be sacrificed at the altar of political correctness before our elected officials do the right thing and take meaningful action to restore sensible cooperation with ICE that protects all law abiding residents in the state, legal or illegal.

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys (LAADDA). He can be contacted at An earlier version of this essay appeared this week in the LAADDA website The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. He welcomes comments from readers.

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