The murder of a young woman taking a stroll on a San Francisco pier two weeks ago might have been received by a jaded public as just another big-city homicide, had the man who says he shot her to death not been previously deported five times to Mexico — and had the case not been adopted as a cause célèbre by insurgent Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Trump seized on the fatal and apparently random shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who confessed to pulling the trigger in a jailhouse interview aired on local television, as proof that the candidate’s controversial characterization last month of Mexican border-crossers as criminals and rapists was true, even if studies that go beyond tragic incidents have shown that notion to be false.
“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said in a statement after Steinle’s death. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become President.”
As the real-estate mogul has taken off in the polls, Trump’s comments have forced other Republicans, who are still grappling with how best to handle his entry into the race, to weigh in on the San Francisco case. Their position: to oppose local governments that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, a practice that means different things in different places but is derided by critics as the creation of “sanctuary” cities.
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That includes the two candidates from Miami, whose own home county doesn’t fully cooperate with the feds on immigration enforcement.
“We ought to eliminate sanctuary cities,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said last week at a New Hampshire campaign event. “We shouldn’t provide law enforcement monies for cities like San Francisco until they change their policies.”
“One of the things we talked about in the past, and we tried to get included with negotiations with Democrats in the past, is the idea of getting rid of the sanctuary city situation,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said last week in a Fox News interview.
It’s unclear if either of the candidates knew that Miami-Dade County is listed by some advocates as a “sanctuary” for immigrants. Neither the Rubio nor Bush campaigns responded to an email from the Miami Herald asking for clarification. Rubio was statehouse speaker in 2008 when a bill foundered that would have prevented “sanctuary” cities in Florida.
Miami-Dade is not San Francisco, which has a quarter-century-old law declaring it a “city and county of refuge” and generally bans public employees from assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement with investigations or arrests unless required by a law or a warrant. The law has an exception for people convicted of felonies.
While Miami-Dade doesn’t go that far, the county has stopped complying for the past year and a half with immigration requests to keep people in custody. Unless a warrant exists for a person’s arrest, Miami-Dade won’t hold detainees for 48 hours just so immigration can pick them up.
That hardly makes the county a haven for immigrants who are in the country illegally, according to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who rejected the characterization of a “sanctuary.”
“A felon ICE detainee we got, we keep,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald’s editorial board last week.
Lopez-Sanchez, the man also known by several other names and charged with Steinle’s murder, had been released from a local jail after prosecutors declined to press a 20-year-old marijuana possession charge. The sheriff has said the feds should have gotten a warrant to keep Lopez-Sanchez behind bars; ICE officials have countered they had asked to be notified prior to Lopez-Sanchez’s release.
The Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department won’t comply with ICE requests to hold someone, but staff may try to notify the feds if there’s enough time before the person is set free, said Marydell Guevara, the department’s director.
“We’ll do that when we are able to do it,” she said. Her department also allows ICE investigators to interview people in county jails.
The Miami-Dade County Commission adopted the policy against complying with ICE “detainers” in 2013 because the government was strapped for cash — the jail had to bear most of the detentions’ cost — and because advocates in immigrant-rich South Florida clamored for the change. (Cities such as Baltimore signed off on similar policies in part to attract or keep immigrants in their borders as their populations fell.)
“Many of them were just picked up as a result of routine traffic stops, traffic violations — some were even passengers in a car that was stopped for a minor traffic violation,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami immigrant-rights group.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has followed a similar policy for the past year, in light of a decision by a federal judge in Oregon who found ICE could request — but not mandate — a detention without probable cause for a person’s arrest.
At issue was an ICE program known as Secure Communities, which was supposed to push local police to share with the feds names, fingerprints and other information on non-citizens who have committed serious crimes. But it also netted some foreign nationals who had committed minor violations. Police feared the detentions would deter victims and witnesses of crimes in immigrant communities to come forward — after officers in cities like Miami had spent years reassuring residents that they were not concerned about immigration violations.
“We’re not immigration. We have people who are undocumented here,” said Maj. Delrish Moss, a Miami Police spokesman. “We would not check someone’s legal status.”
The backlash to Secure Communities prompted some 320 jurisdictions to impose restrictions on complying with Secure Communities, according to Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy organization in Washington D.C. “It looks like an extension of the immigration service, and immigrants are afraid to come forward,” he said.
President Barack Obama ended Secure Communities with an executive order in November, and replaced it with a new initiative. The Priority Enforcement Program, which has yet to be fully implemented, is supposed to limit detention requests and focus on immigrants convicted of crimes.
“ICE is now issuing detainers and requests for notification with respect to individuals who meet our heightened enforcement priorities under PEP to ensure individuals who pose a threat to public safety are not released from prisons or jails into our communities,” ICE said in a statement. “PEP is a balanced, common-sense approach, that places the focus where it should be: on criminals and individuals who threaten the public safety.”