Courtesy of Rini Templeton

All but one immigration expert defended District 9 Supervisor David Campos’s effort to relax the city’s year-old policy on undocumented juvenile suspects—a proposal that a Board of Supervisors committee will consider this week when members return from the summer recess.

Instead, the experts said, it was Mayor Gavin Newsom, not the proposed change, that put the city at risk.

A confidential memo, leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle last month after Campos introduced his proposal, said the city risked lawsuits if undocumented juvenile offenders are given due process before alerting Immigration and Control Enforcement, known as ICE.

At present, if an undocumented juvenile is arrested and charged with a felony, ICE is alerted before a hearing takes place.

Campos’s proposal has eight backers—enough to override a mayoral veto. However, it will be considered by the Public Safety Committee at the next meeting on September 28 at 11 a.m.before going back to the board for a full vote.

The dean of the University of California at Davis Law School and an expert in immigration law, Kevin Johnson, said Campos’s proposal to give juveniles the opportunity for a hearing was a welcome development.

It was, he said, Newsom’s policy that has put the city at risk because keeping police away from questions about immigration status is a policy grounded in security concerns. Good relations with the police allows crime victims—documented and undocumented—to come forward without fear of being deported.

“There is no law that requires state or local governments to cooperate with federal immigration efforts.” Johnson said. “Police officers in California aren’t allowed to inquire about immigration status.”

“If the police become viewed as immigration enforcers, they’re not going to get community assistance enforcing criminal laws,” he said.

The 1989 Refuge Ordinance states that city and state employees are prohibited from helping with arrests and investigations “unless such help is required by federal or state law or a warrant.”

And, the ordinance clearly states that the sanctuary prohibition excludes undocumented immigrants charged with a felony or booked in a county jail.

The issue has always been over how to treat undocumented juveniles. In July 2008, Newsom said city and state employees should begin alerting immigration officials as soon as an undocumented juvenile was booked on a felony charge.

Under Campos’s proposal, officials would notify immigration on minors only after a judge ruled that the juvenile’s felony charge had merit.

In a statement to the press, Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard defended the mayor’s policy, saying it strikes the right balance between protecting public safety and guaranteeing the rights of criminal suspects.

“We can’t run afoul of state and federal law and expect our sanctuary policy to survive,” said Ballard.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, a Republican appointee and vocal critic of the city’s sanctuary policy, accused San Francisco of “harboring illegal aliens” and warned that employees could face federal criminal prosecution.

There have already been lawsuits, before the mayor changed policy. It’s not wild speculation to say the city could face more, should anyone enforce (Campos’s) this proposal, Russoniello said.

Angela Chan, staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said Campos’s proposal does not challenge the right of federal law that says immigration authorities can operate in San Francisco. The original sanctuary ordinance also recognizes this right.

“The city attorney could not have approved district Campos’s proposal if it was illegal,” said Chan, “He just wrote a cautionary memo, saying the city could be sued, but not that the city would lose such a lawsuit. That’s a key point.”

Chan said that while conservatives who oppose immigration might sue, there’s no case law that shows they would succeed.

“Look at the very sad and tragic Bologna case,” she said referring to the June 22, 2008 incident in which an undocumented immigrant, Edwin Ramos, 22, fatally shot Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Ramos had been arrested earlier as a minor.

“The family filed a lawsuit against the city but it really hasn’t gone very far,” she said. “They’ve lost on most of their claims.”

That case is still in court.

The legal director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, Robert Rubin, who helped write San Francisco’s Sanctuary ordinance in 1989, said federal law does not require state or local authorities to report on anyone’s immigration status.

“The U.S Attorney is full of hot air,” he said referring to Russoniello’s statements. “The City Refuge law does not bar federal agents from enforcing federal immigration laws.

“It’s important to understand this. But it’s not the job of the local police. They have enough problems enforcing state criminal laws.”

Chan said that Mayor Newsom was trying to garner support for his governor’s campaign through scare-mongering. Doing so, she said, put the city in a vulnerable position.

“It’s unfortunate that the mayor has raised the red flag and invited law suits to happen. It’s a big departure from where he used to be. He’s doing this for political gain.”

Newsom announced he was running for governor in July. It was the same month he changed the city’s sanctuary policy on juveniles.

“Being tough on crime and tough on immigration has usually been a way for politicians to gain points. But it’s changing,” said Chan.

Johnson said in addition to the security issues that could arise from crime victims fearing police, local and state officials don’t have any training in immigration law and are prone to making a lot of mistakes.

“It’s a dangerous thing when local governments try to play the role of the Federal Government,” he said. “State and local authorities don’t know how to do it, so they will tend to slide into racial profiling.”

Racial profiling has been a growing concern in San Francisco and cases of kids being arrested based on the color of their skin are on the rise, Chan said.

“San Francisco is a place where people felt safe. The effect Newsom’s policy has had on the immigrant communities is terrible,” said Chan.

U.S. Attorney Russoniello, racial profiling is not an issue.

“If you are looking for members of a Sicilian gang you are going to look for certain types of people. That’s the way it is,” Russoniello said. “ State and Local officials can report people to ICE when need be on the basis of what’s called reasonable suspicion.”

Rubin disagreed and said the mayor’s proposal also opened the door to innocent children being deported.

“If children are a danger to society they can be dealt with in Juvenile court, but turning them over to ICE before even being convicted, that’s against the fundamental that each and every person is innocent until proven guilty.”

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

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