Advocates say the arrest of a Mission District resident by federal immigration officials moments after he tried to retrieve a stolen car from police may be a violation of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy, which prohibits cooperation between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Pedro Figueroa was the victim of a crime, and today he’s the victim of a broken immigration system,” said Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, at a press conference held outside the Southern Station on Wednesday morning. “San Francisco is a sanctuary city. We welcome immigrants, we have a law and a policy that should protect them, and yet Pedro Figueroa was not protected.”

Flanked by women holding “Free Pedro” and “ICE out of California” signs, Adachi did not mince words about Figueroa’s 45-day detention, saying it was an “outrage” that Figueroa is behind bars in “an illegal, unconstitutional detention.”

But the police and sheriff’s departments say there was nothing illegal about Figueroa’s case, despite the presence of an ICE agent just outside the station when Figueroa went to retrieve his stolen car.

“We did not turn over that individual to ICE and we do not cooperate with ICE in any way” said Captain Jerome DeFilippo of the Southern Station, where Figueroa tried to retrieve his vehicle. “As we let the person go, the ICE agent showed up and saw the person being released and grabbed [him] on the sidewalk.”

On December 2, Figueroa came to the Southern Station to retrieve a car stolen in late November. At the time, police checked for any outstanding warrants for Figueroa, a normal routine when picking up a stolen vehicle, DeFillipo said.

When a criminal warrant came up for Figueroa, the police contacted the sheriff’s department to confirm that warrant, a common practice. The sheriff’s department then contacted the immigration agency, a sheriff’s spokesperson said, to confirm the warrant — another common practice.

“In this case, we are talking about a warrant signed by a judge for probable cause,” said Eileen Hurst, a sheriff’s department spokesperson. Hurst said the sheriff’s department would not contact the immigration agency for a deportation order, but only for a criminal warrant, and that a criminal warrant from ICE is so rare that it caused confusion among the clerk taking the call.

“In fact, this is the first one this particular clerk had ever seen, so she asked ICE to clarify the warrant to the SFPD,” Hurst said. When a sergeant at the Southern Station took the call, ICE decided to send an agent to wait for Figueroa outside the station, Captain DeFilippo said.

Because the police did not “verify the warrant and the identity of the individual,” Figueroa was released from police custody, when he was taken by an immigration team.

It is unclear what charges were associated with the criminal warrant for Figueroa, however, since both the police and sheriff’s department said they do not see those charges unless they are told to take someone into custody.

Figueroa had a DUI conviction in 2012 for which he has served probation, but no outstanding criminal charges, said his attorneys. His standing deportation order would not appear as a criminal warrant.

In a prepared statement, ICE states only that Figueroa was targeted for arrest “based upon his conviction for DUI and an outstanding order of removal issued by an immigration judge in 2005.”

Current law prohibits law enforcement from holding undocumented immigrants until federal immigration officials can step in. A recently proposed change to the law would also bar them from communicating to immigration officials when someone is set to be released, a policy Adachi embraced at the press conference.

“We’re here to demand that San Francisco, the Mayor, and the Board of Supervisors pass the legislation that has been offered by Supervisor John Avalos to ensure that this will not happen in the future,” Adachi said, before taking aim at law enforcement.

“We want to make sure that the police officers who committed this offense and obviously violated the law themselves are held accountable and are disciplined,” he said, adding he was “particularly concerned for the message this is going to send” to immigrants questioning whether to interact with the police. “We need a clear message from the Police Chief Greg Suhr that this is not going to happen to others.”

Figueroa has been in the country since 2005, when he fled violence in El Salvador and illegally crossed the border into the United States, seeking asylum. He was quickly picked up by Border Patrol, detained, and told to attend an immigration hearing, which he missed because “they failed to get an address from him,” according to Alisa Whitfield, another of his attorneys.

“And if you don’t show up for a hearing, you’re just ordered deported in absentia,” said Whitfield, meaning Figueroa was given an automatic detention order despite his absence from the legal proceedings.

Zachary Nightingale, Figueroa’s immigration attorney, said his case for asylum was just re-opened yesterday, meaning he cannot be legally deported until that case is resolved one way or another. And Nightingale believes Figueroa has a good chance of obtaining asylum.

“He fears for his life, which is why he came here in the first place,” Nightingale said, adding that family members in El Salvador have been threatened. “He fled the violence in El Salvador 10 years ago, and the violence [there] has only gotten worse.”

Figueroa’s fiancee, Dora Cortez, said the family was in tears when he was arrested and described the difficulty of spending the last 45 days without her husband.

“My daughter and I spent the holidays without him,” she said. “He helps me run a business at home, and I am in desperate need to have him back.”

His 8-year-old daughter, Leilani Cortez, said the last time she saw her father was “when ICE got him” and that her “greatest wish” is “for him to take me to Disneyland.”

Figueroa’s attorneys say their next step is to ask for him to be released on bond while he awaits an asylum hearing scheduled for 2019.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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1 Comment

  1. Anyone ever think that San Franciso being a santuary city gives false hope to undocumented immigrants? It is the most expensive place on the planet, yet the city advertises that it is a safe haven. It’s almost impossible to make ends meat. Wouldn’t folks be better served if they went to a city where it’s easier to get a job and pay rent? Coming to this city without a lot of means and education is a recipe for poverty. Maybe the city elite want to have cheap labor and this is a way to get folks here? Don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but would be an interesting study.

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