Pedro Figueroa, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant who was detained by immigration officials after attempting to retrieve his stolen car at a police station, was released on bail February 3 after two months in the the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Figueroa and his advocates held a press conference Friday morning describing his ordeal and claiming both the San Francisco police and sheriff’s departments violated city law by communicating with federal immigration officials. Current law prevents the use of city resources in assisting with immigration enforcement.
“This incident of Pedro Figueroa being turned over, whether through communication or being held in law enforcement’s hands, erodes that goal that we’ve established through our sanctuary city policy,” said Supervisor John Avalos, who represents District 11, where some 50 percent of residents are foreign-born.
“This issue makes us wonder how [often] local law enforcement may be coordinating efforts and communicating with ICE against local law,” he said.
Figueroa was arrested on December 2 after going into San Francisco’s Southern Station to retrieve a stolen car. Police officers there detained him when they learned of an outstanding warrant and asked the sheriff’s department to check the validity of the warrant on their database, a common procedure.
It was then that the sheriff’s department contacted immigration officials and told them to call the police station, where records show an officer informed the immigration agency that they had Figueroa in custody. When Figueroa was released, immigration agents waiting in a van outside immediately arrested him.
“When I got to the police station they said ‘Stop, we’re going to ask you some questions,’ but they did not ask me any questions,” Figueroa said. “They sat me down and handcuffed me, and later said ‘Alright, now you can go,’ and the surprise was outside when ICE was waiting for me.”
Agents confirmed his identity and asked for documentation, which Figueroa did not have, before arresting him for being in the country illegally. He was given a chance to call his fiancée, who arrived with his 8-year-old daughter only to say goodbye to him through the window of a van.
“My daughter started crying ‘Papi, papi, I don’t want them to deport you,’” he said, teary-eyed. Figueroa was then transferred to a detention center in Martinez where he spent hours standing in a crowded, dirty cell, he said, before being transferred to an immigration jail in Richmond. He spent the last two months there.
San Francisco’s sanctuary city law prohibits cooperation with federal immigration officials unless an individual has committed a felony. The warrant flagged by law enforcement was not a criminal warrant but a deportation order, though the sheriff’s department says it did not have the information to make that distinction.
“We don’t see warrants,” said Eileen Hurst, a spokesperson for the department. “What we see is an abstract, and it does not tell us anything more than the existence of the warrant.”
Advocates say the sheriff’s department should know to recognize that as a deportation order.
“If anyone should know how to interpret that, it should be the sheriff’s deputies,” said Francisco Ugarte, an immigration attorney with the Public Defender’s Office.
The sheriff’s department does not believe a violation of city law took place, adding that because the warrant showed up on their criminal database, it seemed criminal in nature.
Ugarte is not convinced. He pointed to a longstanding issue with the federal immigration agency sneaking deportation orders onto criminal databases used by local law enforcement, and said the sheriff’s department should not have contacted the agency without more information.
“Until they understand if it’s a criminal warrant, they should not provide any information,” he said.
For its part, the police department apologized for the detention. In a prepared statement, the department noted that Police Chief Greg Suhr met with Mayor Ed Lee and said that Figueroa “never should have been taken into custody by ICE agents after being released from Southern Police Station.”
It did not specifically address the call made by police to the immigration agency, but did point to an internal investigation launched to “determined what happened and if there were any violations of department policies,” promising “severe consequences” for any violation.
Figueroa’s asylum hearing is scheduled for 2019 — a common delay for immigration courts and one his attorneys will seek to shorten — and is free on bond until that hearing.
He fled from violence El Salvador in 2005 and was picked up by border agents shortly after crossing. He was then released pending an immigration hearing, but because no officials took down his address, he was not notified of his hearing and ordered deported in absentia, his attorneys said.
His attorneys do not yet know whether city law was broken, but said they may file a grievance if it turns out to be the case.