An immigration rally at City Hall in early 2017. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Even if the changes are cosmetic, the demonization of immigrants, and the impression cops are cooperating with ICE, may silence victims

[dropcap]Bless[/dropcap] Angela Alioto. She really seems to believe all the amazing things she says.

That’s a useful trait for both a trial lawyer and a politician. She has excelled in both fields. And yet, the amazing things she puts into writing have been more problematic of late.

To wit, the initial written version of Alioto’s attempt to remake this city’s sanctuary policy did not do what she said it would do: The legislation she recently submitted could have allowed someone merely booked on a suspected felony — not convicted, not even charged, just booked — to be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and, potentially, railroaded out of the country.

Oh, whoops. So, last week, Alioto “clarified” her proposed legislation; you can read the text of the unsubtly titled “Violent Felony Reporting Act” here. Signature-gatherers may be out as early as this month for an item we could be voting on come November.

“The existing Sanctuary City Ordinance is a magnet for felons across America to come to the safe shores of our City,” said a statement released by Alioto.

Well, that’s interesting. Santa Clara County has a sanctuary policy that’s arguably even more liberal than San Francisco’s, and nobody ever said Morgan Hill or Gilroy were hot destinations for undocumented felons on the make. Or anyone, really. Alioto had the good sense to be born in San Francisco (hey, me too!), so she may not register that this city is a magnet for everyone.

Our current sanctuary policy “makes San Francisco a more violent and unsafe city,” continues Alioto’s statement.

Well, that’s interesting. Violent crime is down in the short-term in San Francisco. It’s down a hell of a lot from when the homicides were stacking up toward the century mark just a decade ago, and even more so from the 1980s and utterly chaotic 1970s.

Studies, furthermore, have shown no correlation whatsoever between a city mandating its law enforcement officers not cooperate with immigration officials and increased crime rates.

Yes, you can skate from Ocean Beach to SoMa on shards of broken car windows. There’s a discussion to be had about that. But that’s a discussion about policing and deterrence and prosecution and sentencing. Mythical hordes of rampaging undocumented felons bearing down on this city would not seem to factor in. And, while it sucks to get your window punched in, it’s a world removed from the “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other felons” enjoying “safe harbor in our city,” as Alioto claims.

When I asked Alioto why she has chosen to make this into a legislative — and political — issue now, she told me that she’s “not a pro-felon person.” When I pushed further, she told me “I do not understand why you guys want to protect felons.”

Alioto, again, seems to believe the amazing things she says. As such, her cocksure, high-energy nature can make it hard to dislike her, even when she’s saying and doing extremely amazing things.

But this is an insidious development. Demonizing immigrants based on a non-existent crime wave will discourage undocumented people from reporting crimes or participating in investigations — regardless of the actual policy. Further, assuming those who question this proposed legislation are “pro-felon people” is the cheapest of cheap populism.

You can be pro-First Amendment without being pro-flag burning or pro-Nazis marching through a Jewish enclave. You can be in favor of reasonable sanctuary policies without wanting to coddle felons.

And, in point of fact, our current policy doesn’t coddle felons — and Alioto’s proposal is hardly a radical departure from it.

[dropcap]Sanctuary [/dropcap]policies are complicated. An attorney who has spent five years focusing on this city’s policy as a principal function of his job tells us he still hasn’t mastered its nuances.   

Suffice to say, however, it’s a bit more complex than the FOX News cartoon fantasy of killer Mexicans raping and looting their way through swaths of city while being saluted by cops and elected officials.

In a nutshell, sanctuary policies disentangle law-enforcement from immigration enforcement. These are two different kingdoms. But, at its essence, Alioto’s proposal is mixing them; she’s assuming we’d all be safer if we started deporting more people. This argument would be bolstered if there was a correlation between increased deportations and a lower crime rate, and increased immigration and increased crime.

There isn’t.

Anyhow, at some point in a column about sanctuary policies, you have to say what our policies do. Fair enough. Our cops and jailers can indeed give ICE a heads-up on when someone is leaving custody in the following circumstances: If a judge has determined there’s probable cause that an undocumented person has committed a serious or violent felony and that person is being held to cause — and that undocumented person was previously convicted of a “violent felony” within the last seven years; a “serious felony” within the last five years; or three serious or violent felony convictions in the last 10 years. Only then is the city is entitled to tip off ICE.

So, those are the rules as they now stand. Nobody is secreting El Chapo out the back door.

What Alioto’s proposal would do — damn near all it would do — is get rid of those time limits. “There is no time limit,” she tells me. “You could be 90 years old.”

That’s it? That’s the legislative change that necessitates signature-gathering and a vote of the people? Has San Francisco fallen victim to bands of geriatric felons? Must be a sleeper cell; these guys have managed to keep their noses clean and stay out of trouble for decades.

But this appears to be the distinction that Alioto feels entitles her to say that her policy will rid us of our scourge of undocumented murderers and rapists.  

There is a bit more, however. The city’s current policy doesn’t allow those accused of felony domestic violence to be reported to ICE. “I’ve heard from so many women who’ve been battered and are excited about” her ordinance, Alioto says. She’s ready to close this “loophole.”  

Less excited, however, are domestic violence professionals. This is no loophole: The current law is the way it is because they insisted upon it.

“Many domestic violence survivors are arrested initially because of difficulty in ascertaining the primary aggressor in these cases,” explains Beverly Upton, the executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium. “We did not want survivors afraid to call the police.” Added Carolina Morales, the former director of Community United Against Violence, “A lot of DV survivors get picked up and arrested. The last thing we need is to continue to break trust between police and communities of color.”

[dropcap]Alioto [/dropcap]does not relish being compared to Donald Trump, so it was poor timing for her that, right as she proposed unmaking this city’s sanctuary ordinance, he gathered California critics of sanctuary ordinances around him and referred to undocumented people or gang members — it’s hard to tell — as “not people. Animals.”

Alioto went on Tucker Carlson’s show to tubthump her ordinance but, she insists, she went on Bill O’Reilly’s show plenty of times in the past. Whatever you think of her, she’s been this way for a while; Trump comparisons are a bit lazy. Years ago “David Campos and I had a fight about [sanctuary policy] at Bob Pritikin’s house. This was only three or four years after the Bologna family got shot up. Before Kate.”

Before Kate. “Who’s protecting Kate?” Alioto went on to ask.

Well, of course she did.

The 2015 killing of Kate Steinle on Pier 14 by undocumented multiple felon Jose Ines Garcia Zarate — manna from heaven for candidate Trump — lies at the heart of nearly every public argument about sanctuary policies.

But Garcia Zarate is actually one of the worst examples to assail this or any city’s sanctuary policies you could come up with.

Far from heading to this city like an undocumented felon moth to sanctuary flame, he was brought here, in custody, to face charges. Far from having a violent background, he had a mile-long record of nonviolent, ne’er-do-well crimes (“inhaling vapors”) and felony re-entries; the San Francisco charge he was facing was a $20 pot rap.

But you know who he is because he: A. Somehow got his hands on a pistol that was, inexplicably, left in a Bureau of Land Management agent’s car — in violation of bureau policy, California law, and any kind of common sense in San Francisco — and; B. Inexplicably killed Steinle with it after firing a shot that struck the pavement 12 feet from him and then ricocheted some 70-plus feet. This is a shot that could not be recreated in controlled conditions by a supercomputer.

Reacting to singular events is no sane way to formulate overarching policy. But politics and policy are different. Alioto’s people tell us she’s doing very well in conversations with would-be voters when she talks about her attempts to protect them from felons.

She is, after all, not a pro-felon person.

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Good article. Correction that it was against state law for the BLM agent to leave his weapon in the car. Law enforcement was exempt until after Steinle was killed. Jerry Hill sponsored the change in legislation.

    And as we see time and time again, cops only uphold policy when they feel like, or are pressured to do so. Just look how Petra DeJesus is talking about the “movement” in SFPD policy that might allow it to be okay to shoot at fleeing cars. Or look how the BLM officer was quickly promoted after Zarate killed someone with his unattended firearm. Or how SFPD still hasn’t taken any action against the cop who left a revolver — subsequently used in a crime spree and murder — in his car for days, and then failed to report it (note, that’s two “policy” violations).

    1. Sir or madam —

      I will check. While there is a law-enforcement officer carve-out, I am not sure it applies to vacationing officers leaving guns in a backpack. Thank you kindly!


      1. The state law still exempts on duty officers, but Hill’s SB 869 did make the BLM’s actions a legal infraction. Hill sponsored 869 in direct response to the officer loophole. The backpack is irrelevant since the weapon was inside of a car. The officer could’ve left it visible on the seat and it still wouldn’t have been illegal at the time.

        Because of state deference to county law, which is a misdemeanor, and the fact the county law exempts local law enforcement, SFPD and SF Sheriff’s Department are the only law agencies in California whose officers are legally exempt from laws pertaining to gun storage in vehicles. Other cities that have laws on the books — like Oakland and San Jose — do not have the exemption written in that SF has.

        If the BLM agent did the same thing in town tomorrow, it would go before the SF DA. If an SFPD officer did the same thing in town tomorrow, well … officer Marvin Cabantula already did that. He cannot be held legally culpable by county or state law, and he has faced no internal discipline.

  2. Future felons with Garcia-Zarate’s “resume” do need to be deported. And your claim that what she proposed would “undermine” the current sanctuary policy, my god I hope it does. The average San Franciscan wants repeat felony and even repeat misdemeanor criminals friggin DEPORTED. What could go wrong by returning this scum to SF streets? Ask the Steinle family and many other families.

  3. If San Francisco is a magnet for everyone, then felons are included. Your article plays some fancy footwork around the facts by claiming that Alioto’s hyperbole is cause to discredit reality. Why do you want to protect felons, and why can’t the sanctuary city policy that Alioto authored not be amended to exclude those convicted of felonies? No one has a right to play with my safety as a citizen to serve their own political agenda. I wouldn’t do it with the safety of others, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

    1. Sir —

      You appear to have sidestepped around the facts and the arguments stated in the story. There is no data indicating felons are coming here and, in fact, crime is down across the board. As noted in the story, the only tangible differences in Alioto’s measure are, A. Doing away with the 5-, 7-, or 10-year periods and; B. introducing language regarding domestic violence.

      We are not being besieged by undocumented felons who waited 11 years to start re-offending, and domestic violence activists not only don’t want Alioto’s proffered changes, but say it’s 180 degrees counter to their goals.

      With all due respect, maybe you should read the story again. This was not laid out in a cryptic manner.



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