Fentanyl San Francisco Sanctuary City deportation Matt Dorsey
A potentially lethal 2mg dose of fentanyl

Back in the pleistocene — in 1989 — President George H.W. Bush pushed for a Constitutional amendment banning the burning of the American flag and punishing miscreants who dared do so. 

This was a clear First Amendment loser. But, politically, less so: It offered Bush et al. the opportunity to denigrate opponents as actually supporting flag-burning. 

Also in 1989, San Francisco passed its first Sanctuary City ordinance, which largely forbade local law enforcement from materially aiding federal immigration authorities. 

The timing of the two developments is coincidental, but the comparison is not. One can abhor the notion of flag-burning and still oppose the cheap populism and gross Constitutional overreach of a flag-burning ban. And one needn’t support undocumented murderers, dope-dealers and rapists to support keeping local law-enforcement out of the immigration business so as to foster trust between police and immigrant communities, which makes everyone safer. One can even support the deportation of undocumented law-breakers, but also support that job being handled by the federal agency tasked with doing just that, and funded to the tune of $82 billion a year.

The notion that sanctuary city ordinances coddle and enable undocumented criminals is a longstanding right-wing talking point; it was the 15-minute cities are a dystopian plot, something, something, SOROS!!!! of yesteryear. But it also reveals a fundamental ignorance of what these ordinances actually do. Sanctuary city ordinances, in this and more than 400 other U.S. cities, do not prevent police from arresting undocumented people. They do not prevent District Attorneys from charging those people or juries from finding them guilty. They do not prevent undocumented residents from being sentenced to long prison terms. Or, in other states, being put to death.  

Rather, they limit local law enforcement from proactively working with immigration officials and sending out booking lists and opening up our hospitals and jails to the feds, as was de rigueur in the past. Immigration agents, it turns out, have a troubling penchant for overstepping the terms of agreements with local agencies and sweeping up additional subjects; this happens often enough there’s even a term for it: Collateral arrests.

Ironically enough, Immigration has boundary issues. 

Can federal officials still deport undocumented fentanyl dealers — or any undocumented person — out of San Francisco jails, sanctuary ordinance or no sanctuary ordinance? Of course they can. They would just have to do “what every other law-enforcement agency does: Get a warrant,” former Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Eileen Hirst told us in 2017. A San Francisco inmate being flagged because of outstanding bench warrants, DA warrants, traffic warrants, or out-of-county warrants, she continued, was “easily a daily occurrence.”

Hirst told us six years ago that the feds had never gone to the trouble of presenting San Francisco with a  warrant, as other agencies do on the daily. Hirst’s successor, Tara Moriarty, tells us that’s still the case. 

So that was the background and the context last week, when Supervisor Matt Dorsey talked up colleagues on his  proposal to add fentanyl-dealing to the list of carve-outs in the city’s sanctuary policy, in which local officials are entitled to call in the feds. It did not go over well; Don Quixote had an easier time with the windmills than Dorsey did with the Board of Supervisors. 

Dorsey tells me he doesn’t think he can move the ordinance out of his committee. He certainly doesn’t have six votes to pass it as legislation, and it seems he doesn’t even have the four votes needed to put it on the ballot. It’s not certain he has any votes other than his own (Dorsey’s ordinance, notably, has no co-sponsor). 

Legislatively, this thing looks to be as dead as Julius Caesar. 

Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Catherine Stefani are sworn into office on Jan. 9, 2023. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

But it’s still only mostly dead. If Dorsey, or anyone, wanted to gather signatures and put this issue on the ballot, he could do that. Our next scheduled election is March, 2024, the deadline to turn in signatures is Nov. 6 of this year, and the required haul is 2 percent of registered voters — just over 10,000 signers. 

This is a barrier more closely approximating Hawk Hill than Mount Kilimanjaro. 

It remains to be seen whether Dorsey will choose to go this route but, legislatively, he appears to have navigated into a cul-de-sac. While the move to enhance city cooperation with the feds and throttle up deportations of fentanyl dealers was emphatically ballyhooed in website comments sections and on social media, there remains a notable gap between those realms and San Francisco’s Board chambers. 

We may yet learn how closely this angry online mood approximates the will of the general public and the city’s flesh-and-blood registered voters. 

Dorsey tells me he’s not trying to make political hay; he just wants to end the fentanyl scourge. “I think this is something that will help save lives,” he says of his proposal. If he didn’t try to address the  burgeoning overdose crisis, “I couldn’t sleep at night.” 

The freshman supervisor’s elected colleagues tell me they think he’s sincere. But they also don’t think much of his proposal. And that became resplendently clear in open session last week. 

Ahsha Safaí did not mince words, stating that Dorsey’s ordinance is “one of the most misguided pieces of legislation I have seen in six-and-a-half years” as supervisor and that “there is no way, shape, or form it will have any impact at all. … People selling the drugs and destroying communities should be held accountable, and I 100 percent believe that, but making this into a immigration debate is a complete distraction and not the way we want to turn this issue around.”

But even if Dorsey is indeed sincere in his motivations, if you were going to put together a political sticky bomb — and portray elected officials as siding with deporting fentanyl dealers or coddling undocumented felons  — it’d look a lot like this. 

Six years ago, the Sheriff’s Department told Mission Local that the Feds have never gone to the trouble of serving San Francisco a warrant to obtain an inmate in custody — something other law enforcement agencies do on a daily or near-daily basis. Last week, the department told us this is still the case.

Dorsey, again, says he’s earnestly trying to solve a deadly real-life problem, not engineer a deadly political problem: “I genuinely think it’ll save lives.” 

His proposed ordinance would target undocumented fentanyl dealers, but not undocumented heroin dealers. Which seems a bit perverse. But Dorsey says that disrupting the fentanyl trade and forcing the city’s drug users back onto heroin could save hundreds of lives a year. 

There is the kernel of an argument to be made there, but it’s assuming a lot that this citywide ordinance is capable of enacting a sweeping market shift. A recent study by the Cato Institute — hardly a bastion of hippy-dippy liberalism — found that the vast majority of fentanyl smuggled into the United States is done so by United States citizens.

Yes, many of the dealers in the Tenderloin and elsewhere are Latin American in origin, and presumably undocumented. But even if they’re cajoled into finding new jobs — a very big if —  this would simply create an opportunity for others. There is no such thing as the American-Born Fentanyl Dealers Association, but if there was, they’d be pleased. 

American cities have failed to arrest their way out of the fentanyl crisis. Or any drug crisis. 

But, never fear: In the not-too-distant future, San Francisco voters may yet be asked to decide if we should try to deport our way out of it. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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. Recently, 2 undocumented immigrants were charged with selling fentanyl, admitted to selling fentanyl, claimed that they were trafficked and forced to sell the drugs to pay back there debts. Those charges were recently dismissed by a local jury. One of the undocumented immigrants was living in another state before being brought to San Francisco to sell drugs. There use of the relatively new California anti-trafficking law was novel and will offer the Mexican drug cartels a new legal defense for their illegal activities.

    Our approach to our drug crisis has to be multipronged. We must provide adequate treatment availability to decrease demand. We must also provide adequate deterrence for manufacturing, transporting and selling drugs. The longer we let this go on, the larger footprints the Mexican cartels will have in our city. We need to do whatever we can to defend against that, even it it means working more closely with the federal government of both the US and Mexico as we cannot do this alone.

  2. Astonishing that the existential fight between factions of power in San Francisco is being fought over “should gang affiliated drug dealers be allowed to openly flaunt the law, destroying the city, threatening the populace and murdering thousands without consequence or… well, maybe not”.

    This city is screwed, and history (like the present) will not judge the perpetrators of the status quo kindly.

  3. a lot of drama in the comments when it comes to immigration. i am especially amused by those who believe we can solve the fentynal problem by exiling the dealers. it reveals their irrational fear of foreigners.
    we should explore ways to target the supply chain before it’s too late for the next victim.

    1. Fent dealers from outside the country are not immigrants, they are cartel soldiers. Come election time, remember every politico mingling these ppl with immigrants who, to borrow Ms. Melagar’s theme, came here to build a better life for themselves. Of course deportation alone would not solve the issue. Nobody’s claiming that. Same for having another DA. We are dying a death by a thousand cuts and as many steps need to be taken if we want to move the needle.

      1. “Fent dealers from outside the country are not immigrants”

        Thanks for your load of right wing hooey!

    2. BINGO At first thought this seems reasonable, but on further thought, it will not do a damned thing to slow the dealing. It ends up being a whack a mole game, with more dealers appearing despite arrests or deportations. I am not saying to not arrest dealers, but deportation can end up causing blow back in ending reporting of crimes etc.
      Yes, go after the supply line, but also offer more facilities where those hooked on this stuff can live and get help. Right now if one wants help, there are no beds to offer them unless they are rich and have insurance and can go to some fancy place. And even those have waiting lists to get in.

  4. Campers,

    Decriminalize all drugs following European model which works.

    ‘Cut and Run for Ten Large ??’ to cut World’s population in half.

    Toss all American Foreign Capital and Military out of all land from Mexican Border to the Falkland Islands.

    We’ll talk about reparations from Anaconda Copper and Chiquita Bananas later.

    Dave Lombardi thinks Jimmy G. will get at least ten million on open market tomorrow.

    Anyone else lose interest in baseball during Pandemic ?


  5. “portray elected officials as siding with deporting fentanyl dealers or coddling undocumented felons”

    Um… elected officials ARE siding with coddling undocumented felons. Go listen to Ronen’s sad monologue about how all the fentanyl dealers were trafficked here against their will. Which she knows because that’s what the dealers said when facing potential jail time. And we can trust them, because Ronen – who once advocated for a known felon to be released for probation who later was found guilty of committing THREE MURDERS – is clearly *such* a good judge of character.

    Illegal immigrant drug dealers in SF make a fortune killing people and are responsible for the utter decay on our streets, and yet they pay no taxes and face no consequence for their actions. The supervisors who oppose this policy, by definition, support that status quo. And so do you, Joe. And so do you.

    Deport them and good riddance.

    1. Agreed 100%. Remarkable situation made worse by unremarkable governance. The nearly 1,000 lives lost in SF last year from this, just don’t seem to matter.

      The terrorism in our streets and to the residents of SF, just don’t seem to matter. It’s just like the absurdity and complicit nature of defending, for example, a 5 time deported, 7 time felon, who goes on to murder Kate Steinly.

      And yet somehow People who want safety, justice, and fairness are somehow racists bigots. Last I checked we aren’t the ones with “proud” tax payer funded organizations with names like LA Raza.

      I pay more in taxes than I do rent and looking forward to moving and taking it with me. This is by 10 miles the worst “city” I’ve ever lived in.

      It’s the definition of the “urban plantation”.

  6. What can I say, Joe. Thanks for setting the facts straight for those of us who have not investigated the limitations of “sanctuary city protections.” I was not aware that the rules were set in 1989, or what protection they provided. Good to know so we can avoid tilting at windmills.

  7. “Supervisor Matt Dorsey last week talked up colleagues on his  proposal to add fentanyl-dealing to the list of carve-outs in the city’s sanctuary policy.”

    Dorsey is described by the SF Chron as a “police spokesman” so it’s no surprise that he’s looking to damage sanctuary policies and also to maintain punitive measures vis á vis the use of illicit substances, such as the fraudulent War On Drugs that has killed more people and fostered more corruption than any so-called “drug” could ever do.

  8. Most reasonable people can understand why maintaining a separation of local policing from the federal enforcement of immigration is important to the security of our community. I would say that it does not help that we called it a ‘Sanctuary City’ ordinance. That implies that once they get here they are safe from law enforcement. Of course they are not, but try making that case on Fox & Friends. Let’s find a better name for this. Maybe the ‘Separation of Policing’ ordinance.

  9. It is time for San Francisco to dispense with the money laundering of homelessness service providers and go for direct aid to people in need.

    SF needs to start a safe supply operation where pharmaceutical fentanyl is provided to addicts under medical supervision. Slow dissolving known dosages and purities in tabs prevent overdoses. This is the only way to shut down the “open air drug markets:” deprive dealers of sales by undercutting them in the market, a form of “Market Urbanism,” as it were.

    SF needs to repeal Care Not Cash and reprogram homeless services dollars from the endless money laundering thrash to direct cash aid for poor people. The “magnet effect,” if any, would be mitigated by losing the dead weight overhead of service provision and its sinecures.

    Those freshly unemployed nonprofiteers would of course be eligible to said benefits. But could they stand for a moment being shorn of power-over?

  10. It would be easy to arrest and charge the dealers under current laws, but SF does not have the political will from the former DAs to the judges to the BoS to “criminalize the poor.”

    It reminds me of the twisted consequences of bail reform, that’s supposed to help communities of color, but rather only helps criminals of color while the number innocent victims of their crimes — also communities of color it turns out — rises astronomically. It turns out bail reforms largest victim group is the group that progressives proposed protecting.

  11. San Francisco will never recover, as long as Balkanized rigid ideological factions win elections. San Francisco may recover after progressive policies are universally found to ruin the quality of life, but that may take 20 more years (it took 80 years before communism was accepted as being wholly toxic) . Best to leave the city for a decent life now, otherwise any children you might have, have a much higher chance of becoming homeless drug addicts.

      1. Double down like a true zealot, “Theres nothing wrong here people, because we’re progressives and progressives can never be wrong”. Funny how people with solid healthy lives are made to feel they should leave, but drug addled vagrants with the most F…ed up lives imaginable, are welcomed and even celebrated with open arms? You are what you eat and like wise, cites are what their occupants are composed of. That is just how it works…. like gravity.

        1. I’m not leaving Jill. You cannot get rid of me with insults.
          I’m not a drug dealer, but I am smart enough to know and old enough that you cannot end a drug epidemic with only arrests and deportations.

  12. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Best local San Francisco reporter over here.
    Reading the comment section of the last Mission Local article made me want to tear out my hair. I tried to fact-check and wrote what I thought was a non-hysterical, non-blaming of anyone, nuanced comment about this issue but I feel a little like the high school basketball player in the presence of Lebron right now… you nailed this one with a slam dunk.
    Thank you for this intelligent, accurate explanation of the Sanctuary ordinance and why opposing Dorsey’s legislation doesn’t equate to “protecting drug dealers at the expense of law-abiding citizens”.

    1. Thank you, I agree. I wonder how many bothered to read a word before they commented? Joe is a SF treasure!

    2. Deporting our dealers is unlikely to have any effect.
      More will be coming.
      Supply will not dry up nor demand.

      And we have been fed the Public Defender’s side of the story ad nauseam for a few years now.
      Folks tend to tune it out at his point as the situation gets worse and worse.

      However ….
      We have come to understand foreign nationals arrested for felony dealing are given preferential treatment under the law by having their cases adjudicate as misdemeanors for the express purpose of not exposing them to potential deportation.
      We have not been exposed to any information that American citizens are afforded the same luxury.

      This is an affront to the basic concept of equal treatment under the law.

      Perhaps all hard core drug dealing case are now tried as misdemeanors.
      Fair enough.
      Ok then – just let us know that in San Francisco, drug dealing is no longer a felony and we are no longer enforcing that part of state law. Let our citizen drug dealers be comforted in the knowledge they risk only misdemeanor prosecution – same as foreign nationals.
      That’s fair. No?

  13. Question for you Joe.
    We know there are a significant number of undocumented immigrants are selling fentanyl on the streets of San Francisco. Deportation seems a fitting response for such breaking the law and selling a drug that’s killing people on our streets in record numbers.
    How, pray tell, would the federal government be able to pursue a warrant for the arrest of an individual they were not aware was in the country? Being that the only agency that has contact with these individuals is local law enforcement, it seems we’re presented a catch 22. What’s your solution?

    1. Casey — 

      ICE sends San Francisco enough detainers to wallpaper Moscone Center. Detainers, signed by ICE and not a judge, are not only not legally binding but quite likely violate the Fourth Amendment. The solution, as noted in this story and earlier is simple: Get a warrant. The Feds know who’s incarcerated in this city’s jails and elsewhere.



        1. Hey champ — 

          If every other law-enforcement agency can get a warrant, so can the feds. Now go around the corner and see if it’s raining.


          1. ICE detainers are not automatically a frivolous basis for a hold/detainer. Yes, a warrant is much more solid, but both a detainer or a warrant are based on some information. One entails more paperwork. Police officers arrest subjects all the time based on information and no warrant is involved. The current barriers to ICE and SFPD/SFSD cooperation are unreasonable. The current policy shields many who should be deported and legislates non-cooperation with ICE. If you are a “no borders” person you will be happy with the current policy. I would recommend to Dorsey that he look into a state-wide ballot measure that would address this issue. Good for Dorsey for pushing this, despite the opposition.

          2. As I pointed out, your “get a warrant” solution to this epidemic presets us with a catch 22. It’s apparent that ICE doesn’t work that way. However much I hate the agency and would like to see it disbanded, ICE is the arm of the federal government tasked with enforcing deportations. If all you are saying is that ICE detainers are not the proper legal means to enforce our laws, your article certainly isn’t making that clear. Your argument seems to be “this carve out would destroy the civil liberties of our fentanyl dealing community” Joe, the sanctuary city carve outs exist for a reason, public safety, which has clearly been compromised. Adding this carve out to mitigate people selling a drug that’s killed hundreds in a tiny span, is the right thing to do. Yes, we need to protect all peoples civil liberties, but that doesn’t always mean siding with the person committing crimes and giving a free ride to people selling a deadly drug on our streets just because they’re undocumented.

          3. Casey — 

            The sanctuary carve-outs exist because San Francisco politicians wanted them for cover. They serve no practical purpose other than avoiding bad-look debates with people who are convinced that to not have carve-outs is to protect criminals, facts be damned. There are no carve-outs in Los Angeles, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and elsewhere. ICE can get a warrant. If other counties with far fewer resources can do it, ICE can do it.

            This isn’t about protecting the civil liberties of fentanyl dealers so much as it’s about protecting the civil liberties of the immigrant community writ large. ICE is not a trustworthy entity and can undertake the same procedures as any other law-enforcement agency.



  14. I’m glad Dorsey was elected. Sanity is rare on the Board of Supervisors and we should celebrate it.