On KQED’s “Forum” program on May 9, hosted by Michael Krasny, San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance was put on the defensive. Supervisor John Avalos and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders squared off center stage as Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with the Criminal Justice Reform program and the Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, voiced their assents or dissents from the wings. It was riveting radio.
The Due Process For All sanctuary city measure, originally passed in 2013, prohibits law enforcement from informing Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the pending release of undocumented immigrants from prison, except in a few cases, such as if they have been convicted of a violent felony within the last seven years.
“Forum” excavated three sides to the sanctuary city policy.
The first is Supervisor Avalos’ stance of building trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.
“We have a criminal enforcement agency that is here to hold people accountable,” Avalos explained. “Just because you are an immigrant, doesn’t mean that you should have a different standard.”
The second side — Sheriff Hennessy’s position of being opposed to parts of the sanctuary city ordinance. She wants communication between law enforcement and ICE on a discretionary basis. She defines the criteria for this discretion. “I’m looking at people that have convictions for violent felonies within seven years,” Hennessy said. “I’m looking at people who have convictions for serious felonies within five years; I’m looking at people who have convictions for three felonies arising from three different instances within the last five years; and I’m looking at people who have been criminally deported — at least two criminal felony deportations.”
And the third — Saunders’ blanket opposition to the idea of a sanctuary city policy.
“In my mind, there is a covenant when people come into this country,” Saunders said. “When they come in as legal residents, we expect them to obey the laws if they want to become citizens. If they come in illegally, we still have an understanding that they’re supposed to follow the rules. They’re supposed to be contributing members of society.”
Of all, I find that I cannot agree with Saunders’ ideological stance.
On the same day the program aired, Saunders published an article in The Chronicle with the title: “Sanctuary City: Welcome Criminals.” The title is certainly provocative and, to my mind, also grossly misleading.
Saunders has reduced the problem to sentiment-less proportions.
Here’s a somewhat trivial analogy. I have a bunch of apples in a bag. As I inspect the apples later, I find one bad apple in there. How did it get there? Never mind. Lest it spoil the others, I pick it up and throw it away.
Let’s keep in mind that behind the label of “undocumented immigrants” there are actual people capable of fear and love and hurt and anger and remorse. And like all humans, they have and make continuous human connections — a mother, a daughter, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague — that which apples are unable to do. If we discard and destroy an undocumented immigrant with a mistake in his or her past, like we would a bad apple, then we are actually breaking some human connections in our society.
Saunders in her analysis of the sanctuary city policy says it “shields undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records.” The policy would be shielding felons if they were not held accountable for their crimes. But that’s not the case.
“The biggest issue with Saunders’ stance is her belief that the immigration system should serve as a proxy for the criminal justice system,” Hussain said by email. “If someone is charged with a crime, regardless of immigration status, they go through the criminal justice system and are adjudicated through that process. If they are convicted, they serve out a sentence and are released once the system deems that the person has completed his or her debt to society. Saunders is talking about imposing a second layer of punishment on certain people through the immigration system.”
The sanctuary city policy was put in place to protect victims of crime, not criminals. Undocumented victims of domestic abuse would have continued to suffer quietly if not for the sanctuary city policy. It makes no sense to oppose a policy that has helped scores of people who live and work in our neighborhoods, exactly like Saunders describes as “the covenant.”
If deportation became a tool for law enforcement, there would only be more silent victims.
It comes down to how we view undocumented immigrants, whether as inanimate apples or as thinking, feeling, bleeding, evolving people.
Should the undocumented forever carry the stigma and humiliation of the scarlet letter “I” for illegality and be measured by that for the rest of their lives? Or do we help them become contributing members of our society?
The Due Process For All ordinance strives to create an environment of trust, which is important for the well-being and success of our immigrant communities. The more we enable each individual success, the more we experience it as a neighborhood, as a city and as a country.
Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.