A routine traffic stop has reignited debate about San Francisco’s ability to enforce its sanctuary city policy, and raised questions about what information is available to police in relation to undocumented immigrants.
San Francisco enacted a sanctuary policy in 1989 that aims to foster an environment in which undocumented immigrants feel safe enough to engage with law enforcement officials and local government without fear of deportation. The policy bars city employees from using any funds or resources to assist in federal enforcement of immigration law, but there are exceptions.
The City — and its policy — have been in the spotlight in recent months after it was discovered that San Francisco was shielding illegal immigrant youths suspected of felonies from deportation.
Mayor Gavin Newsom and members of the Board of Supervisors sparred about altering the sanctuary policy to report all youths and adults arrested on felony charges to federal immigration officials. Previously, only people convicted of felonies were turned over.
In the latest incident that highlights the inconsistencies in enforcing policies regarding illegal immigrants, police officers stopped a driver June 2 who had failed to come to a complete stop at an intersection in the Ingleside neighborhood, according to the police report.
The Salvadoran — who resides in The City and has lived in the United States for five years, according to the individual’s attorney — did not have a driver’s license or other identification, but did give police a name and date of birth. When officers entered the information into a terminal in the patrol car to perform a background check — as is standard for every traffic stop — they found no criminal history, according to police.
What did pop up was a federal immigration warrant that, according to the driver’s attorney, was issued four years ago after a missed immigration-status court hearing.
Since police could not confirm that the driver was the person connected to the warrant, the individual was arrested on suspicion of driving without a license, police spokeswoman Lt. Lyn Tomioka said.
At some point between being stopped for the traffic infraction and arriving at County Jail to be booked, the individual’s immigration status was confirmed with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — though it’s murky exactly who contacted federal authorities.
According to Sheriff Mike Hennessey, the detainer arrived even before the Salvadoran was officially in the department’s custody on the traffic-infraction charge. Hennessey said he’s been told by ICE officials that “cops do make direct phone calls to ICE” sometimes. The contact by police appears to be a violation of The City’s sanctuary policy, according to Hennessey.
The arrested immigrant’s attorney has asked the Office of Citizen Complaints to investigate the matter. But even if the Police Department and the Citizen Complaints Office find the incident to be a violation of the sanctuary policy, it’s not clear the ordinance is actually enforceable. According to a legal opinion issued in August by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, federal law protects the rights of local law enforcement officials to release information to the ICE.
It’s also unclear if immigration warrants have always been available to police doing routine record checks and that officers have ignored them, or if the information is only recently available. The debate about whether accessing such information by police is routine — and whether it violates the sanctuary city policy — was raised during a Police Commission meeting.
The commission has requested that police Chief George Gascón update them Wednesday on the department’s policy on reporting immigration warrants.
Traffic stop exposes new ICE powers
Police may have violated San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy by reporting an undocumented immigrant to federal officials — but six days later, it likely would have been a moot point.
The arrest occurred June 2, less than a week before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started its Secure Communities program in San Francisco jails June 8.
That program grants the ICE full access to all fingerprints taken in county jails.
If the undocumented immigrant in question were arrested today on suspicion of driving without a license — the same misdemeanor the driver was suspected of June 2 — the ICE would have immediately known about the person as soon as their fingerprints were processed, according to Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Eileen Hirst.
The department used to have a choice about whether to call the ICE, and its policy was not to notify the agency about foreign nationals who were arrested on misdemeanor charges, Hirst said.
That discretion has since been taken away because the ICE has full access to fingerprint records, she said.
— Katie Worth