Compromise legislation on San Francisco immigrant holds passes

San Francisco took a stand against federal immigrant detainers Tuesday, but fell short of making a complete break from the controversial practice.

Supervisor John Avalos had introduced legislation with strong backing from immigration advocates that would prohibit the Sheriff’s Department, which operates County Jail, from honoring requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold criminal suspects who are undocumented immigrants for deportation when they are otherwise eligible for release.

Under the federal program Secure Communities, or S-Comm, ICE officials can request that local law enforcement place an immigration hold on the person for up to 48 hours to allow the federal agency time to pick up the detained person for possible deportation. Critics say the program is a violation of due process rights and erodes community trust of local law enforcement.

The Sheriff’s Department’s current policy is to honor those requests for up to 24 hours if the person is in custody on suspicion of a serious and violent felony, such as murder or rape, or has previous convictions for serious felonies.

Police Chief Greg Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee both opposed the complete elimination of the power to help ICE deport a violent criminal under S-Comm. Suhr warned that it could lead to the release of dangerous people on the streets and make San Francisco a destination for criminals. Political pressure mounted to “carve out” exceptions for violent offenders.

In the end, Supervisor Jane Kim amended the legislation Tuesday to ensure its passage. Under the amendment, the Sheriff’s Department would retain the power to hold someone for deportation if he or she were charged with a violent felony and had a conviction for a violent felony in the past seven years. Regular public reporting of the ICE holds also is required under the law, which passed 11-0.

Avalos reiterated his support for his initial proposal, saying, “I feel very strongly that any carve-outs deter fearful immigrants and victims of crime from reaching out to our local law enforcement.” But he said this was the “strongest” piece of legislation that could be passed.

Following the vote, about 100 backers, including well-known domestic violence activist Beverly Upton and members of the Mission district-based nonprofit Justa Causa, gathered in the City Hall rotunda to celebrate and deliver speeches.

But the victory was somewhat bittersweet. In a statement, the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee praised the legislation, but also said that, “It is unfortunate that basic constitutional protections for some people were sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.”

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