Sanctuary change puts city officials in a pickle

San Francisco workers who adhere to the new sanctuary policy have no assurances from U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello that they will avoid prosecution.

The City recently passed legislation that changes how illegal immigrant youths arrested on felony charges are reported to federal authorities. Before, they were reported to the feds after being arrested, but the new policy says they should be reported only after being convicted.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a letter Tuesday to Russoniello requesting “adequate assurance” that city officials or employees will not be prosecuted if they follow the new policy.

On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office provided a response to the letter.

“We cannot, as a general matter, promise not to prosecute for violations of federal law,” Russoniello said in a statement. “Our decisions are based on the facts presented, not on hypotheticals.”

That rejection by the U.S. attorney to shield city employees from prosecution may hinder implementation of the policy.

Without “adequate assurance,” Herrera may “explore with city policymakers other options” about implementing the change, including filing a declaratory relief action in federal court to force a determination about its legality, Herrera said in the letter.

A spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom reiterated the mayor’s stance that he would not enforce the new policy.

“We will keep the existing policy in place and continue working with the city attorney to ensure that city officials are not forced to violate federal law,” Nathan Ballard said.

Supervisor David Campos, who introduced the legislation, said he was not surprised by Russoniello’s comments, given his legal history, but “at the end of the day we don’t need to get the U.S. attorney’s permission to implement law that is legally defensible.”

Campos said the change does not violate federal law, and “the best thing is to begin implementation right away.”

Advocates say the new policy provides “due process” for youths and follows in the spirit of The City’s existing sanctuary policy, which is meant to ensure illegal immigrants feel safe reporting crime and engaging in civic life without fear of deportation.

Newsom and others who opposed the legislation said it violates federal law and puts the entire policy in jeopardy from the legal challenges it will inevitably inspire.

The legislation was approved by the Board of Supervisors and then vetoed by Newsom. That veto was overridden Tuesday in an 8-3 vote by the board.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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