Kamala Harris’ comments earlier this week discouraging Central Americans from traveling to the southernmost border of the United States rattled San Francisco advocates, who point to the vice president’s chequered record on immigration during her time as a city official.
“It does betray our values,” said Francisco Ugarte, an immigration attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. “Our city has declared itself to be a tolerant city, to recognize immigrants as a core part of our community. For someone who came from San Francisco politics to then declare to people in Guatemala ‘don’t come, we’ll defend our borders,’ it is just highly hypocritical.”
Harris gave her remarks at a news conference in Guatemala Tuesday. She quickly sparked outrage among many Democrats who have viewed her as a national figure unafraid to play hard ball when pushing for immigration reform.
But here in San Francisco, longtime immigration advocates say her political track record is less favorable, stressing that her recent comments crossed even that line.
“I’m certainly not one of these folks that thinks she’s just like the Republicans. It’s just false,” said Ugarte. “She actually cares about immigration, but it’s a mixed record.”
Harris, herself the daughter of immigrants, rose to prominence in the mid-2000s as the District Attorney of San Francisco, a city partly known for its decades-long status as a safe haven. Under its Sanctuary City policy enacted in 1989, official resources can’t be used to enforce federal immigration law, save for a few exceptions.
But while Harris held local office, she supported a 2008 policy from then-mayor Gavin Newsom that required local law enforcement to turn over undocumented juvenile immigrants to federal immigration authorities if they were arrested as a suspect in a felony crime.
Ugarte said the policy turned juvenile halls into a feeder for deportation, calling it one of the “greatest human rights crises” The City ever faced. The rule was later reversed after Newsom left office.
Harris also took heat for a jobs training program that was open to undocumented individuals, designed to divert people from prison following a drug felony arrest. She later limited access after an undocumented person enrolled in the program was arrested for robbing a woman in Pacific Heights.
Some say her recent remarks harken back to her leadership during that era.
“To me, it’s the irony of who Vice President Kamala Harris is — her identity, but also where she has served, and where she has come from,” said Jon Jacobo, a chair of the San Francisco Latino Task Force.
When Harris reached state and federal office, she beefed up her immigration bonafides publicly.
As Attorney General, she directed financial and legal aid towards immigrant communities, protected migrants from deportation in many circumstances and set limits on federal law enforcement’s ability to demand detention of undocumented persons.
During her freshman term as a United States Senator, Harris refused to support any government funding bill unless Congress shielded from deportation the approximately 700,000 DREAMers, young people who were brought to the country by their parents while undocumented. Her brief presidential campaign even promised to use executive authority for pathways to citizenship.
Her comments in Guatemala represented a departure from those actions. Advocates expressed frustration at what they described as a pattern of public officials from California, including Senator Dianne Feinstein and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, moderating their stance on immigration once they reach Washington D.C.
“We’re often incredibly disappointed with how they approach immigration and how it just falls off the burner,” Jacobo said. “For us in the Latino community, it’s time to double down on this idea that we are no longer just going to be pandered to. We want action.”
The vice president’s recent remarks struck a painful chord with some San Franciscans, including Supervisor Myrna Melgar. She was born and raised in El Salvador before immigrating to The City with her family during her home country’s civil war.
Melgar called the comments “tone deaf” and “hurtful.”
“People don’t leave their country, people, language, culture, family on a whim, like a tourist,” she said. “They take the very perilous journey because they have no choice.”
Advocates point to the power of rhetoric, which can be used as both a unifying force or to foster deep divisions.
“It’s very important for us to unite and to build and to continue to grow together,” Ugarte said. “When someone goes so far off message that it threatens to break that otherwise fragile coalition we’ve created, there has to be some accountability.”