The search for sanctuary

Immigrants look ahead to an uncertain future after 30 years of changing city policy

San Francisco just completed its 30th year as a sanctuary city, with policies prohibiting local authorities from cooperating with immigration officials.

But undocumented immigrants and their political allies say true sanctuary is still more of a far-off ideal than a reality in The City.

Since 1989, when San Francisco became the 13th jurisdiction in the United States to prohibit police cooperation with federal immigration agents, it has made headlines for championing immigrant rights, offering public services to the undocumented and challenging White House crackdowns on immigrants.

However, immigrant residents say they continue to live in fear. That fear has intensified since the 2016 presidential election, which brought an increase in hate speech and more forceful federal efforts to abolish sanctuary laws.

“It’s been 30 years since the birth of sanctuary, and in San Francisco we are just now really reckoning with our definition of inclusion,” said immigrant rights activist Amy Lin, who is undocumented. “Immigrants make up our neighbors, our friends and family, and to really name their rights has to be (The City’s) priority now. We need to make concrete changes.”

Fragile promises

Lin was one of thousands who popularized the freedom chant, “I am undocumented and unafraid,” in the early 2010s.

She remembers being surrounded by allies and supported by family members when she came out as an unauthorized immigrant and as a queer woman in 2013 in a church in the Mission District.

But it took blood, sweat and tears to reach that milestone.

The City had undoubtedly changed by the time Raul Berrera, then a 15-year-old unaccompanied boy from the Gulf of Mexico, reached San Francisco.

“I remember, when I came to the U.S., San Francisco was one of very few cities that was offering health insurance to youth like me. And I remember my high school (John O’Connel High School) created a group to support undocumented students,” Berrera said. “I didn’t feel that I was being prosecuted or that I was being judged. I felt that they cared.”

But that progress was founded on fragile promises and pledges, which came under fire in times of crisis.

In May 2008, after undocumented gang member Edwin Ramos murdered a family of three on city streets, anti-immigrant sentiment spiked. That year, Newsom authorized local law enforcement to hand over juveniles to ICE and deportation counts reached their highest point in history, totaling more than 200 in The City in one month, according to records collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Following citizen activism and protests, The City restored sanctuary protections for youths. However, in 2015 sanctuary laws came under threat again when undocumented immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who’d been released from a San Francisco jail months earlier without notification to immigration authorities, killed 32-year-old Kate Steinle on Pier 14.

In the aftermath of the incident, the Steinle family and many others, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, blamed the killing on sanctuary policies and blasted San Francisco officials. Some local officials questioned the decision not to notify immigration authorities, but The City ultimately reaffirmed support for sanctuary laws.

“That caused fear and panic. It still does. It made me question my place in San Francisco,” Lin said. “That made me realize that policy changes are a must, but they cannot be the only solution. The solution is to really change the way we think about migration and the way we think about communities.”

“What good are sanctuary policies if nobody is able to live in The City?” Berrera added.

Living in fear

Lin and Berrera said undocumented communities in The City continue to live in fear of arrest and deportation.

Talissa Carrasco, 29, said job hunting as an undocumented individual is still dangerous, and immigration raids and racial profiling by law enforcement are “normal” occurrences among her friends and family.

“Even though San Francisco is a sanctuary city, many people get deported from just being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Carrasco, now a paralegal at a city law firm living in the Richmond District.

Carrasco was brought to the United States from northern Peru at just two years old. She said she spent most of her childhood and teenage years surrounded by opportunities that she could not access.

“My mother was very clear to us children. From a young age, she would tell us that our lives weren’t the same as everybody else’s,” she said.

Now she fears it’s getting worse.

San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission investigates one or less sanctuary violation per year, according to annual reports. Carrasco believes violations happen much more frequently than the commission or city residents think, but those who experience them don’t speak up for fear of retaliation.

According to Peter Mancina, a political anthropologist at Oxford University who is writing a book on sanctuary cities, a lack of information about the complaint process also contributes to a discrepancy between the number of sanctuary violations reported to official government bodies and the number of violations victim communities say actually occur.

“There’s likely way more immigration enforcement cooperation, threats, and violations of the sanctuary ordinance that are actually being reported,” said Mancina.

Another factor that may discourage complaints, Mancina said, is lack of punitive action.

Between 2004 and 2012, 12 sanctuary law violation complaints were filed with the Department of Police Accountability. Of these, only three were sustained and none resulted in punitive action enforced on the violator, according to Mancina’s research.

In the seven years since then, seven more complaints have been filed and just two sustained, according to quarterly Sunshine Reports.

In one 2016 incident, a 33-year-old undocumented man from El Salvador was turned over to ICE while trying to report a stolen car at a local police station. Although he was awarded a settlement of $190,000 two years after the incident, the officers involved only received a warning and were never disciplined, The Examiner reported.

On another occasion, in 2017, a police officer identified as Joshua Fry was caught on video by an undercover NBC camera crew yelling deportation threats at Asian and Hispanic men in downtown San Francisco. The investigation into the incident took over a year and, by the time the officer had been found to have violated sanctuary policies he had already left the department voluntarily, according to Mancina.

“I see why people don’t have faith in the complaint process,” Mancina said. “In this era, as Trump is making people feel empowered to participate in immigration enforcement, police officers who don’t agree with the ethics of sanctuary… and just want to see people get deported, may take more liberties to do that. And (the undocumented) are scared.”

Trump vs. Sanctuary

Many feel that the Trump Administration’s rhetoric around immigration has been harmful to immigrant communities in San Francisco.

Lin, Berrera and Carrasco said Trump is normalizing hate speech and prejudiced narratives about immigrants and undocumented communities.

Berrera said Trump has given people “permission to be outspoken” about beliefs they already held. “If people in power can do it, they think anybody can do it,” he said.

However, Trump may have also helped solidify support at the local level for sanctuary laws.

“The Board of Supervisors, and even to some extent the Mayor’s Office, has been more unified in defending sanctuary because there’s this clear outside threat that is absolutely racist, anti-immigrant and engaging in white nationalism,” said Angela Chan, a former police commissioner and a criminal justice attorney at the local civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Between 2017 and 2019, San Francisco filed and won three action lawsuits against the federal administration to protect local sanctuary laws and immigrant rights, Chan pointed out.

However, former Supervisor David Campos, a formerly undocumented immigrant, said The City should continue to be vigilant.

Campos, who was born in Guatemala, crossed the border as a boy into the United States in 1985 on his second attempt four years before sanctuary was written into law.

Growing up, he said, he was often assumed to be “dumb” because he spoke English with an accent and mistreated because of his appearance.

Today, Latinos are being targeted and demonized today more than ever by a “president that embodies racism and xenophobia,” he said.

“There is a war on immigrants that is waging on the national level and there are different battles that come out of that war,” Campos said, citing Trump’s efforts to cut the DACA program and ICE’s use of local surveillance systems to identify, target and deport undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities as examples.

Campos agreed with Lin that, either way, The City’s sanctuary laws cannot be these communities’ only protection.

He called for better education around the benefits of immigration and the effects of mass deportations and enhanced funding for public services and community-based organizations that support, sustain and serve local immigrant communities.

“I am proud that San Francisco is pushing back against efforts to turn back the clock. I am very proud of the fact that there is unity among our elected officials to preserve our sanctuary status… But I think we can’t be satisfied with what we have done,” Campos said.

He added: “We are in this society only as strong as those who have the least. We have to lift everyone up.”

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