Probable cause vital in ICE interactions

My neighborhood’s already-frayed relationship with law enforcement is worsening because of Sheriff Vicki Hennessy’s plan for deputies to act as deportation agents.

Here in the Mission District, an already-large chasm with law enforcement has widened since the police killings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez-Lopez — and Mario Woods in the Bayview — not to mention the forced gladiator-style fights among prisoners at the jail and the racist and homophobic text messages between officers.

Sheriff Hennessy’s proposed entanglement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement will widen that chasm even more, discouraging immigrants from reporting crimes for fear of being deported.

Hennessy wants jail deputies to alert ICE when certain undocumented prisoners are released, so ICE can apprehend them for deportation.

As a priest in the Mission, I hope the sheriff will open her heart to the stories of immigrants in my community and their appeals to keep law enforcement separate from ICE.

Here in San Francisco, survivors of domestic violence calling 911 for help have been torn from their families and placed in ICE custody. There, detentions run long, judges to hear their cases are few and inmates who protest these unjust conditions through hunger strikes get force-fed.

So it’s no surprise, as studies show, that when police are entangled with deportations, immigrant victims and witnesses do not come forward.

This past summer, as Donald Trump whipped up hate and shamelessly exploited a painful tragedy on Pier 14; some argued the jail should just “pick up the phone” to call ICE in certain cases. But dialing an untrustworthy agency that arrests 4-year-olds in the middle of the night is not as benign as these proponents suggest.

For people with more serious records, don’t forget due process — a principle ICE seems so incapable of respecting that even mistaken identity can land you on a deportation bus. Remember also our long-held belief in redemption.

Hennessy’s entanglement with ICE simply deepens the existing fissures.

Almost a year ago, near my church, the police killed Pérez-López, a young man from Guatemala. The case remains unresolved. As expected, police claimed they shot him in self-defense. But eyewitnesses know different: This young man was running for his life when police shot him six times to his back.

The catch: These eyewitnesses are undocumented. Their understandable fear of both police retaliation and possible deportation made them reluctant to come forward for months, impeding the District Attorney’s hope for a thorough and expeditious investigation.

To repair the damaged relationship with law enforcement, we need to separate law enforcement from deportation. Fortunately, Supervisor John Avalos has introduced legislation to do just that.

Before dialing ICE — which already records fingerprints of everyone it arrests and can track them anyway — we need to ensure there’s probable cause. That’s a judgment best left to a judge, not the Sheriff’s Department.

Adhering to this existing, constitutionally guaranteed protocol is a small step to re-establish trust in the criminal justice system, but it’s an important one.


Fr. Richard Smith is the Vicar of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Mission District where he has worked for immigration reform for several years. He holds a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union and has taught in various Bay Area universities. He lives in the Mission with his husband, Rob Tan, and their son David.

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