A San Francisco deputy public defender says he would create a unit to help prevent undocumented immigrants charged with crimes from being deported if elected as district attorney in November.
The Immigration Unit proposed by candidate Chesa Boudin would work to assure that defendants are not offered plea deals that have unintended consequences on their immigration status.
“This isn’t about trying to privilege immigrants,” Boudin said. “It’s about helping to protect our immigrant communities from being punished by the federal government for something that we’ve already punished them for.”
The unit would translate complicated immigration law for prosecutors. In many cases, immigrants who commit certain crimes can be convicted of comparable charges that still result in punishment but do not impact their status in the country, Boudin said.
For instance, Boudin said an immigrant accused of drug dealing could be offered a felony plea for being an accessory after the fact rather than possession with the intent to sell, which carries with it “drastic” immigration consequences.
Protecting immigrants from deportation is just one aspect of the proposed unit that Boudin plans to announce Wednesday. Boudin said the unit would also be tasked with investigating and prosecuting “illegal tactics” by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There are lots of situations in San Francisco where ICE is making arrests,” Boudin said. “We know it’s racist, we know it’s targeting immigrants, and unfortunately right now no one in the DA’s office has the resources or the mandate to investigate those interactions.”
Boudin said he might consider ICE making good on President Donald Trump’s threat to transport undocumented immigrants from the border to San Francisco “human trafficking” or “kidnapping,” for instance.
Boudin, who has worked for the Public Defender’s Office since 2012, is among four candidates running to succeed outgoing District Attorney George Gascon. He is the son of left-wing radicals who went to prison for their part in an armored car robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead.
His competitors are California Deputy Attorney General Leif Dautch, former Police Commission President Suzy Loftus and Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Nancy Tung.
While all three support being cognizant of immigration risks during plea bargaining, Dautch and Tung criticized the idea of creating a whole new unit to deal with immigration issues.
“I don’t believe a new standalone unit is required but I do believe that there should be thorough training,” said Dautch. “It’s critically important for prosecutors to be trained on the immigration consequences of prosecuting cases and where possible to avoid collateral consequences in resolving cases.”
The District Attorney’s Office does not have an immigration unit but already considers immigration consequences in accordance with California law, according to a spokesperson for the office.
The law requires the prosecution to “consider the avoidance of adverse immigration consequences in the plea negotiation process as one factor in an effort to reach a just resolution.”
“San Francisco prosecutors are already very well-attuned to the fact that we are in a sanctuary city,” said Tung, who worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco for more than a decade.
Tung noted that the Public Defender’s Office also puts resources toward researching immigration consequences on behalf of their clients.
Loftus, who has the high-profile endorsements of Gov. Gavin Newson and Mayor London Breed, said she is committed to enforcing policies that “consider immigration consequences in handling cases” and protect “non-citizen defendants from excessive federal punishment.”
“Our immigrant communities must feel safe and secure in reporting crimes and assisting local law enforcement in keeping all of us safe,” Loftus said. “The safety of our communities is not served when we destabilize families without reason.”
In addition to considering immigration consequences in active cases and investigating ICE, Boudin’s unit would review old cases to determine if a person could withdraw a plea that is impacting their status in the U.S.
The unit would also aim to expand the U-Visa program for undocumented victims of crimes and advocate for all people facing deporatation to recieve legal representation.
ICE could not immediately be reached for comment.
Boudin said he would find funding in the office to staff the unit by being more efficient with existing resources.
“I want to avoid asking the mayor and the Board of Supervisors for more money,” Boudin said.
Other candidates said the office is already short-staffed and overworked.
David Campos, head of the local California Democratic Party, plans to join Boudin at a press conference announcing the unit.
Campos said Boudin is best positioned to protect immigrants as district attorney because he helped create the Public Defender’s Office own immigration unit.
“Obviously public safety remains the utmost priority, but you can make someone accountable and pay for their crime without in the process penalizing the entire family,” Campos said.
The press conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at 474 Valencia St.