The recent murder in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant has prompted a flurry of criticism against local immigrant policies. The suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been deported five times due to criminal charges before the murder. His previous offences included multiple drug charges, but he had no history of violent felonies. The July 2nd murder of Katheryn Steinle appeared to be a random act of violence.
A few months prior, the city of San Francisco had arrested Lopez-Sanchez on drug charges, involving a 20-year-old marijuana case. He was released in April by local law enforcement that defied a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to hold him for deportation proceedings. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had lodged an “immigration detainer” with the Sheriff’s Department asking to be “notified prior to his release,” but “the detainer was not honored,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement.
San Francisco honors federal requests for immigrants only if their conviction meets a timeline outlined in a city ordinance. The ordinance states that in order to comply with a detainer, the individual has to have been convicted of a violent felony in the seven years immediately prior to the date of the detainer and the public risk of releasing said individual. In the case of Lopez-Sanchez, with no violent felonies, SFPD had no legal reason to hold the suspect since he was being held on a 20-year-old marijuana charge that was too old to prosecute. Due to this ordinance and San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy they did not turn him over to ICE.
Across the country many local law enforcements do not comply with ICE detainers because ICE does not reimburse them for the cost of detaining suspects. For example, a 2012 study found that Los Angeles County taxpayers spend over $26 million per year on ICE detainers. Moreover, ICE requests are not mandatory. There is no legal requirement for a department to hold anyone beyond the time they are eligible for release from local custody.
Legislative deadlock has contributed to sanctuary city policies. Undocumented immigrants often are reluctant to report criminal activity for fear of being detained and deported. Local governments have enacted sanctuary cities policies to help combat this problem. Deadlock in Congress has prevented the legislative branch from undertaking immigration reform, and executive action has further bogged down the debate and the path towards meaningful reform.
Meaningful legal immigration reform would mend the disconnect between local and federal agencies as well as decrease the chance of this occurring again. Effective reform that addresses undocumented immigrants in the United States would curtail the need for local governments to legislate their own solutions. In the event that, through legislative action, undocumented immigrants in the United States were granted some sort of legal status, sanctuary city policies would no longer be as necessary. The point of local governments developing policies to protect undocumented immigrant populations is in many cases to encourage compliance with local law enforcement. In the event of legislative reform, undocumented immigrants would no longer fear being deported or arrested and would more readily comply with law enforcement. If ICE requests a detainer then local law enforcement would not be at odds with local legislation when deciding to comply with said request.
The unfortunate event caused by the release of Lopez-Sanchez is not common among immigrants. Between 2010 and 2014 there were only 121 murders committed by people released from immigration custody. Lopez-Sanchez’s actions do not reflect upon the immigrant community in the United States whatsoever. This tragedy, rather than pointing out the faults in sanctuary city policies, highlights the consequences of a fractured immigration system.
Comprehensive immigration reform is the only legislative action that can mend this disconnect and that can prevent this tragedy from occurring again.