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Hey Area: A history of San Francisco's contested sanctuary city status

Sanctuary activist Jose Artiga (left) demonstrates in front of the U.S. Capitol in the 1980s.

It's been over a year since President Donald Trump issued an executive order promising to halt federal funding for cities that limit cooperation with immigration agents. After the order was made, mayors from across the country vowed to remain so called “sanctuary cities” anyway. 

Amidst this backdrop of threat and resistance, Oakland resident Sharmila Kanagalingam remembers feeling confused and conflicted, wondering what exactly was at stake.


“Being a Democrat and a liberal, I am questioning whether or not sanctuary cities are doing a public good,” Kanagalingam says. “are they really compromising immigrant communities, or has it just become a way for liberals and Democrats to be anti the government of the day?”


So she reached out to our crowdsourced collaborative reporting project Hey Area and asked us to go past the divide, and find the meaning and history behind sanctuary cities.


The sanctuary movement


If you really want to understand the controversy of today, you might have to take a step inside an unlikely place: a church.

Back in the early 1980s, Jose Artiga lived inside the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in San Francisco’s Castro District. That was after he fled El Salvador, when a death squad — a group of government backed assassins — came looking for him.


“My sister came early Saturday morning as I was leaving the house I was staying at and told me, ‘You've got to go, there is no time for questions, no time for investigations, you got to go,’” Artiga remembers.

Artiga was not alone. Nearly a fifth of El Salvador’s population fled the country’s violent civil war. But the Reagan administration didn’t want to admit that the Salvadoran government, an ally in the fight against communism, was also funding death squads. Artiga says the U.S. government wanted to keep the violence under wraps.

“More and more refugees were coming from El Salvador to the United States,” Artiga says. “As people were applying for political asylum, after a few years we realized that something like 99 percent of the applications were being denied.”

But that didn’t stop the mass exodus. So, churches in the U.S. stepped up, declaring themselves public sanctuaries. Church leaders offered to feed, shelter, and provide attorneys for the thousands fleeing violence.

The raids


But many immigrants were still afraid of deportation and the police.


“The San Francisco police actually took part in several immigration raids during that era,” says Bill Hing, an immigration professor and director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco.

“The police were not trustworthy to the immigrant community. Even the lawful immigrant community, thought, ‘Why should we cooperate? We're afraid to report crimes we were victims of or witnesses to.’”

Hing remembers when police helped immigration agents raid a Mission District night club. Two hundred people were told they couldn’t leave the club unless they proved they were legal U.S. residents.

“It was quite upsetting, because it scared the heck out of immigrant communities, especially the Mission district, where many Mexicans lived, and there was an influx in Guatemalans and El Salvadorians at that time,” Hing says.

San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance

In response to the community’s outrage, Hing helped draft the city’s first binding sanctuary ordinance in 1989.

“The ordinance basically was a noncooperation statement,” Hing says.  

The ordinance declared there would be no more using city resources to help federal immigration agents.

Refusing to cooperate with federal authorities was immediately controversial. By 1992, San Francisco was at risk of losing federal funding unless they changed the policy. So city officials said they’d start cooperating with immigration agents for people with felonies.  


A controversial policy


But even with that change, people like former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Peter Nunez, say sanctuary cities are still unconstitutional. 

“To decide they can just opt out of a law Congress has passed is a nonstarter. Why didn't they just decide we're not going to follow the internal revenue code anymore?” Nunez says. “Why not just not follow any law? What makes immigration so different they can just decide, ‘No thank you?’”

Nunez is a board member of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that supports tighter controls for immigration. He says undocumented immigrants suspected of any crimes in San Francisco should be reported to immigration agents. But besides that, he says sanctuary city policies help encourage illegal immigration.

“If you're in country x, and you're poor, and you’re searching for a better life, and you read in the paper that if I can make it to San Francisco, I’m going to be protected, why wouldn’t you move to San Francisco?” Nunez says. “I mean, this is the greatest inducement for illegal immigration that you can imagine.”

While sanctuary cities tend to have higher populations of undocumented immigrants, it’s difficult to prove that it’s because of sanctuary city policies.

But there are studiesthat say that sanctuary cities are safer than non-sanctuary cities.

A breath of fresh air

When Maria Hernandez moved to San Francisco from Mexico in the early 1990s, she didn’t know about the city’s sanctuary policy.

“Before I learned what a sanctuary city was, or that San Francisco was a sanctuary city, I didn’t know I had any rights. I didn't feel safe at all reporting anything to the police,” Hernandez says. “I'm actually a survivor of domestic violence, and I didn't feel comfortable, I didn't feel safe reporting any of that, before I knew that I had rights in the sanctuary city.”

When she did learn she lived in a sanctuary city, and what that meant, her perspective on herself and the world around her changed.


“It's been a breath of fresh air, a respite, because knowing that we have rights in the U.S., in this city, that we have access to services, it gives me a calmness, and it gives me a semblance of normalcy in my life,” Hernandez says.

A triple homicide


Sanctuary cities may help people like Hernandez feel welcome. But opponents argue that earning trust shouldn't require protecting criminal suspects who may have also broken federal immigration law.

By 2008, the sanctuary city policy came under attack. It captured national attention when Edwin Ramos allegedly shot and killed three people during a traffic dispute in the city’s Excelsior neighborhood. 


Even though Ramos was undocumented and committed two felonies as a juvenile, he was never turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known more commonly as ICE.


Danielle Bologna blamed the sanctuary policy for the death of her husband and two sons.


“It was a senseless crime, and had they done something, this animal would not have taken my family,” Bologna said in an interview on Fox News.


The deportations

In theory, under the revised sanctuary city policy, San Francisco should have turned Ramos over to ICE. But he committed felonies as a teen, and at the time, the city's policy only specifically addressed adults. The murders caused an uproar. Mayor Gavin Newsominstructed officials to turn not just convicted minors over to ICE, but also juveniles who were only suspects in a felony crime.

“In the fall of 2008, we saw around 140 children get transferred for deportation as a result of this policy,” says Francisco Ugarte, an immigration attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.

Ugarte says city employees went above and beyond Newsom’s orders. Kids started to be turned over to ICE after minor crimes, like bringing BB guns to school, or stealing change. That, he says, had consequences.

“Deportation of a person is an incredibly severe and harmful act to that child, because you could be sending the child to their deaths, their parents might not be in the country where they came from, or they may be fleeing violence,” Ugarte says.

The immigrant community was outraged that so many young people were now facing deportation. In response, the city changed its policy again to say, basically: don’t send minors to ICE, unless they’ve been convicted of a felony. Over the years, the policy continued to evolve, allowing for greater protections for undocumented immigrants.


Another tragedy


Then, in 2015, there was another fatal tragedy. Kate Steinle was killed on the Embarcadero, after Jose Ines Garcia Zaratewas released by the sheriff’s department. Garcia Zarate's defense attorneys argued that while he fired the shot that killed Steine, he did so accidentally. A jury later acquitted him of all charges related to the murder, except being a felon in possession of a firearm. Regardless, Donald Trump mentioned the incident as part of his sanctuary city criticism on the campaign stump.

At the time, then-Mayor Ed Lee blamed the sheriff for not calling ICE before Lopez-Sanchez got out. The sheriff, in turn, said he was following the sanctuary ordinance. When Vicki Hennessy ran for sheriff that same year, she promised to cooperate more with ICE.


The sanctuary city ordinance today

“I ran on having stricter enforcement of immigration laws,” San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy says. “But once I got here and I started working on people in the community, I realized that the problem in making it too strict would have been to cause that distrust of the community.”

Hennessy says she compromised with the city’s Board of Supervisors to bring the ordinance to where it is today. Now Hennessey only notifies ICE of an inmate’s release if the person has committed certain felonies over the last seven years, and is facing another felony charge.

“I've been looking at every single one, and I've been having people to look at their backgrounds, making sure they don't fall under these categories, and we haven't found one yet,” Hennessy says.

But ICE isn’t giving up on asking the San Francisco Sheriff’s department for help. Hennessy says since Trump came into office, she’s receiving even more requests from ICE, and for lower level crimes.

Still, she says, San Francisco’s sanctuary city laws preserve a level of confidence between the undocumented community and local police. But if ICE has an address, there’s nothing the city or state can do to stop federal agents from showing up at someone’s door.


Preparing for ICE


More than three decades after the sanctuary movement began, churches are still helping undocumented immigrants plan for the worst. At a Presbyterian church in East Oakland, a group is using participatory bilingual theater to teach immigrants their constitutional rights. A woman in one scene demands ICE show her a warrant.

Rosa Gonzalez, a facilitator with the show, says training immigrant communities is important. She says living in a sanctuary city isn’t enough, if the community isn’t prepared.

“It takes practice, it takes courage, it takes knowing our rights, to be able to put that into action,” Gonzalez says.

Sanctuary state legislation moves forward

Sanctuary city supporters and opponents both agree President Trump needs help from local law enforcement if he wants to meet his deportation goals. But in this state at least, that kind of help might get harder to come by. This year, California became a sanctuary state, a move that limits cooperation with immigration agents even more. 

This story originally aired in March of 2017 and has since been updated. 


This story is a part of Hey Area, KALW's collaborative reporting project. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.


About Hey Area asker Sharmila Kanagalingam

Credit Courtesy of Sharmila Kanagalingam

Sharmila Kanagalingam is an international nonprofit fundraising and communications consultant in Oakland. Born in Malaysia and educated in three continents, Sharmila began her American journey as a college student in Michigan. She takes pride in being a global citizen and celebrates what she calls “America’s perfectly imperfect society.”