Kate Steinle Shooting Puts San Francisco Immigration Policy Under Microscope

A memorial for Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14, where she was fatally shot on July 1.

A memorial for Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14, where she was fatally shot on July 1. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

Just what you were looking for: The intersection of a horrific tragedy, the perpetual immigration debate, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, and the presidential ambitions of Donald Trump.

And just this afternoon Mayor Ed Lee waded into the debate over San Francisco’s immigration policies prompted by the shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on the city’s Pier 14 last Wednesday, allegedly by a man with multiple felonies on his record  who had been deported to Mexico five times.

“There has been much discussion about San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy in the aftermath of Kathryn’s death,” Lee said in a statement. “Let me be clear: San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy protects residents regardless of immigration status and is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons.”

The city’s sanctuary policy stems from a 1989 ordinance prohibiting city officials from assisting in federal immigration enforcement unless required by law.

“I am concerned about the circumstances that led to the release of Mr. Sanchez,” Lee  continued. “All agencies involved, Federal and local, need to conduct quick, thorough and objective reviews of their own departmental policies and the decisions they made in this case.”

Shot While Walking

The case is engendering national headlines. CNN, for instance, led with the story on its website Monday, promoting it with the question: “Did sanctuary law lead to slaying?”

The debate takes place in the aftermath of the July 1 shooting, when 32-year-old Kate Steinle was fatally struck by a bullet while walking with her father on San Francisco’s Pier 14, near the Ferry Building.

“There was a pop, and Kate went down,” her father said, according to news reports.

Steinle died later that day at San Francisco General Hospital.

Shortly after the shooting, which police said appeared to be random, a man named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez was detained and then jailed on suspicion of murder. In a somewhat disjointed jailhouse interview with ABC7 over the weekend, Lopez-Sanchez, who didn’t appear to always understand the reporter’s questions in the interview’s raw version, confessed to the shooting, saying it was an accident and that he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt. The San Francisco Chronicle had earlier reported that he told police he was shooting at sea lions.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office charged Lopez-Sanchez with murder on Monday afternoon.

News of Lopez-Sanchez’s immigration status and criminal history has opened up a can of worms around immigration and criminal justice. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says Lopez-Sanchez, from Mexico, has been deported five times, most recently in 2009. His criminal history includes seven prior felony convictions, four involving drug offenses.

That history did not prevent him from being released from county jail in San Francisco in April.

Enter Donald Trump, who in June launched his presidential campaign with a tirade against immigration from Mexico.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems,” Trump said. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”

The comments cost Trump a multitude of business partnerships, including those with Macy’s, NBC Universal and Univision. Undeterred, he repeatedly defended his remarks and last week used the San Francisco shooting to justify his views.

“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become President.”

Lopez-Sanchez’s Release From Jail

So how and why was Lopez-Sanchez released?

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman  Gillian Christensen said in an email that in March, Lopez-Sanchez finished serving a federal prison sentence at Victorville for felony re-entry to the U.S. after being deported. After that, the Bureau of Prisons transferred him to the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department “based on an outstanding arrest warrant lodged by the San Francisco Police Department for a felony drug charge.” When ICE received a notification that Lopez-Sanchez had been booked into San Francisco custody, Christensen said, it sent a request for an immigration detainer “asking to be notified prior to his release.”

“Bottom line: If the local authorities had merely NOTIFIED ICE (ICE emphasis) that they were about to release this individual into the community, ICE could have taken custody of him and had him removed from the country – thus preventing this terrible tragedy. At the end of the (sic) ICE desperately wants local law enforcement agencies to work with us so we can work to stop needless violence like these in our communities.”

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, for its part, said its hands were tied.

“Once Mr. Lopez-Sanchez’s local criminal charges were dismissed, ” the department said in a statement Friday, “San Francisco Ordinance 130764, approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed by Mayor Ed Lee in October 2013, deemed him ineligible for extended detention. This also comports with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Policy on immigration detainers.”

That cited San Francisco ordinance says: “A law enforcement official shall not detain an individual on the basis of an immigration detainer after that individual becomes eligible for release from custody.”

In addition to San Francisco’s ordinance, in 2013 California passed the Trust Act, introduced by then-San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. The act prohibits law enforcement from holding someone on the basis of a request by ICE after the person is eligible for release, unless he’s been convicted of a serious or violent felony, a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison. or certain serious misdemeanors.

On Sunday, the Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci wrote a piece on potential fallout from the incident in the Bay Area and California.

At the state and local levels, political figures who have been associated with efforts to advocate for immigrants in the law enforcement arena may also face heat.

Heading that list is Kamala Harris, California’s Democratic attorney general and a former San Francisco district attorney. She’s widely considered the front-runner to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer — and her record on immigrants and law enforcement has long been fodder for conservative critics.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, up for re-election in November, and former San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who may mount a run to replace termed-out state Sen. Mark Leno next year — may also have to answer questions about their roles in shaping the policies that led to Sanchez’s release.

Defending Policy

In a statement sent Friday, Angela Chan, of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, defended laws that ignore ICE hold requests:

“Federal courts, including the Oregon federal district court in Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County … have held that ICE holds are not only voluntary, but that the detention of individuals based on ICE hold requests violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. ICE holds violate the Constitution because they are not signed by a judge and are not based on a finding of probable cause. Rather, they are issued by only ICE agents, and have been issued on individuals who are not actually removable.”

Chan says ICE’s contention that the Sheriff’s Department merely had to inform  ICE that it was releasing Sanchez-Lopez is disingenuous.

“If they wanted to detain Mr. Sanchez, they should have gotten a warrant signed by a judge … ,” she told KQED. “They issued an ICE hold request and they know full well an ICE hold request violates the Constitution.”

Last year, the California Attorney General’s Office issued a “Bulletin to Law Enforcement on Federal Immigration Detainers” that made the argument that local law enforcement officials acting as “de facto immigration officers” would erode “the trust between our peace officers and the communities they serve.“

“(B)ecause compliance with an ICE detainer is voluntary, a local agency could violate the Fourth Amendment by detaining an individual solely based on the request of ICE, without some other probable cause for arrest,” the bulletin said.

Kate Steinle Shooting Puts San Francisco Immigration Policy Under Microscope 4 November,2015Jon Brooks

  • Hillary’s Cackle

    So the Federal government turns this guy over to San Francisco because they lodged a warrant requesting that he be turned over to them. The Feds request notice if SF intends to release him, but then SF dismisses the charges against him and releases him with no notice. Why did they ask for this guy to be turned over to SF if they only intended to turn around and release him?

    This isn’t about “sanctuary” for a guy who was caught in SF, this sounds like a conspiracy by SF government to rescue this guy from the clutches of the Feds. They asked for him and then they turn around and say “aha, sanctuary.” Even in the People’s Republic of San Francisco this should be a bridge too far.

    • calwatch

      Good point. If SF had done nothing, this guy would be on the other side of the border. Now he might have gotten back in again eventually, but would have taken some effort. Instead he gets sent straight to San Francisco for some hold. Next time ICE’s decision will be clear – deport them back across the border, local unsolved cases be damned.

      • I am Spartacus

        I agree. This matter of sanctuary also brings into question the tens of thousands of actual U.S. citizens doing time in prisons for non-violent drugs offenses while people like this illegal-immigrant are walking around free in the United States illegally.

        I believe the defendant is telling the truth regarding finding the gun and the shooting being an accident. He had no motivation, only opportunity. A hand gun lying around in a public place where anyone could find it is yet another symptom of how our gun culture permeates every aspect of everyone’s life in America. That gun could have been picked up by anyone, even a child, with similar results.

        SF city government needs to get out of the business of interfering with the federal government’s responsibility for defending the borders. They are no better than the extremists on the other side who profile all Latinos.

        • Hillary’s Cackle

          You mean the culture of armed federal agents?

          • I am Spartacus

            I was thinking about the irony of the US having more human beings in prison than any other nation on earth, many for non-violent drug offenses and SF is providing free sanctuary to illegal aliens. Even if we released all those who were sent up for selling small quantities of drugs tomorrow their lives are already destroyed by having a prison record. Yet, here is a city government paying more attention to helping a non-citizen with multiple crimes on his record. Doesn’t charity begin at home?

            Most people are upset that this man was here illegally, but I think that misses the real point. Anyone could have found the hand gun with similar results. Everyone is screaming bloody hell about the wrong thing imo.

          • Mike McCurley

            Do you really believe he “found” that gun wrapped in a T shirt, on one of the most traveled spots in frisco? You are one of the “true believers” that Gruber was referring to…

          • I am Spartacus

            I don’t know anything about true believers. What evidence do you have that he is lying? What motivation did he have to shoot that particular person? The gun was reported stolen. He said the gun went off by accident. That happens to people who have no experience handling a weapon, and even to people who do.

            The fact that lots of people frequent that area is a fact, but not relevant. Anyone could have found it where it had been left. That it happened to be an illegal alien is largely also not relevant.

            To arrive at the right answers you first have to ask the right questions. And you can’t do that with a prejudiced mind that seeks foregone conclusions based on hate.

          • CPO_C_Ryback

            That is utterly insane and bizarre.

            Dare you to patrol Detroit (D) on a hot Saturday night. You’ll call the National Guard in a NYC minute. Look at Baltimore’s MURDERS.

            “Anyone could have found the hand gun with similar results. Everyone is screaming bloody hell about the wrong thing imo.”

          • Mike McCurley

            Funny how the libtards want to dance around that particular fact…

      • CPO_C_Ryback

        That’s right, one “oops” (MURDER of a pretty female) and decades of DRECK (D), it FINALLY gets attention.

        Sick, disgusting, and impeachable.

  • scruzie

    i am providing a link to an immigration project pamphlet to explain to cities and attorneys how to avoid turning over people in custody to immigration services. this is probably a non-profit organization. note that soros money was used and also the s.f. bay area connections.


  • CPO_C_Ryback

    Brilliant .. 750 words, and the woman is still dead.

    This is why NRA membership numbers are soaring.

  • J Hall

    So disgusted with San Francisco, who does not give a crap about it hard working, tax paying citizens!

  • annjohns

    “opens a can of worms” are you kidding? How insensitive can you be? She died.

  • anthony

    opens a can of worms ? How about might finally bring on a honest fact based

    • Mike McCurley

      So far, the only honesty I’ve read or heard came from Trump and O’Reilly…

  • A memorial fund has been established for Kate and her family. If you are so inclined, please consider visiting her site: http://gfwd.at/1enylEh


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of EconomyBeat.org, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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