How the Kate Steinle Murder Case Thrust Sanctuary Cities into the National Spotlight

A large photo of Kathryn Steinle is shown while her dad, James Steinle, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 21, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The committee heard testimony from family members who have had loved ones killed by undocumented immigrants. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Jurors heard opening arguments Monday in the trial of a man charged with fatally shooting a young woman on a San Francisco pier two years ago.

It’s the type of case that would ordinarily garner little attention beyond the Bay Area.

But the tragic death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle in July 2015 quickly mushroomed into a nationwide furor over illegal immigration,  with proponents of hard-line enforcement policies pointing to San Francisco and other so-called sanctuary cities as hotbeds of criminal activity.

That’s because the alleged shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico with a felony record who had already been deported multiple times. Several months before Steinle’s murder, he had briefly been detained in a San Francisco County jail for an outstanding low-level drug possession charge. But his case was quickly dismissed, and he was released.

Advocates of tougher immigration rules were quick to blame the city for its policy of not cooperating with federal immigration agencies to hold and report potentially dangerous undocumented residents.


President Trump helped stir national outrage during his presidential campaign last year, repeatedly invoking Steinle’s death.

“Countless innocent American lives have been stolen because our politicians have failed in their duty to secure our borders and enforce our laws like they have to be enforced,” he told a cheering crowd in Phoenix, Arizona, last August. “(One) victim is Kate Steinle. Gunned down in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, by an illegal immigrant, deported five previous times. And they knew he was no good.”

Sanctuary cities have long been in Trump’s crosshairs. The term refers to the scores of cities and counties across the United States that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities by refusing most requests to detain, pursue or report undocumented immigrants (those here illegally) who have had contact with local law enforcement.

Just days after taking office, Trump signed a sweeping executive order making good on his key campaign pledge to crack down on illegal immigration. In addition to authorizing the construction of a border wall with Mexico and beefing up immigration enforcement, the order also threatens to cut billions of dollars in federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities.

“Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States,” the order states. It warns that those jurisdictions that don’t comply with federal immigration enforcement efforts will lose federal funding. “These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

Trump’s order instructs federal immigration authorities to target a broader group of immigrants for deportation. It calls for the  removal of immigrants “who have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” or pose a public safety risk.

In response to Trump’s election victory in November, mayors and police chiefs in more than 10 major cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., reaffirmed their commitment to upholding sanctuary policies, and have continued to stand by those positions in the face of the recent order.

“We’ll proudly stand as a sanctuary city — protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws — fight all forms of bigotry and advance our commitment to equity even more passionately,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf stated shortly after the election.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reiterated that sentiment on Jan. 26 in his State of the City address: “We are a sanctuary city now, tomorrow, forever.”

On Jan. 31, San Francisco became the first city to sue Trump over his order to defund sanctuary jurisdictions.  The lawsuit argues that the order is an unconstitutional overreach of the president’s power, in violation of the 10th Amendment, which it says protects the  sovereignty of local jurisdictions.

“President Trump’s executive order tries to turn city and state employees into federal immigration officers. That is unconstitutional,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said when announcing the suit. “No president can commandeer the local police force and turn it into the deportation arm of the federal government.”

San Francisco receives nearly $500 million a year in federal funds, which would be at risk if Trump’s order survives in court.

Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) relies on local authorities to help enforce immigration laws, a 2013 federal appeals court decision concluded that those local agencies are not legally required to detain undocumented immigrants when requested to do so.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently reside in the United States.

What are sanctuary cities?

There’s no official legal definition, and what it means varies from place to place. Generally speaking, local law enforcement in sanctuary cities or counties don’t ask or report the immigration status of people they come into contact with.

A sanctuary jurisdiction typically refuses requests from federal immigration authorities to detain undocumented immigrants apprehended for low-level offenses. For example, when someone gets arrested for a DUI, he or she might spend the night in jail, get processed and then released. If this person is undocumented, though, federal immigration authorities would be alerted and may ask local officials to hold this person for longer, and possibly deport them. A city or county with a sanctuary policy would generally deny that request unless legally mandated to do so.

How many sanctuary cities are there?

Depends who you ask.

A 2006 Congressional Research Service report listed 32 counties and cities with explicit sanctuary ordinances. A number of cities have adopted similar resolutions since then, including Berkeley, Oakland and East Palo Alto.

In an analysis of data from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the New York Times tallied 39 cities and 364 counties across the country that in some way limit how much local law enforcement can cooperate with federal detention requests. It’s unclear, however, how much action some of these jurisdictions have taken, other than officially expressing opposition to what they consider harsh federal or state immigration laws.

And organizations in some municipalities even challenge the label. In 2011, for instance, the Los Angeles Times editorial board denied that Los Angeles was a sanctuary city, even though in 1979 the city had enacted a measure to keep local police from inquiring about the immigration status of those arrested, one of the first cities in the country to do so.

Note: not all metro areas shown here are necessarily sanctuary cities.

Four states — California,  Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut —  have also enacted ordinances in recent years that limit compliance with federal immigration officials.

A least nine Oregon counties in 2014 stopped complying with ICE requests to hold undocumented immigrants in jail for the sole purpose of deportation. The change came after a federal judge ruled that one of those counties violated a woman’s Fourth Amendment rights by detaining her without probable cause. Some legal experts say the ruling may spur more local sanctuary policies across the state and possibly nationwide.

Are sanctuary cities more dangerous?

On the campaign trail, and now as president, Trump has consistently claimed that sanctuary cities “breed crime” and have resulted in “so many needless deaths,” with the underlying suggestion that undocumented immigrants are more prone to violent criminal activity.

The language in his recent executive order underscores this:

“Many aliens who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety.”

Crime statistics, however, suggest otherwise.

A recent analysis of FBI crime data by UC San Diego political science professor Tom Wong found that most counties considered “sanctuary” jurisdictions have notably lower rates of all types of crime, including homicide, than comparable non-sanctuary counties. In 2015, large metro sanctuary counties had 654 crimes fewer crimes per 100,000 people than large central metro non-sanctuary counties, the report found. That’s nearly 15 percent less crime in sanctuary counties.

In smaller counties, the discrepancy was similar. The main exception, the report found, was in medium metro areas and counties bordering on large metro areas, where crime rates in sanctuary jurisdictions were slightly higher.

The report, it should be noted, was published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy organization. And it shows correlation, not causation. In other words, there no definitive proof that sanctuary policies actually cause lower crime rates (it could just be a coincidence).

Another study by the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant group, analyzed FBI and census data from 1980 through 2010. It found that among men ages 18 to 49, immigrants (both legal and illegal) were far less likely than native-born Americans to engage in criminal behavior or to be incarcerated.

Now keep in mind that both of these studies were conducted by left-leaning organizations with progressive agendas. And even though the conclusions are based squarely on federal statistics, skeptics are likely to counter that the authors used selective data to produce desired results.

Nevertheless, several national policing associations seem to have embraced these findings. As the Washington Post recently reported, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the 63 largest urban areas in the nation, stated in a 2006 report, that “immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively affect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities,” which would “would result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing future terroristic acts.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police reiterated this position, writing that “state and local law enforcement should not be involved in the enforcement of civil immigration laws since such involvement would likely have a chilling effect on both legal and illegal aliens reporting criminal activity or assisting police in criminal investigations.”

Which California cities have “sanctuary” policies?

Note: Although some of these cities may not explicitly identify as “sanctuary cities,” they’ve all adopted some type of policy (an ordinance, resolution or law enforcement directive) that limits how much local law enforcement officials can cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. This is not necessarily a complete list – it only includes those cities for which official documentation could be found.

What’s the history?

The roots of the modern sanctuary movement date back to the 1980s. U.S. churches, synagogues and other religious institutions began to provide refuge and services to thousands of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador who had fled civil unrest at home but were denied sanctuary in the U.S., largely due to Cold War politics.

The effort became known as the Sanctuary Movement, and as it spread, a number of cities throughout the country joined in solidarity, passing resolutions to overlook the immigration status of residents.

What are the arguments for and against these policies?

Supporters argue that cities have bigger public safety priorities and too few resources to handle immigration enforcement. Additionally, many local policymakers and law enforcement agencies argue that immigration enforcement is not their responsibility, and that cracking down on undocumented residents would undermine community relations, disrupt services and dissuade those residents from cooperating with crime prevention effort. They also note that none of their protective policies in any way prevent local police from pursuing immigrants suspected of committing crimes.

Trump is among a large number of mostly Republicans opposed to sanctuary policies, arguing that they encourage illegal immigration, undermine federal enforcement efforts and severely compromise public safety, resulting in crimes that could have been avoided through deportation.

What’s unique about San Francisco’s law?

Although the majority of sanctuary cities don’t ask residents about their immigration status and refuse to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), San Francisco is among a handful of localities that take things a bit further.

The City and County of Refuge ordinance, adopted in 1989, prohibits the city from using any “funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or to gather or disseminate information regarding the immigration status” of residents unless explicitly required by federal or state law or court order.

The motion was further emphasized by a 2007 executive directive prohibiting city employees or agencies from assisting in any ICE investigation, detention or arrest proceeding unless required by federal law. And a section in the city’s administrative code prevents any city law enforcement officer from detaining an individual “on the basis of a civil immigration detainer after that individual becomes eligible for release from custody.”

Similar to other sanctuary cities, exceptions apply to individuals convicted of violent felonies within the past seven years or in custody for another violent felony.

How the Kate Steinle Murder Case Thrust Sanctuary Cities into the National Spotlight 27 October,2017Matthew Green

  • Willis James

    We read above

    “2. It’s become a pretty loaded term, more often than not used derisively by advocates of tougher immigration restrictions.”

    I seriously doubt you’ll find many of those objecting to sanctuary cities advocating “tougher immigration restrictions”.
    Rather almost all of them merely want existing immigration restrictions to be enforced in at least a minimally effective manner.
    Currently, once more than 50 miles past the border, the chance of a undocumented immigrant being caught and deported is near zero, unless they commit a serious crime. Even then deportation is not guaranteed.

    According to ICE records for the prior fiscal year, there were less than 17,000 deportations of those who were not convicted of a crime.
    That makes the chance of a hard working undocumented immigrant being deported, about 1 in 700 in a given year.
    If you worked illegally for 35 years, your chances of being deported would be about 1 in 20
    Hardly the picture you see portrayed in the press or on local show where every day undocumented are facing deportation.

    Simply does not reflect what we see in the most recent numbers from ICE.
    Deportation is rare, very rare, for the typical undocumented immigrant.

  • BLU109

    so, since california has put its foot down and made clear the extent to which it will – or more precisely will not – enforce certain federal laws, what would you say if certain other states took a similar approach and said, “no thanks, we will no longer adhere to these EPA guidelines”, or “we are no longer going to be enforcing the endangered species act”…

  • Steve

    Sanctuary cities are abusing entire communities of people and putting them at risk for many crimes by harboring illegals.

  • Kurt thialfad

    Let’s expand the SF sanctuary policy, since it is soooo popular, to include tax cheaters (ban IRS agents); deadbeat dads skipping out on alimony and child support; prostitutes; drug dealers; redlight runners; parking ticket collectors; unlicensed drivers. What other laws should we not enforce in SF?

  • Hillary Clintub

    Since these sanctuary jurisdictions refuse to comply with federal law enforcement, the feds need to grab some land for themselves there and set up their own holding compounds, preferably right in the big middle of their largest cities.

  • DJ17

    Sanctuary cities make no sense. No one should be above the law.

    • Top Cat ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

      Even if one were to disagree, they make plenty of sense – except for the willfully ignorant, of course.

      (My daughter was assaulted and the attack was witnessed by an undocumented couple. The only reason the pervert is in jail is because they came forward without fear of reprisal. So pardon my next statement: Shove your ignorance out your….)

  • DJ17

    Wrong. Being caught can result in prison time. The first illegal entry into the US is generally deemed a misdemeanor and each time after deportation, a felony. 8 U.S. Code § 1325 – Improper entry by alien.

  • James Leonard Park

    instead of SANCTUARY CITIES?

    The expression “sanctuary cities”
    might be taken to mean
    that foreign nationals
    will not be arrested for ordinary crimes.
    Not so.
    All crimes will be investigated
    and laws will be enforced.

    The mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota
    suggests a new expression:
    What most of these cities really mean
    is that there will be OFFICIAL SEPARATION
    between the POLICE functions
    and the PRISON functions.

    If and when any individual
    (regardless of citizenship)
    is arrested for probable cause,
    then FULL IDENTIFICATION of this individuals
    should be obtained
    —explicitly including country of citizenship.

    Booking includes taking a picture of the person arrested
    and creating a set of fingerprints,
    which are automatically compared
    with other fingerprints kept by the FBI.
    If this person is wanted for any other crimes,
    then that fact will be taken into account
    for all future cooperation
    with other agencies of law-enforcement.

    In short, the POLICE can do their work
    without ever asking for immigration status.
    (This protects all who cooperate with the police.)
    But if and when some criminal suspect is ARRESTED,
    then the full identity of that suspect
    should be explored by the PRISON authorities.

    On the STREET, no one is asked about citizenship.
    But in JAIL, all suspects are completely identified.

    The federal government should have no problems
    with such SEPARATION CITIES.
    Both sides of the debate get what they want:
    The city police do not arrest anyone for immigration violations.
    Once in custody for ordinary crimes,
    the prison authorities fully identify the suspects
    and cooperate with all other levels of law-enforcement.

    One additional administrative way to achieve this SEPARATION
    already exists in many locations:
    The CITY sets policy for the local POLICE.
    And the COUNTY sets policy for the local JAIL.
    Property taxes support both levels of government,
    but there are different governing bodies
    —perhaps a city council
    and a county board of commissioners.

    And even when the same governing body sets both policies,
    they can clearly SEPARATE the POLICE PRACTICES
    from the PRISON PRACTICES.

    When all local and state jails and prisons cooperate
    with all levels of national law-enforcement,
    there should be no threat of withholding federal funds
    from any such SEPARATION CITIES.

  • Moses Holguin

    Poverty and illegal immigration is the source of power for the liberal left. You can see their ideas at work in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland and Stockton by keeping people poor, on welfare and unemployed. The true purpose of “Sanctuary status” is to consolidate power. To reinforce and defend their power even when it opens our homes and communities with criminals.

    • Top Cat ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

      Criminy, do you have ignorance for balls.

  • maquignon

    Then get behind enforcement of the laws. Keep illegals out and pay whatever you have to to make it worthwhile for Americans to pick strawberries – Law of supply and demand. Strawberry growers will have to pay whatever it takes to attract pickers and you will have to pay for the increased cost. Cost will be much less than paying for crime and welfare we spend on illegal aliens. It is also time to repeal the Anchor Baby law. Simply being born in this country should not be qualification for citizenship.

    • InFineFeather

      Man, was Top Cat right… except at some point it becomes less about ignorance and more about stupidity.

      None of that is relevant. It’s not the job of the cities and states to do the job of the federal government.

      Now that’s out of the way, I’ll entertain the ignorance of your red herrings separate from the actual argument.

      No one need get behind enforcement of any law, just as I’m sure there are laws the enforcement of which you aren’t behind, say, federal laws in which a Christian baker must sell wedding cakes to gay couples. (Just a wild guess but, if not, I’ve got more.)

      As for your advocating for the further restriction of the free market, the U.S. is currently the world leader in strawberry export. Looking closer at your flippant use of the idiom, forcing labor costs up will raise prices and decrease demand not only by us, but also in the export market and American farmers would suffer the consequences. That is the opposite of MAGA.

      “Cost will be much less than paying for crime and welfare we spend on illegal aliens.” – Clearly a baseless opinion (think “bigotry”) that I’ll not waste any time and simply invoke Hitchens’s Law.

      As for your explanation for the use of the pejorative “anchor baby,” I agree. That you were simply born in this country should not be a qualification for citizenship and you should be deported who cares where.

  • Todd Perry

    ANY state or city leader who are protecting people who are here in this
    country ILLEGALLY that kill someone because of it CAN be thrown in
    Prison for LIFE for the involvement since their actions resulted in the
    crimes under FEDERAL LAW !
    –So ALL of you cities and states leaders
    around the country who want to go against Federal Laws that have been
    on the books for decades and are in place to protect Americans YOU ARE
    WARNED !

  • Angel Braspenninckx

    If you think about the whole country pretty much started out as immigrants


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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