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San Francisco changes tack on immigrant kids

San Francisco, a famously liberal city known for tackling thorny issues from gay marriage to universal health care, is wrestling with another divisive issue.
Sanctuary City
Estela Muniz, left, cries as she stands next to activists Ariana Gil-Nafarrete, center, and Guillermina Castellanos after a  meeting at city hall in San Francisco, on Tuesday. The city's board of supervisors rejected legislation Tuesday requiring local law enforcement to turn over illegal immigrant youth to federal officials for possible deportation after being convicted of a crime. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This famously liberal city, known for tackling thorny issues from gay marriage to universal health care, is wrestling with another divisive issue.

The Board of Supervisors gave final approval Tuesday to a measure that would keep law enforcement from turning over minors to immigration authorities unless they have been found guilty of a felony.

The move pits the panel against Mayor Gavin Newsom and law enforcement by reversing his policy of turning over youths to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after their arrest.

Newsom took the stance in 2008 after the city was accused of protecting young offenders such as Edwin Ramos from deportation.

Ramos, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was charged with felonies as a minor, but the sanctuary policy allowed the suspected gang member to stay in the U.S.

Now 22, Ramos is awaiting trial in the shooting death of a man and his two sons in San Francisco as they headed home from a barbecue.

Since the mayor changed the policy, 149 undocumented juveniles charged with felonies have been referred to immigration officials, ICE said.

‘We need to treat children as children’
The newly approved measure is supported by civil rights groups, immigrant advocates and the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender's Office, who contend it restores the right of minors to due process and gives them a chance to defend themselves before facing possible deportation and separation from their families.

"We need to treat children as children — they are vulnerable and they are different from adults," said Patricia Lee, head attorney with the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender's Office.

Newsom's policy, she said, "flies in the face of any code in the nation that provides for the protection of the child and reunification with the family."

Those siding with the mayor — the police chief and district attorney, among others — argue the new ordinance will force officers to go against federal law by shielding undocumented immigrants and exposing the city to lawsuits.

"The mayor is not going to force his own law enforcement officials to break state and federal law just because supervisors have made this Quixotic gesture," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Newsom. "If you have committed a serious crime, there is no sanctuary for you."

The measure must now go to Newsom, who has said he would veto it. Supervisors have said they would overturn his veto, a move likely to touch off a legal fight.

"The mayor does not have the authority to disregard it unilaterally," said David Campos, the supervisor who initiated the measure. "If the law is challenged, it will be up to the courts to decide its legality."

Other cities watching San Francisco
Other cities are watching San Francisco to see how it decides to handle undocumented minors. Requiring due process for children before they are referred to ICE is an innovative strategy and could be implemented elsewhere, said Angela Chan, staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, a legal and civil rights group that has worked closely with youth affected by the city rule.

At the heart of the issue is San Francisco's City of Refuge ordinance, adopted in 1989 as part of a national sanctuary movement intended to help refugees from Central American civil wars. Dozens of cities across the country adopted similar sanctuary policies.

The sanctuary policy allows officials who encounter undocumented immigrants not to report them to federal officials. It's credited with improving law enforcement relationships with the city's large immigrant community.

Adults who commit crimes are completely exempted from protection, but the situation of minors was unclear under the rule. Instead of turning juveniles suspects over to immigration officers, San Francisco was housing them or flying them back to their home countries at city expense.

Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who testified in favor of San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance when it was first proposed, said federal law does not require officers to turn over undocumented immigrants.

"Every day across the country, local law enforcement officials often do not turn over undocumented immigrants that they come across," he said. "They want to maintain a good, trusting relationship with immigrant communities because that is better for public safety."

Deputy probation officers, who would be responsible for taking youths from police and deciding whether to hand them over to ICE, are afraid that obeying the new measure would mean violating federal law. They have vowed not to follow the new rule, said Gabriel Calvillo, head of the San Francisco Deputy Probation Officers Association.

"We just want to be safe, to make sure our officers are not put in the cross hairs of federal officials," Calvillo said. "We're going to continue to follow the mayor's direction."