Kathryn Steinle’s tragic murder in San Francisco, allegedly by Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican national who entered the country illegally, has understandably led to many questions.  But Republican politicians—from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE to Rep. Steve King (Iowa)—are largely focusing on the wrong ones.   

They are cynically seizing upon Kathryn Steinle’s murder to malign San Francisco’s so-called “Sanctuary City” policy, and all immigrants in the bargain. They are driving the narrative that Lopez-Sanchez fled to San Francisco because he wanted to avoid deportation.  This is not only wrong on the facts—Lopez-Sanchez did not “flee” to San Francisco, he was brought there in handcuffs—but it fails to hold the federal Bureau of Prisons officials accountable for releasing him to the San Francisco Sheriff’s authorities, without determining whether the county prosecutor intended to follow through on the old drug warrant.  And it fails to hold ICE responsible for not trying harder to deport Sanchez-Lopez the moment they had the opportunity.   


San Francisco was only the last place that Lopez-Sanchez ended up, yet all the focus has been on the City.  The fact is, the Federal government had Sanchez-Lopez in their clutches, with all the tools they needed to deport him, but for some reason they did not.   

Of course, not everyone who has a prior deportation on his record should be an enforcement priority.  I know many good, hard-working immigrants who have immigration violations from the past and still deserve a chance at the American Dream.  But Lopez-Sanchez wasn’t here to build a life as an “immigrant.”  He was a criminal with drug and mental health problems who was essentially living in our federal prisons on illegal reentry convictions. That should have been clear to anyone who reviewed his case, and the public has the right to know what went wrong here.     

Here are the unasked and unanswered questions that members of Congress should be focused on: 

Under existing Obama administration enforcement guidelines, Lopez-Sanchez should have been a top priority.  Why wasn’t he treated as such?

Why did the federal Bureau of Prisons release Sanchez-Lopez to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department in March 2015, instead of sending him to ICE, which had reportedly requested him?  

Did the federal bureaucracy, including BOP and ICE, communicate with each other about Sanchez-Lopez?  If not, why not? 

Following his 2011 conviction for illegal re-entry, Lopez-Sanchez was ordered to be sent to a “federal medical facility as soon as possible.”  Was he?  Did he receive mental health support? 

Why didn’t BOP or ICE take the time to consider whether the San Francisco County Prosecutor would actually follow through on the 20 year-old drug warrant before releasing him from Federal custody—knowing full well that it’s far easier to deport someone when they are in your grasp than when they are not?  

Why weren’t federal law enforcement authorities all over Sanchez-Lopez as his prison release date approached in March of this year?  After all, he is the poster-villain for why American needs fair and smart enforcement of its immigration laws.  Given Lopez-Sanchez’s twenty-year record of disrespecting the law, and 16 year and ½ month stint in Federal prison, you would think that deporting him as soon as possible would have been a priority.   

The immigration laws passed by Congress—which are designed to be harsh on felons like Lopez-Sanchez—gave ICE the authority to get rid of him as soon as his Federal prison sentence was complete.  As a felon who illegally reentered the U.S. he was likely under a final order of removal.  If standard removal order reinstatement procedure was followed after his arrest on the federal illegal reentry charge there was no need to go to an immigration judge for a deportation order.  It was already in place, waiting to be implemented.  And the deportation of Sanchez-Lopez would have been in line with the Department of Homeland Security’s stated enforcement policies, which prioritize the deportation of people who are convicted of multiple, serious felonies.   

Ironically, these are the very same deportation guidelines that Republicans in Congress have opposed.  It’s no wonder they don’t want to draw attention to that fact and the truth about this case—because they actually, honestly oppose prioritizing enforcement on the worst of the worst.  Instead, they want to send immigration agents out after anyone and everyone.  

Republicans’ policy of “full enforcement” treats everyone—immigrant workers and convicted felons—as a priority.  If they had their way, the government would have less resources to go after bad guys because they’d be spending more resources going after ordinary folks--and you’d have more people like Lopez-Sanchez falling through the cracks.      

Everyone wants to live in a safe community—and yes, that includes immigrants.  But some of the Republican ideas on the table today would make communities less secure.  Our policies should be based on facts, not fear.  There are still a lot of unanswered questions about Kathryn Steinle’s killer, but they point to a Federal breakdown and a Federal solution, not strong-arming state and local police.   

Before members of Congress attempt to legislate false “solutions” that undercut community policing or treat all immigrants like dangerous felons, they should heed the words of Dayton Police Chief Richard S. Biehl who recently wrote in The Hill Congress Blog:

Having state and local law enforcement take on the work of federal immigration officials undermines community policing and is counterproductive. When state and local law enforcement are entangled in these functions, immigrant communities view them with increased suspicion.

Republicans claim to be tough on criminals, but they oppose the Obama administration’s deportation priorities and oppose comprehensive immigration reform, which would have increased enforcement while dealing smartly with immigrants who are threats to no one.  They want to force local police to become immigration agents and undermine their relationships with members of the immigrant community.  If some good can come from Kathryn Steinle’s murder, it has to be based on a sober review of the actual facts.  To date, Republican proposals are sensational, off-target, and seriously dangerous.  We can and must do better than that. 

Leopold is former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association