Dems: Sanctuary laws not to blame in San Francisco killing

Top House Democrats say San Francisco’s controversial “sanctuary” laws are not to blame for last week’s killing of a young woman along the city’s scenic waterfront, allegedly at the hands of a felon in the country illegally.

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have said 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle would likely still be alive without the sanctuary laws, which limit cooperation between local authorities and federal officials pursuing immigration cases. 

{mosads}The suspect in the shooting, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was released in April by local law enforcment who, citing San Francisco’s sanctuary statutes, defied a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to hold him for deportation proceedings.

Leading Democrats, while approaching cautiously, are beginning to rally behind the argument that the city’s sanctuary policies are being unfairly blamed for a release that should have never happened.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday.

“I don’t believe having a sanctuary designation stops us from following the due course of the law to arrest or detain or to deport an individual who doesn’t have a right to be in the country. So I don’t believe we should be trying to ascribe blame based on a designation as a sanctuary city,” he added.

“What you have to do is get to the bottom of what happened, that this individual … [was] released, rather than detained. … Those authorities all have to come before the red carpet and answer those questions.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, delivered a similar defense, arguing that the country’s many local sanctuary laws help fight crime — not encourage it or block the deportation of felons. 

“There are laws in place to help law enforcement solve crimes. They’re not there to cover up or to enable those crimes to happen,” Crowley said. “If an individual is committing a crime, and they’re not documented, and they’re found to be in violation of a felony, they certainly have no right to stay in this country at all.”

Steinle’s killing last week has put the issue of sanctuary cities under a national microscope and reignited the contentious debate over immigration reform on Capitol Hill. 

Defenders of sanctuary laws contend they make communities safer by fostering trust between local law enforcers and illegal immigrants who might otherwise not cooperate for fear of being deported. Critics counter that they encourage criminal activity by creating regional pockets where illegal immigrants can congregate with impunity. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday introduced legislation to withhold certain federal grants from sanctuary cities — a concept approved by House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in March. And a number of presidential contenders, including former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have criticized San Francisco’s handling of Lopez-Sanchez.

“The city made a mistake not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported,” Clinton told CNN. 

Still, Democratic critics have been careful to word their denouncements in a manner that stops short of blaming San Francisco’s sanctuary laws for the killing. 

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) issued a statement Tuesday lamenting that “sanctuary should not be given to felons” but that she wants clarity from Gov. Jerry Brown (D) about whether local laws were followed before urging reforms.  

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, her Democratic colleague in the state, also issued a sharply worded statement, condemning the release of Lopez-Sanchez and calling on San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to participate in a Homeland Security Department program encouraging communication between local and federal enforcement officials. But she also left open the question of whether she thinks the sanctuary law contributed to Steinle’s death.

“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I am looking at whether additional federal legislation may be necessary,” she said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, is suggesting the error surrounding Lopez-Sanchez’s release occurred even before he was in the custody of San Francisco police. 

Pelosi, who represents the city, questioned why the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred Lopez-Sanchez to local police while ICE had a pending detainer for his deportation.

“It’s an ongoing investigation, and we’re trying to get all the facts on it, but the question I have, I keep asking is: When this gentleman was released from the Bureau of Prisons on a previous occasion he went right to ICE, and this time they did something different. And we can’t seem to get an explanation as to why,” Pelosi said Wednesday.

“That’s the prevailing question,” she added, “[and] I haven’t heard an answer to that.”


Neither ICE nor the Bureau of Prisons responded Wednesday to requests for comment.

Tags Barbara Boxer Dianne Feinstein Hillary Clinton Tom Cotton Xavier Becerra

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