For the past two decades, the city of San Francisco has declared itself a "sanctuary" city. It's one of about 30 American cities where local officials won't report illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
But San Francisco's reputation for liberal tolerance is being tested in a simmering debate among city leaders over how to treat undocumented juveniles suspected of a crime.
San Francisco's sanctuary policy dates to the late 1980s, when officials tried to keep Central American war refugees from being deported. Those wars are over, but the policy remains in effect and city Supervisor David Campos says shielding immigrants from deportation benefits other San Franciscans too.
"If you are the victim of a crime and an undocumented person was the witness to that crime, you want that undocumented person to come forward and report what they saw to the police," said Campos. "They're not going to come forward if they're afraid the police will report them to immigration."
Suspected Criminals Remain On Streets
But the sanctuary policy came under fire last year when an illegal immigrant with a juvenile criminal record was accused of murdering a family of three in a deadly drive-by shooting.
The alleged shooter had never been reported to immigration authorities because he was a minor at the time of his crimes. If the alleged shooter had been an adult, San Francisco would have reported him to federal authorities. But because he was a minor, immigration was never called.
After a public outcry, Mayor Gavin Newsom stiffened the policy and ordered city officials to turn over to the federal authorities all undocumented juveniles accused of a felony. Since last summer, that number has reached more than 160, says the mayor.
"Sanctuary city was never designed to be a framework where people can commit crimes and be shielded," said Newsom. "I mean, that's perverse and absurd and most people I talk to understand that. These are kids that committed felonies."
Some Innocent May Be Hurt By Stricter Law
But immigration advocates say kids who are merely accused of a crime but are ultimately found innocent are being deported.
Campos disagrees with Newsom's stance on the issue.
"There is a public safety need to report people who engage in criminal conduct," said Campos, "but at the same time recognize that there is the very basic principle that in this country you are innocent until proven guilty."
Campos himself is a naturalized citizen who came to this country illegally when he was a teenager. He says undocumented kids accused of a crime should be reported to federal authorities but only after a felony conviction — not before. Campos has the support of a majority of his fellow supervisors.
Last week before a cheering crowd of immigration advocates, mothers and high school students, the Board of Supervisors changed the law, in effect, shielding immigrant minors unless they are convicted of a felony.
The Battle Continues
That set up a showdown with Mayor Newsom, who almost immediately vetoed the new measure. Newsom says it's unenforceable because it violates federal law. And he fears it will invite a legal challenge to the city's sanctuary ordinance.
"I believe in the sanctuary ordinance and I wanted to promote it within the diverse communities that are impacted but we never promoted it, never believed it was a way to shield criminal behavior," said Newsom. "Quite the contrary, once you start doing that you put the whole thing at risk. Terrible mistake — and this board has made that terrible mistake."
But Campos says San Francisco's liberal legacy is at stake.
"We have been a sanctuary city for 20 years and, in fact, we have stood for protection of civil rights," said Campos. "We have not been afraid to do the right thing even in the face of a legal challenge."
Campos and the other supervisors will very likely overturn Mayor Newsom's veto next week.
Still, Newsom insists he'll ignore the Board of Supervisors, and he has ordered city employees to continue reporting to the feds any undocumented kids arrested for a felony.