SAN FRANCISCO — California's best-known sanctuary city -- a haven for illegal immigrants -- has been escorting convicted juvenile offenders back to their home countries at city expense for nearly a generation and shielding them from federal officials in the process.
But after several recent embarrassing incidents, this famously liberal enclave has been forced to reconsider how it deals with young undocumented criminals.
Ever since a city juvenile probation officer was detained by federal immigration authorities in Houston nearly seven weeks ago and questioned about two offenders he was escorting back to Honduras, the city has stopped flying such people home.
Instead, officials have increased the number sent to unsecured group homes in San Bernardino County. But then eight convicted juvenile drug dealers from Honduras walked away from facilities run by Silverlake Youth Services in recent days, creating an uproar among Inland Empire residents and officials.
"I was unaware that the city had its own foreign policy and immigration laws that superseded federal law," San Bernardino County Supervisor Gary Ovitt said, referring to San Francisco. "No one should have to suffer from a poorly thought-out policy such as this."
So San Francisco officials are shifting gears again.
"Those unfortunate escapes are unacceptable and are producing no intended results and creating unintended consequences, and so that practice has also stopped," Mayor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. "We did this two days ago."
In an interview on the same day he announced that he would explore a run for governor, Newsom was pushed to balance the competing interests of a wide-open city with the need to sound tough on the volatile issue of immigration.
He blamed the courts in part and said the city could not be held entirely responsible for the snafus, pointing out that "every one of these transportation cases has a judicial order" sending the convicted youths "down south" or "over the border into Honduras."
"Here's the problem for me: I don't run the courts," he said.
Although the city "policy of deportation ended when this incident occurred," he said, his office must still sit down with the district attorney's office, the public defender's office and court officials to craft a process for dealing with young illegal immigrant offenders in the future.
The public defender and the judge who oversees Juvenile Court did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris said in a written statement: "Every city agency needs to work together to balance our obligations under federal law and the sanctuary ordinance to solve crimes and put the offenders behind bars."
But Joseph Russoniello, United States attorney for California's northern district, took San Francisco officials to task for their long-term policy of not turning over the young people to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities.
Russoniello said in an interview that "the phenomenon of Hondurans being trucked into the Bay Area, housed in Oakland and sent out to sell crack cocaine" has been going on for years and that dealers claim to be under 18 so they can avoid harsher treatment by federal authorities.
He complained that San Francisco authorities do not verify that the accused are under age and that the dealers and drug traffickers who bring them to this country "know they can game the system by claiming they're juveniles."
"The status can't be confirmed with ICE," Russoniello said. "There's virtually no risk and until recently a fully paid ticket home. . . . This was an open loop."
Newsom insisted Tuesday that the practice of shielding young illegal immigrant offenders from federal officials was not meant to protect lawbreakers.
He said it stemmed in part from the sanctuary city ordinance, enacted in 1989, which requires that the city turn over to ICE adult illegal immigrants with felony records or those who have been accused of felonies but is murkier on the subject of juvenile offenders.
But other factors were at play. In the 1980s, Newsom said, immigration officials stopped taking custody of young illegal immigrant offenders handed over by the city.
In addition, San Francisco officials misinterpreted state law, he said, thinking that the Welfare and Institutions Code prohibited them from sharing juvenile criminal information with federal authorities. The city attorney, he said, has recently "clarified that that is not the case."
Russoniello wasn't buying it Tuesday, calling Newsom's explanation "all contrivance."
"They have said all along that it was the sanctuary policy that mandated they shield these people from ICE," he said. "It's only because it's so preposterous that the sanctuary law would shield drug dealers that they've now come up with this alibi."
The juvenile Honduran drug dealers' escape was reported Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper had described the city's policies toward young undocumented offenders in its Sunday editions.