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San Francisco board overrides mayor's veto of sanctuary expansion

It upholds an ordinance barring local authorities from turning juvenile illegal immigrants over to the federal government unless guilty of a felony. Newsom's office says the issue isn't settled.

November 11, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to override a recent veto by Mayor Gavin Newsom and expand the city's controversial sanctuary policy.

The board was greeted by raucous applause after it voted 8 to 3 to uphold a recent ordinance that would bar local authorities from handing juvenile illegal immigrants over to the federal government unless they have been found guilty of a felony.

The board's action Tuesday was the latest volley in a fight over the responsibility of local government to enforce federal immigration law.

Twenty years ago, San Francisco enacted a "city of refuge ordinance" that barred city money from being used to enforce immigration law and prohibited authorities from stopping people based solely on their immigration status or country of origin.

Authorities did, however, hand adults over to federal officials if they had been arrested on felony charges and their immigration status was in question.

But in 2008, after published reports that the ordinance was actually protecting young undocumented offenders from deportation, Newsom changed the policy. He required that undocumented juveniles be treated like adults and referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they were simply charged with a felony.

In reaction, Supervisor David Campos sponsored the ordinance to shore up the sanctuary policy. It passed Oct. 27 and was promptly vetoed by Newsom.

San Francisco is not the only big city in America with policies that prohibit law enforcement agents from inquiring about the immigration status of victims, witnesses or suspects, said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law.

Los Angeles and New York also have such policies, said Johnson, who specializes in immigration law.

In fact, before the San Francisco supervisors voted to override Newsom's veto, Campos read from a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece by then-Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton recounting how an undocumented immigrant cooperated with police officers after witnessing a murder.

"Because the witness was not afraid to contact the police," Campos said, reading from Bratton's article, "an accused murderer was taken off the streets, and we are all a little bit safer."

But Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said that regardless of Tuesday's vote, San Francisco's policy would not change because the action by the supervisors went against federal law. According to the U.S. Code, local governments are not allowed to prohibit officials from reporting information about anyone's immigration status to the federal government.

"The supervisors knew that this amendment was unenforceable," Ballard said, "and yet they plowed ahead with it in order to make a political statement."

Shortly after the vote, City Atty. Dennis Herrera wrote to the U.S. attorney's office asking for assurances that San Francisco law enforcement officers would not be prosecuted on federal criminal charges if they comply with the change in the sanctuary policy upheld by the supervisors.

If no such assurances are forthcoming, Herrera wrote, he would consider going to U.S. District Court to seek a ruling on whether the amendment to the sanctuary ordinance is allowed under federal law.

U.S. Atty. Joseph P. Russoniello said in an interview Tuesday that "we don't and can never make assurances to anyone that we would not prosecute a case. It depends on all the evidence and whether we can obtain a conviction."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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