Thursday, July 23, 2015

Don't Blame Sanctuary City Policies for a Tragic Death

The fact that Kathryn Steinle was killed is horrible, and the way that Kathryn Steinle was killed was horrible. Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who was in the country without legal authorization, was likely the person who killed her. Some have seized on this and used Steinle's death to push their anti-immigrant agenda or to boost their own political fortunes or both. These critics have singled out sanctuary ordinances – policies that bar local officials from working with federal immigration officials – and policies like California's Trust Act – which limits detention of people in local jails when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests it. The battle over these laws is ultimately about policy decisions, the pain they cause or alleviate, and the values they reinforce or undermine.

Under our laws, since Sanchez did not have a record of violent felonies, and once the district attorney opted not to charge him for an old drug crime, there was no longer any justification for keeping him in jail awaiting a pick up from ICE.  If he had been a citizen, it wouldn't even be a question – a citizen would be released at that point, even if he or she did have past convictions for violent acts. The only difference in the debate is immigration status – and for some people, that is good enough. At its base, then, the argument in favor of a stricter policy in the wake of the Steinle killing has little to do with concern for victims of violent crime and everything to do with the notion that certain people don't belong here.

The crude logic relied on by critics is that "but for the sanctuary city policy, Kathryn Steinle would still be alive."  If ICE had been alerted by local officials, and Sanchez had been held for them, they would have taken him into custody and imprisoned or deported him, or both. Then this horrible act would never have happened. Maybe, but that doesn't indicate either causation or the wisdom of the policy.

Any number of policies, official practices or laws acted upon Sanchez in the days, months and years leading up to this senseless act; that does not mean those policies or practices are implicated or that changing them would actually make acts like this less likely. The District Attorney decided not to charge Sanchez with a decades old marijuana possession case. Yet few pundits have pointed to that decision as bearing responsibility for Steinle's tragic death. Some sanctuary defenders have pointed to the proliferation of guns and the large number of guns lost by or stolen from federal agents as having culpability (the alleged weapon in Steinle's killing was reported stolen from a federal agent's car a few weeks before). Still others have pointed the finger at ICE and the fact that it did not seek a warrant to hold Sanchez. Those arguments don't seem to have much traction with most politicians, however, who are now reviewing and focusing their attention largely on local immigration policies such as sanctuary city ordinances.

If one starts with the idea that certain people don't belong here, then it is natural to focus on sanctuary policies as the problem. To those who feel this way, residency in this country, for those born outside the United States (and apparently sometimes those born inside), is a gift. Maybe you can win asylum if you show that you will likely be killed if deported, maybe you can be granted a visa for a limited time, maybe you can wait long enough and jump through enough hoops to be allowed to stay, but probably not. The default is you don't belong here. So the fact that there was no indication that Sanchez would do anything violent is beside the point; and the wisdom or fairness of any policies are largely beside the point as well.

But the sanctuary city ordinance and the Trust Act are good policies worthy of strong support. Despite the recent fear-mongering, a sanctuary city policy has been in place in San Francisco since the 1980's. The focus back then was on people fleeing Central America, largely because of wars that the US had its hands in. Yet over the past few decades, there is no evidence that the policy has led to more crime or the shielding of violent people. The more recent Trust Act limits ICE holds in jails throughout California; it went into effect January 1, 2014. It too has failed to result in more violent crime or chaos. "Homicides, robberies and overall violent crimes fell statewide in 2014 to levels not seen in decades ..."

For some, the primary purpose of the sanctuary city policies is to ensure that people feel comfortable communicating with local law enforcement without fear of deportation. I have mixed feelings about that argument, but it certainly makes sense. If you know a child is being abused, for example, but you've overstayed your visa, you may think twice before calling law enforcement (or any other local officials). It's difficult to measure the positive effect San Francisco's sanctuary policy has had on public safety and declining community violence, but the logic definitely seems well-founded.

For me, though, the more important reason to support sanctuary city policies and the Trust Act is because they keep families together, communities cohesive, and, essentially, decriminalize the entirely harmless act of residing somewhere without the proper paperwork. Enforcing immigration policy is the job of the federal government, and its policies are increasingly punitive. The Feds shouldn't be able to forcibly enlist local or state officials in carrying out its bad acts. (Where are all the states rights libertarians on this?)

Federal immigration policies have led to record numbers of deportations during the Obama administration – over 2 million people – and also record high numbers of people in detention centers. As Detention Watch documents:
In 2001, the U.S. detained approximately 95,000 individuals. By 2010, the number of individuals detained annually in the U.S. had grown to approximately 390,000. The average daily population of detained immigrants has grown from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 33,000 by the end of 2010. ICE’s stated goal is to deport 400,000 non-citizens each year.
Sanchez had spent half of his adult life in prison, mostly, it would seem, for entirely harmless violations of the law: possession of drugs, and re-entering the country after being deported. He had been deported multiple times, and it generally seemed that he had a shitty life in and out of the hands of law enforcement. It is unlikely he had access to mental health care or adequate treatment for substance abuse problems in or out of the various prisons and jails in which he spent so much of his life. Yet the fact that we choose to spend billions of tax dollars on border militarization and immigrant detention, not to mention the criminalization of harmless drug crimes, rather than on health care for the poor and homeless (Sanchez was apparently living on the streets when Steinle was killed), does not seem to be part of the policy discussion.

There are good policies that we ought to support that probably would prevent violent acts like these, are more connected to the root cause of violence like this, and don't needlessly force suffering on others. And they don't compromise the principles we ought to embrace, such as universal human rights, human dignity, and liberty. Yes, liberty, because holding someone without a warrant likely violates the 4th Amendment and proposals, like building a giant wall along the border, are an affront to basic liberty – the freedom to travel, to associate, to easily find employment, and so on.

Most of the outspoken critics using Steinle's death to attack sanctuary policies begin with the proposition that some people belong here and others do not; that those people over there deserve less liberty and fewer rights. They seek to use this tragedy to scapegoat, disparage and, ultimately, cause more harm to people they see as unworthy of compassion. For those of us who genuinely care about preventing suffering and even violence like the killing of Kathryn Steinle, we should defend sanctuary policies without apology, and focus attention on the widespread misery caused by sprawling and expensive immigration and criminal systems focused on punishing people for simply being here. If we don't see immigrants as less worthy, then we can do much better.