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San Francisco's sanctuary policy vs. deportation: Is there a better way?

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Michael Macor/Reuters

(Read caption) Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is led into the Hall of Justice for his arraignment in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday. Francisco Sanchez, 45, was charged with murder on Monday for last week's shooting of Kathryn Steinle, 32. The case drew national attention for San Francisco's 'sanctuary policy' that kept Sanchez from being deported in March.

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The July 1 killing of a San Francisco woman by a man with a history of felonies and deportations has brought the city’s “sanctuary policy” for undocumented immigrants under national scrutiny.

The law, which has been in place since 1989, prohibits city authorities from handing an undocumented immigrant over to federal immigration authorities without a warrant or court order. According to CNN, more than 200 state and city jurisdictions nationwide have similar policies.

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Debate has focused on whether or not states and cities are responsible for facilitating federal execution of immigration policy, but has also called into question the effectiveness of deportation practices as a whole. One possible path forward for San Francisco and other "sanctuary cities" would be voluntary participation in a federal program that only deports high-risk, undocumented immigrants. 

Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the man who shot and killed Kate Steinle, had been picked up by police in March for a 20-year-old drug offense, but was released despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) request for his continued detention.

Critics of the sanctuary policy say if Sanchez had been deported in March, as ICE had intended, he would never have had the opportunity to murder Steinle. Both of California’s senators released statements denouncing the law, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told CNN in an interview that the city was wrong to overlook Sanchez’s history and ICE’s recommendation.

"The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported," she said. "I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on."

Advocates like San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, however, say sanctuary policies benefit communities by fostering a more trusting relationship between police and immigrants. Mr. Mirkarimi told CNN, "We're a world-renowned city with a large immigrant population.... From a law enforcement perspective, we want to build trust with that population."

He also said Sanchez’s release was the result of ICE’s failure to secure a warrant, not the city’s failure to honor the detainer.

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“ICE knew that he had been deported five times,” he said. “You would have thought [Sanchez] met a threshold that he required a court order or a warrant. They did not do that."

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But the fact that Sanchez had been deported five times already and was still present in the US to commit the crime may suggest that that focusing on sanctuary cities misses a larger issue. 

Raul Reyes, an attorney and USA Today board of contributors member, wrote in a column for CNN that the most important question is not who was responsible for ensuring Sanchez’s deportation, but whether the United States’ approach to deportation is working as intended.

“One takeaway from this episode is that deporting as many undocumented immigrants as possible is not the answer to our immigration problems,” Mr. Reyes wrote. “Lopez-Sanchez had been deported five times, and yet he was still here in the country without authorization.”

Reyes cited 2011 ICE data saying that the cost of deporting a person is $12,500. “Multiply this by five and that is how much taxpayer money was wasted on a criminal who remained at large to randomly take the life of an innocent young woman.”

Deportation policies that target undocumented migrants en masse, Reyes and others have argued, divert resources away from programs to remove those who pose a real security threat.

Though data shows deportations under President Barack Obama have exceeded those authorized by his predecessors, efforts like last year’s contested executive action deferring deportation for DREAMers and last week’s Department of Homeland Security decision to narrow deportation focus to convicted criminals and recent arrivals show a shift in perspective on who is seen as a priority for deportation.

A possible compromise between ICE and cities with sanctuary policies like San Francisco’s may be the DHS’s Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). PEP is a revision of the unpopular Secure Communities policy that let federal immigration authorities intervene in state and local law enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants brought into custody.

Under PEP, though, only those who fall into “priority” categories – “individuals convicted of significant criminal offenses or who otherwise pose a threat to public safety” – would warrant ICE’s involvement.

When the PEP program was announced in November, the ACLU issued a report saying, "if properly implemented, could mark a significant policy shift" in ICE deportations. But the ACLU warned that the new DHS program needed clarification. 

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) recommended in a letter Tuesday to San Francisco mayor Ed Lee that the city participate in PEP so that in cases like Sanchez’s, it would be easier “to take custody of individuals who pose a danger to public safety before they are released.” Senator Feinstein's letter to the mayor also notes that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department was recently asked to continue to participate in PEP.