Sanctuary cities are once again under attack, this time because of the recent killing of Kathryn Steinle, 32, in San Francisco. Steinle was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record who had been deported several times.
The controversy over the "sanctuary city" intensified when the shooting suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 45, said he had returned to San Francisco after having been deported five times because he knew that the police would not turn him over to federal immigration agents.
For 26 years, San Francisco has been one of the country's "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with immigration authorities to detain and hand over undocumented immigrants.
The sanctuary movement grew out of the efforts of churches in the 1980s. It was intended to provide refuge to Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries at a time when the federal government was reluctant to grant them refugee status. It was later adopted by liberal cities that were more open to immigration.
However, sanctuary cities have also been the target of attacks in the media by ultraconservative, anti-immigrant political groups.
Lopez-Sanchez had several crimes on his record, but no recent convictions for violent crimes, according to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department.
San Francisco: We Protect Immigrants, Not Criminals
"There has been much discussion about San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy in the aftermath of Kathryn’s death,” said Mayor Ed Lee in a statement. “Let me be clear: San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy protects residents regardless of immigration status and is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons.
“Our City’s policy helps immigrant and limited-English speaking communities where sometimes people fear and mistrust the criminal justice system. We want people to report crimes, we want children of undocumented immigrants to attend school, and we want families to get access to much needed social services without fear of their City government reporting them to federal authorities,” said Lee.
Fodder for the Republican Mill
But Some Republicans have said the Obama administration shares responsibility for the death of Steinle.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., blamed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for letting officials in San Francisco take charge of Sanchez, knowing that it is a sanctuary city.
"The federal government and San Francisco are wrong here," Goodlatte said in an interview with ABC.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who ignited anti-immigrant fervor by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "murderers" in recent weeks, used the murder of the young woman as "another example of why we must secure our border immediately."
The White House, meanwhile, on Monday defended its immigration policies and criticized Republicans for using this murder for their own political ends.
“I recognize that people want to play politics with this,” said White House spokesperson Josh Earnest. “The fact is the president has done everything within his power to make sure that we’re focusing our law enforcement resources on criminals and those who pose a threat to public safety.”
Lopez-Sanchez Does Not Represent All Latinos
Those who support sanctuary city policies say their purpose is to preserve family unity, not protect criminals.
Now, immigrant rights activists are afraid that the Lopez-Sanchez case will obscure their efforts, even though he does not represent the majority of Latinos, who come to this country in search of a better future.
"It's a setback for our work and also a call for immigrants to behave well," said Francisco Moreno, spokesman for the Council of Mexican Federations in North America (COFEM). "I know that the majority of immigrants are workers and people of good faith," he added.
Angela Sanbrano, chair of the board of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), stresses that this is an "isolated" incident, but that it will be used by anti-immigrant activists.
"California wouldn’t have its economic, social and cultural success if it weren’t for the contributions of immigrants. Unfortunately, those contributions are not taken into account," she said.
What is a Sanctuary City?
There is no legal definition, and its meaning varies from one jurisdiction to the next, but the term is generally used to describe a city, county or state whose policies or laws limit how much cooperation law enforcement or government employees can offer the federal government on immigration issues.
Isaiah Alvarado contributed to this report.