By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Is the SFPD worried about stirring up its own sanctuary city scandal? Community activists say the cops are dragging their feet on approving so-called U-visas for non-citizen crime victims because they fear negative publicity.
San Francisco's Juvenile Probation Department suffered a public relations nightmare earlier this year when the Chronicle ran a series of stories about the city's long-standing practice of shielding juvenile offenders from federal immigration officials. Things weren't helped by the fact that two people spared possible deportation by the policy have since been charged with murder.
The SFPD "are afraid they'll help someone obtain a visa, and that person will run out and commit a heinous crime, and they'll point at the SFPD the same way they're pointing at the probation department and say the SFPD allowed this person to commit this crime by signing the U-visa certification," says Ivy Lee, a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. Lee says she has a couple of clients who've been waiting for months for the police department to act on U-visa requests.
Congress created U-visas in 2000 to encourage immigrants in the country illegally to report crimes without fear of deportation. Federal guidelines (which were finalized last year) require local government agencies to complete applications stating that the person was the victim of crime, and that he or she has been or is likely to be helpful in its investigation and prosecution. In cases that aren't referred to the district attorney for prosecution, the responsibility of filling out the paperwork falls to the police. The application then goes to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a final decision.
Lieutenant Dan Mahoney, head of the SFPD's legal division, doesn't deny that the sanctuary city controversy is on people's minds. "The city is getting some negative press on the harboring of illegal juveniles," he says. Still, he says that the holdup is because the department has been developing a consistent protocol, rather than handling the applications piecemeal as had happened in the past.
Mahoney says the department's main concern in certifying the U-visa requests has been fear of violating San Francisco's sanctuary city policy. That's because the U-visa law requires that law enforcement officers must inform the USCIS if an applicant "unreasonably refuses" to help in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. But the city attorney advised months ago that reporting uncooperative applicants to the feds wouldn't be a violation, Mahoney says. The sanctuary ordinance provides an exception to the prohibition of sharing information about someone's immigration status in instances where it's required by federal law.
Mahoney also cited a hypothetical worst-case scenario in which an undocumented gang member snitching on a rival would be eligible to apply for a U-visa. "We just want to make sure of who we're recommending to stay in the country," he says. He admits that none of the 10 or so cases awaiting signatures — which he says are for domestic abuse, robbery, and assault victims — fit that scenario.
Mahoney says police have drafted the policy to begin signing the applications, which is awaiting approval from Police Chief Heather Fong, the police department's legal division, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Meanwhile, the wait for the crime victims continues. "It's very clear [Congress] meant it [the visas] to be something that would help the immigrant community and law enforcement at the same time," attorney Lee says. "And for San Francisco to be holding up the process, that's crazy."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city