S.F. Leaders Defend Sanctuary City Status in Face of Threats

Department of Homeland Security sought a waiver to S.F.'s sanctuary city policy for a rape suspect held in Canada, and some supervisors initially agreed.

San Francisco leaders faced a test of commitment to the sanctuary city policy this past week and after initial wavering, agreed to double down.

The Department of Homeland Security withheld the extradition of rape suspect Mohamed Ben Azaza, who was detained in Canada after fleeing from investigators, unless the city agreed to communicate with immigration authorities if released. That, of course, would undermine sanctuary city policy that San Francisco prides itself on.

But at last week’s Rules Committee, Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Norman Yee, and Catherine Stefani reluctantly agreed to make an exception after the District Attorney’s Office brought it forward — one that set off impassioned defenses of San Francisco’s sanctuary city status from fellow leaders.

“The reason that undocumented people here in San Francisco can live viable, healthy lives…is because we have put a blanket of protection around them,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer at Tuesday’s full board meeting. “If we put one tear into that blanket, there is another tear and another tear and another tear. This is a slippery slope.”

It could very well have been. Ben Azaza is not the suspected “rideshare rapist” but Orlando Vilchez Lazo is. The latter, who is undocumented, was arrested in July for allegedly posing as a rideshare driver and sexually assaulting four women since 2013.

Approval from the supervisors for this extraordinary request didn’t matter in the end. Before the full board took up the matter, rideshare driver Ben Azaza was extradited and booked into county jail on Monday for allegedly raping an intoxicated woman he picked up in Daly City in October 2017. (The Tunisian national and green card holder pled not guilty on Wednesday, the Examiner reported.)

“They should be ashamed of themselves for playing chicken with the lives of people who are victims of crimes, as well as the DA should ashamed of themselves for bringing something to us which, in my opinion, is not the jurisdiction of this body,” Supervisor Shamann Walton said of DHS. “Asking us to violate our sanctuary policies can never happen again.”

Ronen agreed, saying she would never consider such an item from the DA again, saying colleagues like Walton were right all along. 

“It was more important to the Trump administration to exploit a crime and exploit the immigrant community than it was to work with our officials to pursue justice and keep our community safe,” Ronen said. “Enough games.”

As supervisors unanimously voted to table the item, Yee humbly added that he “tripped on the slope and I’m glad my colleagues picked me up.”

Fewer also stressed the importance of serving as an example to other smaller jurisdictions to not compromise protections for immigrants who may also be facing pressure from the Trump administration. 

“Why would we ever cooperate with an authority that has taken children away from their families, detaining people at the border and calling these people names?” Fewer asked, voice rising. “We stand strong so they can stand strong.”

In her State of the City address, Mayor London Breed did not comment on the specific case but evoked pride in San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy.

“We are a city that’s surrounded by bridges, not divided by walls,” Breed said. 

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