Federal Probe Into S.F. Sanctuary City Policy

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, October 4, 2008

A federal grand jury is investigating whether San Francisco’s policy of offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants violates U.S. laws against harboring people who are in the country illegally, city officials say.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said his office has hired a criminal defense lawyer to represent employees who might be questioned or asked for documents. He and Mayor Gavin Newsom said they would cooperate with the investigation.

San Francisco, like about 80 other U.S. cities and five states, has a law prohibiting the use of its funds to help enforce federal immigration law or to question individuals about their immigration status. The San Francisco ordinance, originally prompted by arrivals of refugees from Central American wars of the 1980s, specifies that police can report jailed felons to federal immigration authorities.

The Chronicle reported earlier this year that San Francisco juvenile justice authorities, interpreting the sanctuary policy, had flown some illegal immigrant youths to their home countries after Juvenile Court judges found they had committed felonies. Other youths were sent to unlocked group homes in this country and escaped.

The policy of not referring juvenile offenders to federal immigration authorities had been in place for at least a decade. Newsom announced in July, after the first Chronicle articles appeared, that he had halted the flights in May and told city officials to start turning over youthful felons as well as adults to immigration officers for deportation.

Herrera’s office was notified of the investigation several weeks ago when the grand jury issued a subpoena for documents. It’s not clear whether prosecutors are seeking evidence of possible criminal violations by city officials. Herrera issued a prepared statement but did not answer questions about the investigation, and U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello—who has been a vocal critic of the city’s policy—had no comment, said spokesman Joshua Eaton.

Herrera’s statement said his office would “cooperate fully with the U.S. attorney’s inquiry involving individuals in city custody who may be undocumented.”

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