San Francisco D.A.’s Program Trained Illegal Immigrants for Jobs They Couldn’t Legally Hold

Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2009

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Only after the July 2008 attack did Kiefer [Amanda Kiefer, whose purse was stolen and she was run down] learn of the crime’s political ramifications. Izaguirre [Alexander Izaguirre, the purse snatcher and driver of the car], police told her, was an illegal immigrant who had pleaded guilty four months earlier to a drug felony for selling cocaine in the seedy Tenderloin area.

He had avoided prison when he was picked for a jobs program run by San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, now a candidate for California’s top law enforcement post. In effect, Harris’ office had been allowing Izaguirre and other illegal immigrants to stay out of prison by training them for jobs they cannot legally hold

The program, Back on Track, is a centerpiece of Harris’ campaign for state attorney general. Until questioned by The Times about the Izaguirre case, Harris, a Democrat, had never publicly acknowledged that the program included illegal immigrants. In interviews last week, she and her office offered inconsistent explanations.

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The city has a history of shielding some illegal immigrant criminals from deportation. The assault on Kiefer occurred just a month after a triple homicide in San Francisco that put Mayor Gavin Newsom on the spot over the city’s repeated release of Edwin Ramos, the illegal immigrant accused of the slayings.

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Harris said she first learned that illegal immigrants were training for jobs in Back on Track when Izaguirre, then 20, was arrested for the Kiefer assault and other crimes on a purse-snatching spree.

Izaguirre had been selected for the program after two arrests within eight months; an alleged purse-snatching preceded his arrest for selling cocaine. Because completion leads to the expunging of a felony conviction, the program has a waiting list of potential entrants. Selections are made solely by the district attorney’s office.

It was a mistake, Harris said, to let illegal immigrants into the program, a “flaw in the design.”

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Exactly how many illegal immigrants have been included since the program began four years ago is not publicly known.

Harris said that after Izaguirre’s arrest she never asked–and has never learned–how many illegal immigrants were in the program. Sharon Woo and Sharon Owsley, the prosecutors who oversee the program, said they too never asked and have never learned the number.

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The San Francisco chapter of Goodwill Industries International handles day-to-day oversight of Back on Track participants for the D.A.’s office. Carlos Serrano-Quan, a Goodwill supervisor, said it appeared that fewer than a dozen illegal immigrants had been in the program.

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Some of the illegal immigrants were allowed to graduate before finishing an entire 12 months of the program, as normally required, according to the D.A.’s spokeswoman.

“The whole point of the program,” Harris said, “is that these people would be able to obtain and hold down lawful employment, and if they’re undocumented, they probably would not be able to do that, so it would go against the very spirit of the program” to continue admitting them.

Harris, 44, was elected district attorney in 2003 and reelected in 2007. She designed Back on Track to help young adults who are arrested once for selling drugs; the goal is to help them avoid falling into a life of crime. {snip}

Back on Track participants agree to plead guilty to a drug felony and spend a year in the program, a mix of community service, employment and life-skills training, family counseling and English lessons for those who need them. While in the program, they are free to live where they wish.

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Over the last four years, 113 admitted drug dealers have graduated from the program, while 99 were yanked for failing to meet the requirements and sentenced under their guilty plea, according to the D.A.’s office.

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In her campaign for attorney general, Harris calls Back on Track a model for a statewide approach to preventing crime and easing prison overcrowding.

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“The immigration issue, as it relates to the Izaguirre case, obviously is a huge kind of pimple on the face of this program,” Harris acknowledged. An instant later, she regretted the metaphor, saying, “I don’t mean to trivialize it, nor do I mean to cover it up.”

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“He [Izaguirre] is being prosecuted, and he will be deported with my full encouragement and support,” Harris said.

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