If you were to compile a list of threats to San Francisco's public safety, Oscar Martinez probably wouldn't make the cut. The quiet 15-year-old soccer player with a peach-fuzz mustache and adolescent slouch has a demeanor so laid-back it borders on spacey. He admits he gets mediocre grades, he forgets to do his homework, and is often late to class because he has trouble rolling out of bed.
So when Martinez says there's an explanation for how another kid's long foldup knife ended up in his backpack at middle school last year, you might believe he wasn't intending any harm. Not that that matters much now. The reality remains that it kicked off a chain of events that will likely result in Martinez being deported to the country he had recently fled.
Three years ago, Martinez rafted across the Rio Grande to join his parents who'd made the trip just months earlier to San Francisco, escaping, they say, gangsters in El Salvador who had threatened their lives for refusing to pay them off. Three years in the United States is long enough for Martinez to never want to go back to El Salvador, long enough for him to echo in English his parents' hope that he has "a better future" in this country. (Oscar Martinez is not his real name. It has been changed for this story because his immigration case is still pending, and the family fears retribution from the gang.)
But the knife discovery pushed Martinez into the center of one of the most explosive issues in San Francisco politics. As he recounts that day, two "supposed friends" forced him to put one of their knives into his backpack during math class. Martinez then went to the bathroom, where he saw his counselor, who called him into his office to lecture him about cutting class. The counselor remarked that the teenager's bag looked empty, and opened it up despite his protests. There was the knife — which, in San Francisco schools, means an automatic call to the police.
Since it was Martinez' first offense and no one had been hurt, the juvenile court judge dismissed the felony charge of possessing a knife at school. He kept his clean record. Just months earlier, that would have marked the end of the teen's problems. But much had changed since then: The feds discovered the city's juvenile probation department was flying adolescents back to Latin America on the city's tab. A media scandal erupted. A mayor with gubernatorial aspirations did an about-face. And a sanctuary city that used to shield kids from immigration authorities got hard on those accused of felonies.
So that's why, after questioning Martinez, a probation officer notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Soon after, the teen was put on a commercial flight to a federal juvenile detention facility in Seattle, hands cuffed and a weight strapped to his ankle. A crew of federal agents waited in the terminal to take him into custody. "He arrived like a terrorist," his father explained recently, knitting his eyebrows while sitting across from his son at a Mission cafe. "He's a kid!" his mom added.
The fact that children have always been treated differently than adults in the justice system is the reason that immigration activists and eight of 11 city supervisors blast the tougher policy that treats all ages the same: People arrested and booked with a felony must be reported to ICE if they are suspected of being here illegally. It's an approach that puts teenagers who paint graffiti into the same category as those who deal dope or pull a trigger. Those youths who later have their cases dismissed or are found innocent are treated the same as the guilty ones. Some who crossed the border when they were too young to remember it now face going back to a country they know little about — and making the illegal trek back to the United States again — alone.
The Board of Supervisors recently passed legislation to postpone reporting minors to ICE until after they are actually convicted of felonies to avoid situations like Martinez'. But, under advice from the city attorney that the policy could put the city at risk of a federal lawsuit, the mayor and probation department have decided not to enforce it. The verdict: Kids like Martinez will continue to be reported to ICE — whether San Francisco likes it or not.
In June 2008, Tony Bologna stopped his Honda Civic on a narrow street in the Excelsior. A gunman in a Chrysler that had been blocked from turning left opened fire on Bologna's car, instantly killing the 48-year-old youth basketball coach and his 20-year-old son, Michael, and fatally injuring his youngest son, Matthew.
Prosecutors say the alleged gunman, Edwin Ramos, then 21, was a member of the brutal street gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and was in the country illegally from El Salvador. News reports later revealed that Ramos had been a beneficiary of San Francisco's controversial former sanctuary city policy, which shielded undocumented juveniles from ICE. (Around the time of Ramos' arrest, Mayor Newsom — following a series of embarrassing stories in the Chronicle — directed local law enforcement to begin notifying ICE after making felony arrests of underage illegal immigrants.)
Ramos was convicted of a 2003 gang-related assault on Muni and of attempting to rob a pregnant woman in 2004 while a juvenile, but he had not been handed over to ICE. For critics, Ramos' smirking mug shot became the face of everything wrong with the old policy, and even San Francisco's sanctuary city law altogether.
Cue ominous TV commercials from Californians for Population Stabilization, a Southern California–based anti-immigrant group: "Illegal alien gang members get back on the street because our cops can't ask immigration status. Have sanctuary cities taken our compassion too far?"
Of course, lost in the inflamed controversy are subtleties like the fact that Ramos would have been reported to ICE under the new policy passed by the Board of Super-visors.