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Immigration-rights activists argue that the policy has made San Francisco less safe. After two students at Mission High School were reported to ICE last year, one teacher says the school is trying to handle discipline problems rather than call police. Some parents who are here illegally have moved, worried they might be next in the roundup, after their teens reported their addresses to immigration authorities during questioning. "They're making the community insecure," says Hector Chinchilla, an attorney who represents youths reported to ICE. "People are going to see the police as an extension of immigration." Also, rules tailored for the worst-case scenarios can punish innocent teens. According to juvenile probation's 2008 annual report, only 57 percent of all teens booked on felonies ended up being convicted of the crime. The system raises the possibility of kids merely accused of a crime being deported.
That's exactly what happened to Jesus Cardenas Cortes in September. The 17-year-old from Mexico had been working construction jobs in San Francisco for just two months, and was walking home after dinner on 19th Street. Little did he know police were driving around the Mission District, helping a robbery and assault victim to identify his assailants.
Cortes was walking behind two strangers when the police car drove by and, according to the police report, the victim alerted the cops: "That's them! That's them!" Police arrested Cortes along with the two adults and drove him to the Youth Guidance Center, the juvenile detention facility in Twin Peaks.
Police have discretion to book many crimes like the assault charges facing Cortes as a misdemeanor or felony — although defense attorneys say that police usually go with the toughest charge, with the district attorney able to lower it later on. The police went with the felony for Cortes, as well as booking him with another felony charge for robbery. That meant the ICE policy kicked in.
Of the 150 people referred from San Francisco juvenile hall to ICE since June 2008, 114 have been taken into detention, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice says. Cortes was among them, even though the assistant district attorney dropped the charges against him and declared him innocent, says his public defender, Sarah Wilner. Wilner forwarded an e-mail from the prosecutor to the probation department explaining that Cortes was not involved with the crime, hoping it would somehow affect the impending deportation proceedings.
It didn't. Picked up by ICE, Cortes agreed to voluntary deportation, and was flown from Oakland to Mexico with other deportees. Cortes says he arrived home in the small town of Mixquiahuala, north of Mexico City, feeling defeated. He'd wanted to stay in the United States for five years, and send back enough money to help his mom start a business selling bed comforters, because his father is about to retire from the police force. Yet in his short stay in the United States, he'd been able to send home only $500. "I got depressed," he said in a phone call from Mexico. "When I went back, I still hadn't been able to accomplish anything."
Cortes is planning to hire a coyote and illegally re-enter the United States in the new year — heading to Utah this time, where his sister lives.
Attorneys say some teenagers who've been deported under the policy in the last year have already returned, especially those whose families and their entire lives are still here. "I'll just hear, 'So-and-so's back,'" says Laura Sanchez, staff attorney at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in the Mission, who is representing a number of youths in deportation proceedings. "This is the only life they know."
Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, doesn't buy it. He says that under the old policy, the probation department used the argument that youths' families are in Latin America to justify paying for their plane tickets home. Now, "the claim is that all the families are here," he says. "It's a subterfuge, and just a part of the effort to use any device — and, if sanctuary is available, to use that as well — to avoid taking responsibility for their conduct."
San Francisco enacted the sanctuary city law in 1989 — stating that no city resources should be used for immigration enforcement unless required by law — to offer a safe haven to Central Americans fleeing civil war. It was part of a movement joined by dozens of cities across the United States, including Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. San Francisco city officials argued that the sanctuary ordinance would encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes to local police if they didn't have to worry about being deported. The city also wanted to distance the cops from immigration raids. Yet in order to qualify for federal funds in the early 1990s through a criminal justice program that no longer exists, the law was amended to report "any person" booked on a felony and suspected of being here illegally. The city attorney advised that it included minors in 1994, yet at some point — the probation officers' union estimates more than a decade ago — the juvenile probation department enacted a policy of shielding teens from immigration authorities.
Not only did the juvenile system not report them, it rolled out the red carpet for them to rehabilitate. Judges would assign the teens probation, and, if there were no adult guardians to pick them up, send them to group homes. They would be eligible for city-funded legal services and job placement programs through various nonprofits.
Even when the probation department and judges opted to send teens back to their homelands in Latin America, it was the gentlest of "deportations."
Without ever snitching to ICE, the probation department flew the minors home at the city's expense, with probation officers escorting them to the last stop in the United States to make sure they got on the plane.
At the time, city officials said the policy was to help youths reunite with their families without putting deportation orders on their records, which might bar them from ever legally coming back into the country.