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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Would U.S. Attorney's Departure Be Magic Bullet For Sanctuary City?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 16, 2010 at 3:29 PM

U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello has worn out his welcome with sanctuary city proponents
  • U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello has worn out his welcome with sanctuary city proponents
No matter how many aggrieved citizens and legal experts immigrant advocates trot before the public in support of Supervisor David Campos' new amendment to the city's sanctuary law, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Juvenile Probation Chief William Siffermann have repeated the same line: They can't offer more protections to undocumented juvenile suspects as long as U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello refuses to shelve the possibility he will prosecute the city for harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.

But Russoniello, a longtime immigration hardliner and one of the few Bush-era U.S. attorneys still holding a job, is closer than ever to being replaced -- and that's left San Francisco officials and lawyers wondering whether an Obama appointee in Northern California will make the crucial difference for sanctuary.

Local white-collar defense attorney Melinda Haag, Russoniello's likely replacement, began a weeks-long FBI background check in early February, the Recorder legal newspaper has reported. President Obama has moved slowly on appointing U.S. attorneys, but as midterm elections approach, the White House will need to get its nominations in soon.

Haag, a former federal prosecutor with experience on civil rights cases, is an unknown quantity when it comes to immigration enforcement. But some involved in San Francisco's sanctuary debate believe that anyone but Russoniello will give the city the breathing space it needs. Haag herself declined to comment.

"Joe Russoniello is, hands down, the biggest obstacle to even modest due process modifications for juvenile offenders," said one City Hall source familiar with Russoniello's more-than-year-old investigation into San Francisco's sanctuary practices.

"You can't take threats of federal criminal prosecution lightly, and that's especially true of a U.S. attorney who's been as aggressive on immigration as Russoniello has," the source said. "He has made it very clear he's not fucking around."

Angela Chan, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus and outspoken defender of sanctuary, said Russoniello's departure would remove Siffermann and Newsom's last possible objection to implementing sanctuary.

"What reason do you have left?" she asked.

Within city government and the immigrant-rights community, few seem willing to upset Haag's likely nomination by speaking out. Campos' office didn't return our phone calls or e-mails. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who has pledged to defend Campos' duly-passed amendment, declined to comment. Siffermann said his department would continue to rely on the legal advice it's been receiving. Advocates like Chan, who have pondered suing the city to force the policy change, say they're still pondering.

Speaking to a reporter from Mission Local in February, Campos played down the importance of a new U.S. attorney, but some sanctuary defenders still have an anyone-but-Russoniello philosophy.

Russoniello's hard-line history of immigration enforcement bolsters their case. During his first term as U.S. attorney, in the 1980s, Russoniello launched a controversial investigation into Bay Area voter rolls to determine if non-citizens were being registered. During a class action discrimination suit against the Immigration and Naturalization Service brought by hundreds of Mexican and Mexican-American workers in 1982, he reportedly referred to the plaintiffs as "wets," according to an article published in the Nation at the time.

Russoniello denied making the inflammatory statement, but his position on immigration was clear. In public debate, he said his office could prosecute church members for giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants, and in a letter to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1989, he said that the sanctuary law, still novel at the time, was "invalid," "calculated to confuse" and "may well subject those who implement it to possible federal criminal prosecution."

Chan said Russoniello couldn't prosecute then and still can't today. University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing, a sanctuary defender, said the Obama administration would never authorize it.

Chan said she was particularly encouraged by the recent case of Muni driver Charles Washington, a U.S. citizen whose son and wife's deportations to Australia were spared after the son's trivial case - a schoolyard tussle over less than a dollar - apparently came to the attention of officials in Washington, D.C., after the story blew up in the Australian media.

"I don't want to read too much into it ... but the hopeful part of me thinks the Washington case ... is a signal of where the White House's priorities are, and it might be a signal that their priorities are much different from U.S. Attorney Russoniello," Chan said.

Photo   |   Via Ninth Circuit Blog


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Evan Hill

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