Matthew Lifson, Columnist
Ideology: Liberal | Writing From: Brown University      

     In the aftermath of Arizona’s brutal new immigration law, politicians from across the country have been tripping over one another to weigh in. Nowhere is that more true than in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom is studying how to best boycott the Copper State and has just ordered an immediate ban on official travel to Arizona. Already, Newsom’s moratorium has forced Arizonans to somehow do without a planned visit from San Francisco Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez. This grandstanding is a shameful distraction from San Francisco’s own struggle to respect the rights of illegal immigrants. 

      While San Francisco once had one of the most lenient sanctuary city policies in the country, a change instituted by Newsom last year transformed it into one of the most severe. Following reports that the city’s Juvenile Probation Department was shielding illegal youths guilty of felonies from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), sometimes flying them home at the city’s expense so as to avoid official deportation, Newsom, then running for governor, took immigration enforcement to the opposite extreme. He demanded that all suspicious juveniles apprehended for felonies be reported to federal immigration officials upon arrest, even though 68% of arrested youth are later found innocent of all charges according to the city’s own statistics. Since Newsom’s shift, close to 200 youths have been referred to ICE for deportation, including youths suspected of only misdemeanors and juveniles with legal status, prompting allegations of racial profiling.  

      San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors amended the sanctuary city ordinance over Newsom’s veto to require youths to be found guilty before probation officers can report them to ICE, a just compromise between the earlier practice of never reporting them and the current practice of reporting them before due process is served, but Newsom has adamantly refused to implement the law. Now running for lieutenant governor, Newsom argues he is justified in ignoring the legislation because it contradicts federal law, jeopardizing the entire sanctuary city policy and exposing probation officers to criminal liability for harboring illegal immigrants. He has found allies in City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Chief Probation Officer William Sifferman, who fear enforcement would provoke prosecution from U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, a saber-rattling Republican appointee with a harsh stance on illegal immigration who received attention in the 1980s for referring to them as “wets”.  

      But San Francisco’s charter charges Newsom with enforcing the laws of the city, not upholding the Constitution, and the mayor was already rebuked in 2004 by the California Supreme Court for issuing same-sex marriage licenses based on his personal belief that gay marriage bans are unconstitutional. And while the looming threat of retribution by Russoniello may have been an appropriate excuse two years ago, President Obama has already nominated Melinda Haag, a former federal prosecutor with civil rights experience, to replace him. Further, if Russoniello were to file charges against law enforcement officials before leaving, he would need the explicit authorization of Attorney General Eric Holder, something he would never get when Democrats have put immigration reform first on their national agenda.  

      Newsom must stop pandering to conservative voters and implement the law provided to him through the democratic process until instructed otherwise by the courts. While he drags his feet, parents are protecting their children by keeping them home from school and families are being broken up over crimes their children did not even commit. Until Newsom takes care of San Francisco, he has ceded both his credibility and the moral high ground on immigration and has no business telling other governments how to treat their illegal populations.