Immigration Law Trends in San Francisco


Immigrant Youth Policy

Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had instituted a policy to report allegedly undocumented minors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation immediately after their arrest, without affording them legal counsel.1 This ran counter to San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy. More than 160 young people were referred to ICE for deportation under this policy.

Immigration rights advocates worked hard to lobby the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which passed a new policy by a veto-proof majority. This new policy gives arrested minors a hearing and requires that the court find that the minor committed a felony before the individual can be referred to ICE. Mayor Edwin Lee instituted the new policy.2 Although it narrowed the circumstances in which a minor could be referred to ICE, it was criticized for only applying to youth with family in the United States. Unaccompanied minors can still be referred to ICE without being convicted of a felony.3

Sanctuary City and “Secure Communities,” or “S-Comm”

There has been a major change that affects the previous long-standing “Sanctuary City” policy in San Francisco. Under the 1989 Sanctuary City policy, law enforcement was only required to report felony suspects whose legal status could not be confirmed upon booking to federal officials.

On June 1, 2010, a new program was implemented called “Secure Communities,” or “S-Comm.” This new program automatically checked the immigration status of anyone who is arrested and fingerprinted for any crime, even before a conviction, regardless of the severity of the crime. All people are checked, whether citizens or non-citizens, and their fingerprints are electronically crosschecked against an ICE database. Individuals whose legal status cannot be confirmed are then held in jail for ICE to detain them. This is a federal program that is being implemented across the United States. Currently, immigrant rights groups are lobbying and protesting to persuade local law enforcement not to participate in this program.

The San Francisco Sherriff’s Department announced May 29, 2014 that they will no longer honor ICE detainers unless supported by a judicial determination of probable cause or arrest warrant.4: Contra Costa, Alameda, and San Mateo counties also announced they are no longer complying with the ICE requests in May 2014.5

The Department of Homeland Security has announced that Secure Communities is mandatory and there is no way to opt-out.6 However, current California Attorney General Kamala Harris contradicted this in December of 2012, stating that ICE immigration holds are voluntary, and that local law enforcement officers in California are not required to implement them.7 The TRUST Act went effect on January 1, 2013, limiting detentions under S-Comm Program in California to those convicted of serious felonies.8

Car Impounding in San Francisco

Under current California law, immigrants without a social security number are not eligible for driver’s licenses. A bill to allow more immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses was passed in California October 2013, but will not take effect until January 2015.9 When a driver cannot produce a valid driver’s license after being stopped in a vehicle, the car can be impounded. A citywide policy mandates that impounded vehicles are automatically impounded for thirty days, with new fees every day that it is impounded.

Local advocates lobbied the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), and in 2009 SFPD began a new policy that requires police to give a driver who cannot produce a valid license twenty minutes to get someone else who does have a valid license to arrive and drive the vehicle away to prevent impoundment. Community members report that this new policy is not being observed, and individuals are not being given twenty minutes to get someone else to drive the vehicle and avoid impoundment. In 2012, a similar policy was proposed statewide by California Assembly member Fiona Ma, but it was not acted upon by the Senate.

  1. Heather Knight, No Sanctuary for Supes' Immigrant Youth Law, San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 2009,, Last visited May 28, 2014. 

  2. Joel Streicker, S.F. Victory for Undocumented-Minor Immigrants, New America Media, May 19, 2011,, Last visited May 28, 2014. 

  3. Julianne Hing, San Francisco Narrows Policy on Reporting Immigrant Youth to ICE, Colorlines, May 18, 2011,, Last visited May 28, 2014. 

  4. San Francisco Sherriff’s Department: No Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detainers,, Last visited June 3, 2014. 

  5. Scott Morris, SF Sherriff’s Office Won’t Honor ICE Detention Requests for Undocumented Immigrants,, Last visited June 3, 2014. 

  6. Id. 

  7. Albert Sabate, Legitimacy of Secure Communities Program Weakened, ABC News/Univision, Dec. 12, 2012,, Last visited May 28, 2014. 

  8. California Bill Would Limit Local Immigrant Detentions, Chicago Sun-Times, May 16, 2013, and, Last Visited May 28, 2014. 

  9. Chris Megerian, Assembly Bill Would Allow Driver’s License for More Immigrants, LA Times, May 29, 2013,,0,5749446.story and, Last visited May 28, 2014.