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

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 1st, 2010, a new program was implemented that is a collaboration between San Francisco Police and ICE, 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 cross-checked 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, including California. Currently, immigrant rights groups are lobbying and protesting to persuade local law enforcement not to participate in this program. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Office tried to opt out of participating, but then California Attorney General Jerry Brown said that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department could not opt-out.

At the time of this writing, local San Francisco police are participating in this program but recently-retired San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey claimed the office is only turning undocumented immigrants over to federal immigration authorities if they have been booked on serious charges or have extensive criminal records.3 Recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Secure Communities is mandatory and there is no way to opt-out.

Car Impounding in San Francisco

Immigrants have reported a significant increase in car impoundments since 2008 and early 2009. When a driver could not produce a valid driver license after being stopped in a vehicle, the car would be impounded. A city-wide 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.

  1. Heather Knight, No Sanctuary for Supes' Immigrant Youth Law, San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 2009, Last visited August 1, 2012. 

  2. Joel Streicker, S.F. Victory for Undocumented-Minor Immigrants, New America Media, May 19, 2011, Last visited August 1, 2012. 

  3. Bob Egelko, States Balk At Illegal Immigrant Fingerprint Plans, San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 2011, Last visited August 1, 2012.