Immigration Law Trends in San Francisco

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 1st, 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 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. Currently, immigrant rights groups are lobbying and protesting to persuade local law enforcement not to participate in this program.

At the time of this writing, local San Francisco police are participating in this program, however, the office is only turning undocumented immigrants over to federal immigration authorities if they have a felony conviction or two misdemeanor convictions, or if they’ve been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.4 The Department of Homeland Security has announced that Secure Communities is mandatory and there is no way to opt-out.5 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.6

In May 2013, the Trust Act, which would limit detentions under Secure Communities in California to those convicted of serious felonies, passed the California Assembly. In 2012, however, Governor Brown vetoed a similar bill.7

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 by the California Assembly in May 2013, but has not been signed as of this writing.8 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 June 12, 2013. 

  2. Joel Streicker, S.F. Victory for Undocumented-Minor Immigrants, New America Media, May 19, 2011. Last visited June 12, 2013. 

  3. Julianne Hing, San Francisco Narrows Policy on Reporting Immigrant Youth to ICE, Colorlines, May 18, 2011. Last visited June 12, 2013. 

  4. Bob Egelko, Sheriffs Divided on Immigration Policy, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 6, 2012. Last visited June 25, 2013. 

  5. Id. 

  6. Albert Sabate, Legitimacy of Secure Communities Program Weakened, ABC News/Univision, Dec. 12, 2012. Last visited June 13, 2013. 

  7. California Bill Would Limit Local Immigrant Detentions, Chicago Sun-Times, May 16, 2013. Last Visited June 13, 2013. 

  8. Chris Megerian, Assembly Bill Would Allow Driver’s License for More Immigrants, LA Times, May 29, 2013. Last visited June 13, 2013.