Advocates for immigrant rights brace for backlash

Original article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

by Tracey Kaplan

Immigrant-rights advocates predicted 2015 would be a banner year for their cause, with new breakthroughs that would make the Golden State more welcoming.

For the first time in more than two decades, illegal immigrants can apply for driver’s licenses. Prospects were good for a sweeping package of bills to expand protections for people in the country illegally. And Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to spend millions on free health care for low-income immigrant children — and even create a new position in his administration: director of “immigrant integration.”

But all that optimism quickly dimmed July 1, when an illegal immigrant from Mexico with a long record of mostly drug crimes was arrested in the shooting death of a 32-year-old woman out for a stroll on a San Francisco pier. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 56, had been deported five times before, but the city’s controversial “sanctuary” policy shielded him despite a request by federal authorities to alert them before his release.

Now, advocates are concerned that Kathryn Steinle’s death will create a sustained backlash, even as groups that want to restrict illegal immigration insist the tragedy is a legitimate springboard for their agenda.
“We have already seen this event influence some local, state and federal lawmakers, afraid they’ll be labeled soft on immigration,” attorney Rose Cahn wrote recently in a blog item posted on the website of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Given that California is a liberal state where Latinos now enjoy a plurality, advocates here may be able to weather the storm. But in Sacramento so far, one lawmaker, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has suspended her bid to pass an immigration-related bill, though she plans to try again next year. Santa Clara County, San Francisco and other communities also are under intense pressure to scale back their sanctuary policies, undoing years of hard work by activists.

And the executive director of one of the country’s largest groups opposing illegal immigration said he’s determined to turn the debate over the country’s 250 or so sanctuary cities into a wide-ranging discussion that is already playing out in the upcoming presidential election and may well color the issue here.

“This is something that is resonating — like the South Carolina shooting and the Confederate flag,” said Roy Beck, adding that his group, NumbersUSA, already has begun soliciting funds via email from its more than 2 million supporters by focusing on Steinle’s killing.
That battle is more likely to be waged in Congress and on the local front than in the Democratic-dominated state Legislature, predicted Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
California not only has the largest undocumented population in the nation, about 2.45 million, but the Census Bureau released figures that show the Latino population (14.99 million) has surpassed the 14.92 million non-Hispanic whites. The state has come a long way politically in the 20 years since voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, a landmark anti-immigration measure.
“Ironically, the one place where the murder occurred — California — is least likely to see any significant impact,” Schnur said. “It’s pretty clear that Congress is going to move on this on a national level and reign in the power of the local communities.”
Even California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have called for changes in how sanctuary communities deal with immigration authorities. Republicans have gone further, introducing a slew of bills in Congress to require local communities to cooperate with federal immigration agents and threatening to block funding for communities that don’t.
They say it’s a matter of protecting public safety, while immigration advocates contend that the requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are not a legal way to keep someone in custody, pointing to two recent federal decisions that have supported that view. Advocates also say such requests have been proven to erode police relations with immigrant communities.
Even so, after Steinle was killed, Gonzalez quickly suspended her effort to pass Assembly Bill 813, which would help certain illegal immigrants who have been convicted of a crime avoid being deported. The bill would allow them to ask a judge to vacate their conviction based on new evidence or because they weren’t warned of the adverse immigration consequences of their plea, as is required under the law.
“Even though the solution we are seeking in AB813 and the travesty that occurred in San Francisco have nothing to do with each other, it’s not a good time to pursue this bill,” Gonzalez said in a written statement.
Several other state legislators are waiting until Aug. 17, when the monthlong summer recess ends, to pursue their immigration-related bills in hopes the fervor fades and out of deference to the Steinle family, sources in the Capitol said.
However, legislative leaders remain firmly committed to passing a 10-bill package they unveiled in April, including proposals that would make it illegal for businesses to discriminate against customers based on their immigration status or the language they speak, and make it harder to deport illegal immigrants.
“One horrible tragedy will not derail the years of progress made to integrate millions of immigrants, encourage their trust in law enforcement and make California a safer place for everyone,” Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León said in a written statement.
In a testament to the state’s shifting demographics, even the response by Republican lawmakers here to Steinle’s death has been muted. One legislator, Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Cucamonga, is floating a resolution that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is championing, calling for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for illegal immigrants who re-enter the country. But it’s not expected to pass.
In contrast, former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has said that comments by current GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump calling illegal Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and decrying Steinle’s death have “fired up the crazies” in his party.
In talking points emailed to Republican state senators here last week, the Senate’s minority caucus suggested lawmakers stick to the sanctuary issue rather than attacking immigrants generally — a striking change from the party’s anti-immigration stance in 1994, when it wholeheartedly backed Proposition 187. The measure would have barred illegal immigrants from using health care, public education and other services if it hadn’t been struck down by a federal court.
“This is not an issue of undocumented immigrants as some would have it,” the recommended script said, “but an issue of law and order, and keeping the citizens of Californians safe from dangerous criminals regardless of their status.”