Oakland & San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s unlikely that there are many elected officials in America with posters in their offices commemorating Hunter S. Thompson’s failed 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colo. Fewer still might display a collection of bobblehead baseball players, or a series of photos documenting Elvis Presley’s meeting with President Richard Nixon. But Michael Hennessey, in his 30th year as San Francisco’s sheriff, is perfectly content with his – and his city’s – idiosyncrasies.

Hennessey is especially protective of San Francisco’s unique policy governing the enforcement of immigration law. Adopted in 1989, Section 12H.2 of the city’s Administrative Code explicitly prohibits local agencies and employees from assisting in the enforcement of federal immigration law or cooperating in any way with federal immigration authorities. It’s the first ordinance in the country to designate its municipality as a sanctuary city for immigrants of all nations – Section 12H.1 affirms San Francisco’s status as a “City and County of Refuge” – and one that Hennessey has vigilantly enforced, waging a failed campaign of his own to preserve.

Against Hennessey’s protests, a federal program called Secure Communities was implemented in San Francisco on June 8. The program, operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), matches the fingerprints of anyone arrested locally with a federal database to determine their immigration status. If the detainees are found to be living in the country illegally, they are subject to deportation, regardless of the severity of the crimes for which they were initially arrested.

Michael Hennessey, San Francisco’s sheriff of thirty years, explains his city’s sanctuary policies and his personal opposition to the federal Secure Communities program.

“I hate to see families broken up because of deportations,” says Hennessey, speaking in his office on the day after San Francisco authorities began enforcing Secure Communities. It’s a philosophy that compelled him to write a letter to California’s Attorney General, Jerry Brown, three weeks earlier in a last-ditch effort to enable his city to opt out of the program.

“My department already has a system in place that reports individuals to ICE,” he wrote, “and I do not wish that it be replaced by Secure Communities.”

The request may have been partly responsible for a weeklong delay in the program’s scheduled implementation but was otherwise ineffectual.

Asked if there are ways to enforce Secure Communities while still adhering to San Francisco’s City of Refuge ordinance, Hennessey sighs dejectedly.

“Well, I’ve looked at a whole number of options, and none of them seem to work,” he says. “I’m trying to enforce our local law, [which] says that I can report felons, and that’s what I’ve been doing. By exclusion, my local law tells me, ‘Don’t report minor offenders, don’t report misdemeanors.’ But now, with Secure Communities, they’ll all be reported because they’ll all have their fingerprints taken.”

Despite living in the city since graduating from the University of San Francisco’s School of Law in 1973, Hennessey retains the distinctively flat drawl and straightforward demeanor of a native Midwesterner. Born in Iowa, Hennessey majored in history at St. John’s University in Minnesota before becoming the only sheriff in California to hold a law degree. It’s with an outsider’s perspective and a lawyer’s sense of fairness, therefore, that Hennessey submits that illegal immigration isn’t a threat to American daily life that warrants the unyielding scrutiny and costly resources called for by Secure Communities.

“I think that when the country goes through difficult economic times,” says Hennessey, “people look for scapegoats, and I think immigrants currently are scapegoats. I think there are a lot of people who are contributors to our community that were illegal immigrants, or even are currently illegal immigrants, but are contributing positively to our communities, and supporting their families, and sometimes supporting families back in other countries as well.”

One particular undocumented immigrant arrived in San Francisco from Guatemala in 1983, and Hennessey is quick to mention him as an example of the potential for achievement among his city’s immigrant community.

“We have a local elected legislator…who came to San Francisco as an illegal immigrant when he was 14. After a period of time, he became a citizen, and went to law school, went to Stanford, went to Harvard, and is a great contributing member of our community.”

“I think ‘Secure Communities’ is a misnomer”

David Campos’ office shares an address with Hennessey’s –- both work in San Francisco’s majestic City Hall – but that’s the extent of the similarities between the two. In lieu of a Hunter S. Thompson poster, Campos displays his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and juris doctorate from Harvard Law School. Campos serves on the city’s Board of Supervisors as the elected representative of District 9, which includes several primarily Hispanic neighborhoods, including the historic Mission District. His own story, alluded to by Hennessey and seemingly adapted from a Horatio Alger novel, is a testament to the ability of undocumented immigrants to succeed in America.

“I think that my experience is like the experience of many kids who were brought here by their parents,” reflects Campos. “I was brought here as a child without any choice – you go with your parents, where they go – and we got here and really tried to make a positive contribution to our society. I studied hard, and did really well in school, and went to some great schools, and now I’m a lawyer and I’m here, and always have tried to give back to this country that I love so much.”

Campos staunchly opposes Secure Communities. As chairman of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, Campos held up two of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s appointees to city commissions for their attitudes toward the program in the weeks before its scheduled implementation. Though Newsom called the tactic an “outrage,” Campos remains resolute in his perception of the program, arguing that it will erode the trust between local law enforcement and the immigrant population that had been earned over the past 30 years.

“I think that ‘Secure Communities’ is a misnomer because I don’t think that the program really makes communities safer,” Campos asserts. “The reason that we in San Francisco have supported a sanctuary [policy] when it comes to immigration is because it makes sense from a public safety standpoint. There have been a number of law enforcement leaders … who have indicated that the reason you want to have that sanctuary is because you want people who are undocumented to come forward if they have been victims of or witnesses to a crime. Allowing those individuals the opportunity to come forward without fear of being reported to immigration makes all of us safer.”

Asked whether his personal experience has shaped his response to the program, Campos nods knowingly.

“We’re not about trying to prevent the U.S. from enforcing its immigration laws and protecting its borders, but we do believe that we need to strike a balance between that need and the fact that we have millions of people here, most of whom are trying to be productive members of society, who are contributing to our economy in a lot of different ways, and they need a path for becoming full members of this country. “

Some of the sights and sounds of the Mission District, a bastion of Hispanic culture since the 1940s.

The contribution of the immigrant population to San Francisco’s economy is especially apparent in its Mission District, a neighborhood that has been a hub of Hispanic culture since the 1940s. Today, the Mission District is a vibrant showcase of Latino pride, with independent restaurants, colorful storefronts and alleyways crammed with murals portraying the history of the ongoing Hispanic quest for equality in America.

The Mission District is also, according to Campos, perhaps more emblematic of San Francisco’s sanctuary policies than any of its other neighborhoods.

“You see this diversity in the culture, you see it in the art, you see it in the entertainment places that are available [and] in the food,” he says, adding, “There is an acceptance that comes with the neighborhood. People from all walks of life are accepted irrespective of where they come from, whether they were born here or not, what their sexual orientation [or] gender identity status is. I think that’s really the strongest part of [the Mission District]; in many respects, it reflects the city of San Francisco and its commitment to diversity.”

In keeping with this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, it’s perhaps only fitting that San Francisco was the first major city in America to issue a municipal identification card to its residents. The cards, which were first issued in January 2009, are available to anyone with proof of identity and San Francisco residency and afford owners access to various public services and establish proof of identity during police stops. According to the Office of the County Clerk, over 8,500 residents had applied for and received their identification cards as of July 2010.

Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente has represented Oakland’s Fruitvale District since 1992. As he explains, the neighborhood – historically a home for working-class Hispanics – has never been more vibrant or prosperous.

“We’re a city that recognizes that this world is full of human beings.”

Across the San Francisco Bay, Ignacio de la Fuente took notice of the success of San Francisco’s municipal identification card program and is a vociferous advocate of a similar program in his own city. First elected to the Oakland City Council in 1992, de la Fuente represents the Fruitvale neighborhood, the center of the city’s Hispanic population. An advocate for Hispanic rights throughout his tenure on the City Council, de la Fuente was a driving force behind its 2009 decision to institute a publicly issued identification card program in Oakland.

In 1986, Oakland explicitly established itself as a sanctuary city for immigrants seeking sanctuary from ongoing conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti and South Africa. San Francisco followed suit with its broader ordinance three years later – and the two cities have served as national trendsetters for liberal immigration policy ever since. Oakland also prevents its local law enforcement from collaborating with federal immigration authorities, and in 2007 the City Council affirmed its status as a “sanctuary city” in its administrative code.

Oakland has yet to begin issuing the cards, however, in part because of de la Fuente’s insistence that they contain a financial element that would enable cardholders to not only open a bank account but also assist them in depositing and withdrawing money from that account. It’s a unique proposal – San Francisco’s cards don’t have this feature – that has delayed the program’s introduction.

“There are always difficulties in implementing something like this,” says de la Fuente. “But when you look at the benefit of doing it, you look at the fact that a lot of those day laborers, a lot of the immigrant population, they deal mostly with cash. They are victims of robberies, assaults, and they are taken advantage of because people know that these individuals don’t have the ability to open a bank account.”

In addition to improving public safety, the identification cards stand to make various aspects of city police officers’ jobs easier. According to Oakland Police Department spokesman Jeff Thomason, the impending program has the full support of local law enforcement.

“On the street, it would really help with officers that are doing traffic enforcement,” Thomason said. “Time and time again, you run into people that do not have proper identification, and it causes officers to spend a lot of time on those particular stops. If someone has a verified identification card, [the officer] would be able to write a citation and release that person in a quicker manner.”

Thomason cited the frequent underreporting of crime in Oakland’s immigrant communities, suggesting that it’s symptomatic of a fear to step forward and risk being discovered as an undocumented immigrant.

“In the Fruitvale area and in Chinatown we see an underreporting of crime, especially of robberies and assaults that take place. What we really want to do is get out there in those type of communities and make it free for people to come and report crime, because if they’re able to report crime more often we’re able to solve it and report it more accurately for the city.”

An identification card program would not only alleviate the problem of underreported crime, insists de la Fuente, but also enable police to focus on more important responsibilities.

“People will say, ‘What do you care about people who are here undocumented? They should not be the city’s problem,’” says de la Fuente. “My response to that is that I’m elected to represent everyone that lives in the city of Oakland, everyone that lives in the city that I represent. My responsibility is to get everyone to work with the system, to participate in neighborhood crime watch meetings, to report crime, to be witnesses of crime, to not be afraid to talk to police, to not be afraid to be stopped on the street just for the simple fact that [they] don’t have an ID and be taken to jail, which creates an additional problem for the city.”

“What’s the problem? It’s the cost of our police officers arresting people, taking them to jail, doing all the paperwork, all those issues that I think take away from the limited resources we have to deal with the major issues of crime.”

For de la Fuente, however, the need in his community for an identification card program is about more than public safety or establishing accurate crime statistics. A native of Mexico who didn’t immigrate to California until he was 21, de la Fuente is acutely aware of the plight of his immigrant community and of the need to extend public services to them as a matter of principle.

“We’re a sanctuary city,” de la Fuente explains, “a city that recognizes that this world is full of human beings. And no matter what the circumstances [are] that force people out of their homes or homelands, as human beings and as a country – as the most powerful country in the world – with that comes incredible responsibilities. We cannot speak from both sides of our mouth. We cannot on one hand demand human rights and equal rights and civil rights for people all over the world when at the same time we are not doing it ourselves in this country.”

“A safe haven from our own institutions”

While the Golden Gate Bridge might be the most picturesque stretch of road in San Francisco and curvy Lombard Street the most photographed, Grant Avenue is among its most vibrant and engaging. The road has been busy since Asian immigrants first moved here in the 1840s and as Chinatown developed around it has become the center of one of the most iconic neighborhoods in America. It’s a community that’s as much a showcase of ethnic heritage and identity as the Mission District a few miles south, and both neighborhoods have thrived in large part because of San Francisco’s sanctuary policies.

Chris Punongbayan, deputy director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, believes neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Mission District are vital to preserving the city’s remarkable diversity.

Chris Punongbayan, Deputy Director of the Asian Law Caucus, discusses the benefits brought about by San Francisco’s remarkable ethnic diversity.

“They serve an important function, especially for new immigrants, who come to the city because they know that there is a support network for them,” said Punongbayan. “While being encouraged to speak English and to learn English, [they] can still rely on their native tongue to be able to navigate through city life. So from an immigrant perspective, ethnic neighborhoods provide kind of a gateway into America.”

To Punongbayan, Chinatown is a critical part of his city’s identity, and one that’s unnecessarily threatened by Secure Communities.

“The purpose of the program — increasing the collaboration between federal and local law enforcement — is really just to achieve one end, which is the deportation of immigrants who are contributing to our economy, to our city, [and] making our city a wonderful, diverse place to live. The Secure Communities program is striking against the heart of what our sanctuary city status stands for,” Punongbayan said.

The Asian Law Caucus, located just a few blocks from Grant Avenue, bills itself as the nation’s first legal and civil rights organization serving low-income Asian Americans. As deputy director, Punongbayan organizes its efforts to advocate for the city’s Asian community. Part of his challenge will be to convince that community of the hazards posed by Secure Communities.

“A problem that we’ve seen as advocates is that there really hasn’t been transparency in how the Secure Communities program has been implemented, to the degree that immigrant communities aren’t even aware of it. As advocates and attorneys, we were barely able to find out what was happening in the city; we’ve used our California public records law to compel the government to release what documentation they have about it. When it is popularly known that a program such as this [exists], it may potentially have the effect of breaking down communities, of really reducing trust in the local government, compromising public safety and calling into question what the role of the federal government should be.”

It’s a litany of concerns shared by Lillian Galedo, who in her 31 years of working with the Filipino Advocates for Justice organization in Oakland has seen the positive effects brought about by the city’s sanctuary policies. As executive director of the organization, based in the Oakland’s Chinatown district, she was present when the city first adopted its sanctuary policies in 1986 primarily to accommodate immigrants fleeing civil wars in Central America. In the years since, the city’s role as a sanctuary evolved to meet the needs of its immigrant community.

“It’s not the same kind of sanctuary in terms of a safe haven from war,” Galedo said. “It’s really more of a safe haven from our own institutions, which have increased enforcement among the undocumented immigrant population.”

Galedo believes that, even in spite of external pressures and increased federal involvement, the sheer amount of support for immigrant rights within the Bay Area will preserve the region as a refuge for immigrants in the years to come.

“In San Francisco and Oakland, there are pro-immigrant, pro-undocumented forces that have pushed back against the anti-immigrant sentiment and really pressured our own elected officials to pass things like sanctuary [policies], and even oppose things like [Arizona’s] SB 1070. So San Francisco initiated a boycott, Oakland initiated a boycott; those are things that they would not normally do on their own, but really has to do with the kind of political will that there is in these communities.”