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Local victory for undocumented minor immigrants

/ 09:04 PM May 20, 2011

Last Wednesday, President Obama visited the US-Mexico border. His laudable words on the need for immigration reform belie his administration’s actions: two years of enforcement-only policies yielding 400,000 deportations and little hope for true reform.

In contrast, concrete gains for immigrants were announced in San Francisco just the day before. Two years of advocacy by a community coalition resulted in Mayor Edwin Lee instituting a new policy to grant due process for undocumented immigrant youth caught up in the juvenile justice system. Given federal inaction and so much misguided state and local lawmaking on the issue, it is heartening to see San Francisco lead the way with a policy that serves both justice and community safety.

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It has been a long, hard road. In 2008, the city of San Francisco, a pioneer of immigrant rights, fell prey to the xenophobia abetted by irresponsible media outlets that scapegoat undocumented immigrants as the main cause of our country’s economic crisis. Then-mayor Gavin Newsom overturned a long-standing policy in 2008 by agreeing to turn over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), at the time of arrest, any youth suspected of being undocumented. The result was often heartbreaking: youth were deported without a hearing on the underlying criminal charges (often enough low-level offenses), sometimes after having lived in this country nearly their entire lives.

The shift in San Francisco’s juvenile policy is a victory and a balanced compromise. The new policy is consistent with federal law and San Francisco’s Sanctuary City ordinance, which is intended to protect immigrants. It does not forbid the city’s Juvenile Probation Department (JPD) officials from voluntarily contacting ICE; JPD is allowed to report a minor to ICE once a felony charge is sustained. The new policy also prevents conflict with state law that mandates the confidentiality of juvenile case files and court records in order to protect the interests of minors.

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Yet it is a bittersweet victory because it applies only to undocumented youth who have parents or guardians in the Bay Area. Those youth who do not, or who have been convicted of a felony, will continue to be turned over to ICE.

Still, innocent youth and youth who have committed low-level offenses will no longer be torn from their families and deported. It will also make us all safer because it will encourage immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement, rather than be afraid that any contact with the police might result in a loved one’s deportation. San Francisco’s victory, limited though it is, will help hundreds of immigrant families and, we hope, be seen in retrospect as a moment when the arc of history bent just a little more sharply in the direction of justice.

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