Not So Clear Cut
No, Kate Steinle Didn’t Die Because San Fran is a Sanctuary City
Loads of demagoguery from the right blames San Francisco’s sanctuary policy for Kate Steinle’s tragic death. Sorry. The culprit was bureaucratic bumbling by law enforcement.
Sometimes the topic you’re writing about comes to life, jumps off the computer screen and grabs you by the throat.
That happened to me this week. I was just about to sit down and write this column about how all these attacks on sanctuary cities are pure fiction, and how the idea that there are places where illegal immigrants are safe from the long arm of federal agents is ludicrous, and how those Democrats in dependably blue states such as California, Illinois, and New York who are now threatening to resist Donald Trump’s attempts to deport the illegal immigrants who reside in those places are engaged in a bit of political theater and likely intend to do no such thing.
The column was also going to address how the whole myth of sanctuary cities is based on another myth—the horrific story of what happened in July 2015 to Kate Steinle. The 32-year-old was gunned down in San Francisco in front of her father, allegedly by an illegal immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had been deported five times before but had always returned, and who, we were told, made a bee-line for the City by the Bay because of its lenient immigration policies.
Lopez-Sanchez claimed to have found the gun nearby. He didn’t know the victim. And no motive was ever established.
The Steinle myth essentially boiled down to the implication by immigration restrictionists and border-security fanatics that this poor young woman died because she went on vacation to a liberal city like San Francisco as opposed to taking her holiday in a more conservative locale like Mobile, Alabama, or Fort Wayne, Indiana. You know, the kind of sensible places where they don’t have “sanctuary” policies that—for instance—instruct local police not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities unless they have a warrant or probable cause to believe an undocumented person is guilty of a particular crime.
Overnight, Steinle—an innocent victim of what seemed to be a random act of urban violence—was turned into a martyr for the right-wing cause of banning sanctuary cities. Among others, the cause was pushed by conservative columnist Ann Coulter and radio talk show host Sean Hannity.
Yet no one made more noise over the killing than Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. The way O’Reilly sees it, Steinle’s blood stains the hands of liberal Democratic San Francisco politicians whose absurd “sanctuary” policies give aid and comfort to illegal immigrants. The bloodiest hands belong to San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, according to the cable-TV host. The lawman had Lopez-Sanchez locked up in the county jail on a minor drug-possession charge but released him four months before the shooting without notifying federal officials.
The Steinle family is suing the county for negligence resulting in their daughter’s death.
I like O’Reilly. I’ve been on his show a dozen times in the last 15 years. We agree on a lot. He doesn’t mind if guests disagree with him, and he often gives them the last word.
The host has said that he supports legal status, without citizenship, for at least some of the undocumented once the border is secured.
And I was delighted when O’Reilly took apart Trump when the candidate suggested altering the popular interpretation of the 14th Amendment in order to deny so-called birthright citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. The takedown was so brutal that Coulter felt compelled to write a snarky column defending Trump and attacking O’Reilly.
That said, O’Reilly and I disagree on why Steinle was killed and whether government—at any level—is to blame.
So it was appropriate and a tad eerie that—just as I was getting ready to write about Steinle—the phone should ring with an invitation to go on The O’Reilly Factor. The primary topic, the producer explained, would be the boneheaded decision by Democratic state officials in California to stand in the jailhouse door and prevent Trump from deporting illegal immigrants who reside in the Golden State.
By the way, Democrats didn’t lift a finger to stop this sort of thing when the president doing the deporting was one of their own—Barack Obama. Sanctuary cities or no sanctuary cities, Obama managed to deport as many as 3 million people in eight years. So much for symbolic gestures.
O’Reilly thinks the Democrats who are gearing up to fight Trump over deportations are left-wing radicals and subversives. From my vantage point, they’re more like hypocrites and phonies.
But, the producer warned, if we wandered into a discussions of sanctuary cities, the Steinle case was likely to come up.
We did. And it did. And even though I didn’t have time to say all this during my brief television hit, this is where I believe the Steinle narrative falls apart.
First, despite the fact that much of the media parroted the line that Lopez-Sanchez came to San Francisco seeking sanctuary, that may not have been his motive. I saw an interview with the alleged assailant after he was arrested in which he said, in Spanish, that he came to work in the restaurant or construction field. But a reporter pressed him, in English, and asked if it wasn’t true that he came because of the city’s “sanctuary” policies. “Yes,” he said, answering a question that I’m not sure he understood. His first answer was likely the correct one.
Second, once Steinle was killed, and people were looking around for someone or something to blame, both the federal and county agencies were in CYA mode. And in the world of media spin, as in the criminal-justice system, the first to talk is usually the first to walk. The feds talked first, telling anyone who would listen how Immigration and Customs Enforcement had asked the Sheriff’s Department to alert them if Lopez-Sanchez was released, but that the local authorities failed to do so.
It was several days before Mirkarimi stepped up and gave his side of the story. He claimed that ICE never placed a formal hold on Lopez-Sanchez, probably because the agency considered him a low priority. He also told CNN that federal officials have been “well notified” that local statutes require a court order or federal warrant to transfer immigrants but that “they did not follow through.” Finally, Mirkarimi said, federal officials could have sidestepped the county altogether and taken steps to apprehend Lopez-Sanchez since local officials weren’t planning to prosecute him for the minor possession charge, but the feds did not do so.
In sum it doesn’t seem like ICE considered Lopez-Sanchez much of a priority until he pulled the trigger and murdered Kate Steinle. Then suddenly he went from a low-level, nickel-and-dime petty criminal to “El Chapo” Guzman, and the feds had to have him. It was right about then that the finger-pointing started and the political spin kicked into high gear. It was every bureaucrat for himself.
Last year, just a few months after the Steinle shooting, an embattled Mirkarimi lost his bid for reelection. Meanwhile, those who believe that this young woman died because of a local “sanctuary” policy appear to have lost their way.