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The False Framing of Kathryn Steinle’s Killing

Media coverage of the tragic shooting is missing the most salient details of all.



First thing’s first: A moment for Kathryn Steinle. A moment for the young, vibrant woman needlessly and tragically shot dead by a five-time felon. And a moment for her being cynically transformed into a talking point by demagogues who had no use for her while she lived.  

On Wednesday evening, Steinle’s body fell into the arms of her shocked father, and into the opportunistic clutches of bloviators attempting the cheapest sort of cheap populism. Her death was a devastating loss to her family, and an obscene gift to anyone hoping to portray liberal San Francisco as under siege by the undocumented barbarians we blithely and altruistically allow within our gates.  

San Franciscans have every right to be angry over Steinle’s killing. Somehow, a criminal obtained a gun and indiscriminately shot an innocent woman with it. And we have every right to be confused, too. Report after report has blared that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials lodged an immigration detainer against alleged shooter Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez—but San Francisco officials ignored it. They ignored it! Lopez-Sanchez was supposed to be whisked away and deported. And now Kathryn Steinle is dead.  

All of this is irrefutable. But context matters. And facts matter. Lopez-Sanchez is not the only undocumented immigrant ordered detained by ICE who was allowed to go free—not even close. Between Jan. 1, 2014 and June 19, 2015, California officials disregarded 10,516 immigration detainers from ICE. Take a second here and think about that: This supposed act of naively progressive incompetence, this supposed only-in-libtard-San Francisco snafu, occurred 10,516 times, statewide, over the past 18 months. That’s 20 times a day throughout California. San Francisco isn’t a bad actor when it comes to ignoring the detention dictates of the federal government; it’s an average citizen.  

The fact is, ICE keeps lodging immigrant detention request even though it knows full well that this city—and many other cities—won’t abide by them. Can’t abide by them, even: San Francisco has had some form of Sanctuary City policy in place since 1989 and Mayor Ed Lee in 2013 signed an ordinance restricting the detention of non-violent criminals. Lopez-Sanchez’s prior felonies were drug-related, plus one for entering the country illegally following one of his many deportations—there was nothing on his record that suggested he might do what he is alleged to have done to Steinle.  

“Sanctuary City” is terrible branding, and it’s no surprise that it’s been turned into the nastiest of pejoratives by conservative commentators. The label plays into stereotypes of lawless interlopers allowed to do as they please sans repercussions. But one needn’t be a criminal justice expert to understand the desirability of keeping local law enforcement out of the federal immigration business. If your spouse and children were victimized by criminals, and the crime was witnessed by an undocumented immigrant, would you want that immigrant to feel safe enough to report the crime to the police? Or would you want her to be too scared to do so for fear of being deported? Sometimes, it’s that simple.  

But cities like San Francisco (and more than 320 other municipalities large and small throughout the country) have other good reasons to opt out of the ICE game. The hundreds of jurisdictions that do not respect any or most ICE holds made their decisions in part because federal detainers have been found to violate the 4th Amendment regarding illegal search and seizure. “ICE knows these requests will not be respected and it knows why,” says attorney Angela Chan of the Asian Law Caucus. ICE even issued a memo acknowledging this and, Chan continues, 51 of 58 California counties now do not abide by ICE detainers. “But ICE just keeps issuing them.” (Why, you might ask? Perhaps it's mere intransigence. And perhaps because it allows the agency to place blame elsewhere—and make local officials appear incompetent and soft on crime—when one of the would-be deportees does something awful. Which is exactly what they’ve done in this case.) 

So, it’s disingenuous to present what happened to Steinle as the result of some bureaucratic bungling. The request to hold Lopez-Sanchez was always going to be denied, just like the 10,000 prior requests that were denied. The so-called “national uproar” over Steinle’s death, meanwhile, didn’t touch on the far more salient issue: How a homeless, purportedly drug-addled criminal could so easily obtain a gun. Minus that pistol, Lopez-Sanchez would have been just another vagrant shambling around Pier 14. But the gun turned him into something else—an illegal alien killer who was released when he shouldn’t have been, coddled when he shouldn’t have been, tolerated when he shouldn’t have been. A talking point. A cudgel.  

Where do we go from here? Expect no shortage of histrionics and crocodile tears and, in the end, little to change as the nation’s attention turns to the next half-baked outrage. And pity poor, poor Kathryn Steinle and her family and friends. How awful to have a departed loved one snatched up as a literal bloody shirt by mean-spirited ideologues. It’s a tragedy without end. 


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