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A murder in San Francisco became about the city's immigration policy. Here's why that's wrong.

Francisco Sanchez, who is accused of murdering Kathryn Steinle.
Francisco Sanchez, who is accused of murdering Kathryn Steinle.
San Francisco Police Department via Getty Images

Last week, 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was murdered in San Francisco. The man who's accused of murdering her (who was arrested the day after the murder) is called Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate by federal officials. But when he was released from a local jail in March, he went by Francisco Sanchez.

The murder is getting national attention because Sanchez is an unauthorized immigrant — and because he was released from jail in March despite a request from the federal government to hold him until federal immigration agents could pick him up. So the case has become a referendum on what opponents call San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy.

The concept of sanctuary cities has been floating around the immigration debate for several years (even though the actual policies in question have changed). Generally, the term is used to refer to a city that doesn't turn over unauthorized immigrants to federal authorities. So the collision of a tragedy with a controversial local policy — in liberal San Francisco, no less! — might have been inevitable.

But while it might be tempting to blame San Francisco, there's another way to look at this story: Sanchez was on the street because federal immigration officials didn't work to apprehend him. This isn't a case of a city being too soft on a criminal — it's a case of a federal agency not doing what it had to do to get a criminal into its custody.

Sanchez was sent from federal prison to San Francisco's jail — even though immigration officials wanted him

Francisco Sanchez's criminal record stretches back to 1991, the year he entered the United States. He had already been deported five times when he was apprehended in Texas in 2009 trying to enter the United States yet again. He was convicted of illegal reentry — which is a federal felony — and sentenced to a term in federal prison.

Typically, when an unauthorized immigrant finishes up a federal prison term, he's handed over to ICE officials for deportation. But when Sanchez's term ended in March, there were two different requests in the system: the request from ICE officials, and an outstanding warrant from 1995 for a marijuana offense in San Francisco. For reasons that aren't yet clear, prison officials decided to send Sanchez to San Francisco to honor the 1995 warrant, instead of turning him over to immigration. Once he got there, prosecutors decided it wasn't worth charging him with a 20-year-old crime for pot.

Here's where the "sanctuary city" thing comes in. ICE had sent a request to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department asking them to hold Sanchez after they were done with him, so ICE could pick him up. But San Francisco has a policy that immigrants can only be held for federal immigration officials (after they'd otherwise be released) if there's a warrant or a court order. If there's no warrant, and just a request from ICE to detain the immigrant, San Francisco only honors the request if the immigrant is being held for serious crimes — and a 20-year-old marijuana arrest doesn't qualify. So once the charges against Sanchez were dropped, they let him go.

Four months later, in July, Sanchez was arrested for Steinle's murder.

ICE says it focuses on immigrant criminals. But it relies on local jails to pick them up first.

No one is arguing that Francisco Sanchez shouldn't have been in federal custody and deported. The question is whose fault it is that he wasn't.

If you blame San Francisco for releasing Sanchez into the community, you also have to think about the federal officials at the Bureau of Prisons, who decided to ignore ICE's request for custody after Sanchez finished his prison term — and instead honored a 20-year-old warrant for marijuana in a city that is literally already preparing for California to legalize marijuana in 2016.

You also have to consider ICE's decision to issue a request to San Francisco's Sheriff's Department, rather than a warrant or a court order — even though San Francisco's policy has been on the books since last year. And you have to think about the three months after Sanchez was released by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, when ICE didn't track him down.

After all, someone like Francisco Sanchez is basically Exhibit A for what ICE calls a "deportation priority." He has a criminal record; he's a "repeat immigration violator"; he was apprehended just after crossing the border in 2011, so he hasn't been settled in the US. But the fact of the matter is that ICE is more interested, most of the time, in picking up immigrants from local jails than in tracking them down.

That's the reason San Francisco and other cities have limited ICE's access to immigrants to begin with: They felt ICE was using their jails as a dragnet to deport as many immigrants as possible, rather than targeting violent criminals, and they didn't like it. The federal government has alternated between yelling at cities like San Francisco for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration agents, and trying to turn over a new leaf with local-federal immigration enforcement. Most recently, as part of President Obama's executive orders on immigration in November 2014, the government announced it was rolling out a new local jail policy that would only target serious offenders. That program is still gestating.

Local jails have released 17,000 immigrants who haven't killed anyone

The reason cities like San Francisco resent their jails being used as feeders for ICE agents is that most unauthorized immigrants aren't serious criminals, and treating them that way does more harm than good. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens. But when unauthorized immigrants are afraid the police will deport them, they're less likely to come to the police when they're victims or witnesses of crime.

San Francisco made the decision that it couldn't get immigrants to trust law enforcement if low-level offenders were getting turned over to ICE. And for thousands of immigrants, that's been the right decision. According to ICE officials, Sanchez is one of 10,000 immigrants who've been released from California jails after a statewide law (which is more moderate than San Francisco's policy) limited ICE's access to them. And he's one of 17,000 immigrants who have been released from jails despite ICE requests to hold them since the beginning of 2014. If the only problem here were "sanctuary cities," there would be a lot more news stories like Sanchez's in the news.

That's not to say that Steinle's murder wasn't preventable — or even that it shouldn't have been prevented by Sanchez getting deported. Indeed, there's no reason Sanchez should have been released from law enforcement custody to begin with. But the same people who are blaming San Francisco now had the option to do more to apprehend Sanchez at the time, and decided to treat his case the same way they'd treat a longtime California resident getting busted for a fraction of an ounce of pot.