A few years ago a teenager in San Francisco made a mistake that landed him in immigration detention. One day after school, the 13-year-old punched his classmate and stole 46 cents.
The student, an undocumented immigrant from Australia, apologized, but the school called the police, who turned the teen over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE detained him for a few days and threatened to deport him and his family.
“He was traumatized and he was scared,” said Angela Chan, the policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus and the immigration attorney who represented the boy and his family. “It is a human rights violation to separate a young child from their family for an adolescent mistake,” Chan told HuffPost.
It was no accident the teenager ended up detained by ICE back in 2010. More than 100 immigrant youth in San Francisco were detained or deported because of a 2008 city policy implemented by former mayor and now-Gov. Gavin Newsom and supported by Kamala Harris, then the city’s district attorney, who is now a Democratic senator running for president.
Though San Francisco is a sanctuary city, the policy required police to notify ICE about undocumented youth arrested for felonies, in some cases for minor crimes. The juveniles were handed over even before guilt or innocence was proved.
Immigration advocates told HuffPost that Harris needs to publicly revoke her support for the policy and acknowledge the trauma it caused San Francisco’s undocumented youth and their families. Otherwise, they say, she cannot be a credible voice on immigrant rights, an issue that will be at the forefront of the 2020 election.
“This was one of the worst human rights crises we saw in San Francisco in the last 30 years,” said Francisco Ugarte, the managing immigration attorney with San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office.
After the publication of this article, Harris campaign spokesman Ian Sams told HuffPost that the senator “thinks the policy was a mistake and wouldn’t support something like it today.” Prior to publication, Harris had defended her support for the policy, which was changed in 2011 when Newsom left office.
“This was one of the worst human rights crises we saw in San Francisco in the last 30 years.”
On Feb. 11, Sams said in a statement to CNN that the policy was intended to protect the sanctuary status of San Francisco and to ensure police maintained strong relationships with immigrant communities. “Looking back, this policy could have been applied more fairly,” Sams said.
In an interview Sunday with Political Party Live, a podcast about Iowa politics, Harris said the fact that juveniles were turned over to ICE before they were even convicted of a felony was an “unintended consequence” that she did not support.
But immigration advocates say the stated purpose of the policy was to report undocumented youth to immigration authorities without giving them due process and told HuffPost that Harris’ statement is confusing and contradictory.
“Until she recognizes that what she did was a mistake, I don’t think she will have the credibility of a champion,” said David Campos, chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party and former member of the city’s Board of Supervisors.
Harris’ statement references the fact that last year, Newsom told The Sacramento Bee that the policy was designed to protect San Francisco’s sanctuary status, which limits the city’s cooperation with ICE, at a time when it was under attack by the federal government because of a high-profile triple murder committed by an undocumented immigrant. Newsom said he thought the approach was a compromise that would appease critics enough to leave the city’s sanctuary ordinance intact.
Chan, the lawyer for the teenager detained by ICE, said Newsom’s policy created panic in the community and undercut any trust immigrants had in police. The threat of deportation made immigrant victims and witnesses afraid to report crimes, she said, and immigrant parents were fearful of sending their kids to school in case the police got involved in a classroom incident.
“There’s no reason for any official to be defending or rationalizing draconian deportation policies that are part of California’s past.”
Harris’ supporters have pointed out that she has a record of fighting for immigrant rights.
In a statement to HuffPost, her campaign spokesperson highlighted Harris’ crackdown on trafficking, her push for temporary visa protections for crime victims, her support of DACA, and the legal services she provided to unaccompanied minors as California’s attorney general as a few examples.
“Senator Harris has been a champion for immigrants throughout her career,” said the spokesperson. “She will fight for comprehensive immigration reform and to protect Dreamers, their families, and TPS recipients as president.”
Some immigration advocates say it’s unfair to criticize Harris on a policy she didn’t herself create, especially given her track record on immigrant rights.
Alida Garcia, the vice-president of advocacy for the group FWD.us, tweeted that Harris is one of the most proactive senators on immigration issues and Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, tweeted that he didn’t think Harris’ support for the 2008 policy would hurt her reputation.
Still, some said they couldn’t consider Harris a credible voice on immigration until she properly addresses and takes responsibility for her support of Newsom’s 2008 policy.
“There’s no reason for any official to be defending or rationalizing draconian deportation policies that are part of California’s past,” said Salvador Sarmiento, the national campaign coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “We expect all officials to recognize their mistakes and rectify them so that we can be sure they will mitigate the harm these policies have caused on our communities.”
Carrie Rosenbaum, a San Francisco-based immigration attorney, told HuffPost that she is disappointed the senator didn’t revoke her support for Newsom’s 2008 policy and explain why her stance has changed. “Standing by the policy undermines her position as a supporter of immigrant rights,” Rosenbaum said, adding that if Harris really stands by it, “she should be more forthcoming with voters about the ways in which her role as a prosecutor influences her views on immigration enforcement.”
While Ugarte, the public defender, says Harris has been moving in a more progressive direction on immigration by vocally opposing the Trump administration’s family separation policy and travel ban, he’s concerned that her recent comments about the need for “smart border security” evoke Obama-era rhetoric that resulted in the mass deportation of immigrants.
Ugarte said that if Harris doesn’t talk about defunding ICE and ending “collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration,” advocates “have legitimate reason to be concerned about what she would do if she were president of the U.S.”
But, he added, Harris first needs to vocally renounce her support for the 2008 immigration policy.
“If she wants to be someone who can stand up against Donald Trump and against the demonization of immigrants,” Ugarte said, “then taking a look at what happened in San Francisco in 2008 is a very important thing.”
The 13-year-old who was detained by ICE in 2010 for instigating a fight with his classmate was ultimately not deported back to Australia. But he and his family were allowed to stay in the U.S. only because their lawyer, Chan, launched an aggressive media campaign. She says many other families weren’t as lucky.
“We don’t know what happened to those kids,” Chan said. “I can’t imagine how difficult it was to make a mistake and end up being deported.”
This article has been updated with additional comments from Alida Garcia, Frank Sharry and the Harris campaign.
Clarification: This article referred at various points to the policy as “legislation,” which is inaccurate, and has been revised accordingly.