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SF jails rarely work with ICE. Should the fentanyl crisis change that?

San Francisco County Jail in SoMa | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In his first two years as San Francisco sheriff, Paul Miyamoto recalls only one time when he agreed to help federal immigration authorities.

The man they sought, Miyamoto says, was a repeat offender accused of breaking into a home while someone was inside—and bringing a firearm.

So when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked for the person’s release date, the sheriff agreed.

But Miyamoto doesn’t think ICE even came to pick him up.

“We don’t have an everyday relationship [with ICE],” Miyamoto told The Standard in a recent interview. “I think we just literally caught them off guard because they don’t usually get notifications from us, to be honest with you.”

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto (from left), Lt. Brian Krol, Sgt. Mark Conti and Assistant Sheriff Tanzanika Carter are seen on duty at San Francisco City Hall. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The sheriff’s brief interaction with ICE was an anomaly in a sanctuary city that protects noncitizens from deportation by requiring jails to for the most part ignore requests from ICE for inmate release dates.

The law only allows him to give advance notice to ICE in narrow circumstances, such as when a person is a repeat offender convicted of a serious or violent felony like murder or carjacking.

But San Francisco’s deadly fentanyl crisis could change that.

This week, Supervisor Matt Dorsey introduced legislation that would let San Francisco help ICE deport certain undocumented fentanyl dealers in the face of an epidemic that has killed more than 1,400 people since 2020.

Dorsey’s proposal would let the sheriff notify ICE about a noncitizen’s release from jail, so long as the person was convicted in the last seven years for felony fentanyl dealing and a judge found enough evidence to believe they committed the same crime again.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey thinks the fentanyl crisis should make the city rethink its sanctuary policy. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

Dorsey hopes his plan will “disincentivize” undocumented dealers from pushing fentanyl. 

While he doesn’t know how many dealers are noncitizens, Dorsey said it shouldn’t matter. Even if none of them are noncitizens, he said his legislation would be a worthwhile “preventative strategy.” It’s commonly accepted that many street dealers are Honduran nationals in the U.S. illegally.

“We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that there's going to be a panacea that’s going to solve everything,” Dorsey said in an interview with The Standard. “It’s going to be 100 unsatisfying increments that will get us moving in the right direction. But if we’re not doing it, we should try it.”

But critics doubt threats of deportation will dissuade noncitizen dealers from selling fentanyl. They say the legislation does nothing to address why undocumented people sell drugs in San Francisco in the first place—often because they’re trying to survive after fleeing gang violence and other turmoil in their home countries.

The Tenderloin is one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the city's fentanyl epidemic. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“Just like the death penalty is no deterrent, the threat of deportation will not thwart the suppliers of the U.S. nor address the demand for fentanyl,” said former Supervisor John Avalos, who authored the 2013 law that prohibited San Francisco from alerting ICE to most jail releases.

For Bill Ong Hing, an immigration law professor at the University of San Francisco who helped author the city’s original sanctuary policy in the 1980s, Dorsey’s legislation is just another example of a politician scapegoating immigrants for a problem that deportation will not solve.

“Democrats and Republicans have always benefited from scapegoating immigrants,” Hing told The Standard. “I’ve seen it throughout my career and this definitely falls right into that category.”

It’s unclear how wide-sweeping an impact Dorsey’s legislation would have.

The number of times federal immigration authorities have asked Miyamoto to notify them prior to the release of an inmate has increased from less than 250 requests in 2021 to more than 500 last year, according to his office.

The sheriff has received about 70 requests this year.

Whether any of those requests are for individuals who the sheriff would be allowed to tell ICE about if Dorsey’s legislation passed is not known.

This is hardly the first time a crisis spurred San Francisco to rethink its sanctuary protections.

In 2008, a young undocumented man from El Salvador with a violent past fatally shot a man and his two sons in the Excelsior. The bloodshed by suspected MS-13 gang member Edwin Ramos led then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to weaken the city’s sanctuary protections for youth.

Seven years later, the cycle repeated itself after a homeless Mexican national fired a bullet that ricocheted off the ground and struck a woman walking with her father on a San Francisco pier. The killing of Kate Steinle made the city—and its sanctuary protections—a target for Fox News and Donald Trump.

The problem with each exception San Francisco makes to its sanctuary protections, according to Hing, is that allowing any local cooperation with ICE could discourage immigrants from coming to the police even if they fall victim to or witness a crime. Building that trust is at the heart of why San Francisco passed its sanctuary laws in the first place.

Hing said the city should instead focus on providing counseling and outreach to noncitizen dealers to guide them away from selling fentanyl. He runs a program that does exactly that with referrals from the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office in San Francisco.

“We have a very good success rate,” Hing said. “We’re proud of that fact, that’s how you get them off the street.”

Dorsey’s legislation is one of two pushes in the same week to carve out exceptions to San Francisco’s sanctuary policies.

Before Dorsey announced his plans, Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins asked for permission to cooperate with immigration authorities in two specific cases involving murder and child rape.

When DA Brooke Jenkins asked for exemptions from city policy preventing the feds from deputizing local jails for immigration enforcement, she reignited a long-standing and polarizing debate about sanctuary laws. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

According to Jenkins, federal authorities found the suspects in both cases hiding in Mexico—but won’t send them to San Francisco to face prosecution unless the city agrees to notify ICE should they be released.

The DA’s request is also not without precedent.

In 2019, then-District Attorney George Gascón sought a similar carve-out for a similar demand from federal authorities made the same demand over the extradition of an accused rapist from Tunisia.

In the end, the suspect was sent to San Francisco without any changes to the law, raising concerns about the Trump administration “playing politics” with sanctuary policies.

The exceptions sought by Dorsey and Jenkins need approval from the Board of Supervisors to pass. They face an uphill battle to get there.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, said she will not support any of the exceptions. She said Dorsey’s legislation targeting undocumented dealers feels pointed and misplaced.

“It’s not the Hondurans or the Central American immigrants or our sanctuary policy that has led to this,” she said. “It’s the fact that fentanyl is killing people.”