SAN FRANCISCO — In the debate over illegal immigration, San Francisco has proudly played the role of liberal enclave, a so-called sanctuary city where local officials have refused to cooperate with enforcement of federal immigration law and undocumented residents have mostly lived without fear of consequence.
But over the last year, buffeted by several high-profile crimes by illegal immigrants and revelations of mismanagement of the city’s sanctuary policy, San Francisco has become less like its self-image and more like many other cities in the United States: deeply conflicted over how to cope with the fallout of illegal immigration.
At the center of the turnaround is a new law enforcement policy focused on under-age offenders who are in this country illegally. Under the policy, minors brought to juvenile hall on felony charges are questioned about their immigration status. And if they are suspected of being here illegally, they are reported to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for deportation, regardless of whether they are eventually convicted of a crime.
“We went from being one of the more progressive counties in the country to probably one of the least, and the most draconian,” said Abigail Trillin, the managing attorney with Legal Services for Children, a nonprofit legal group. “It’s been a total turnaround.”
Mayor Gavin Newsom, who ordered the new policy, disputes that characterization and ticks off a list of policies that remain immigrant friendly: the issuing of identification cards to residents regardless of legal status, the promotion of low-cost banking and the city’s longstanding opposition to immigration raids.
“I’m balancing safety and rights,” Mr. Newsom said. “And I’m taking the arrows.”
The policy was put in place last summer amid a series of embarrassing revelations about the city’s handling of illegal minors and even as reports arose of several serious crimes committed by illegal residents. The policy has led not only to dozens of juveniles in deportation proceedings, but also to criticism from the city’s public defender and members of its Board of Supervisors, which is threatening to relax it next month.
“I think the point of sanctuary is that you protect people and treat people the same unless they engage in some felony crime,” said David Campos, a county supervisor who came illegally to the United States from his native Guatemala when he was 14.
The new approach has pitted a growing coalition of immigrants rights groups against Mr. Newsom, who is running for governor in a state where immigrants, particularly Latinos, can be vital to being elected.
Mr. Newsom defends the policy as an effort to bring the city’s juvenile protocol in line with that for adult illegal immigrants, who have always been reported to federal authorities if they are accused of a felony.
But immigration advocates say the policy has too often swept up juveniles who are in this country illegally but who are innocent or held on minor charges, a list that includes young men like Roberto, 14, who has lived in the United States since he was 2.
Roberto, whose last name is being withheld at the request of his parents who are also in the country illegally, was handed over to immigration authorities last fall after he took a BB gun to school to show off to friends. He spent Christmas at a juvenile facility in Washington State and is now facing deportation to Mexico, where he was born.
The experience left Roberto shaken. “I was feeling really scared,” he said in an interview here.
Supporters of the new crackdown say that Roberto’s case is unrepresentative and that the majority of youths turned over to the immigration authorities have engaged in serious crimes, including those associated with the practice by Honduran drug gangs in San Francisco of using minors as dealers.
“A lot of them have histories; a lot of them are second, third chances,” Mr. Newsom said. “This is not as touchy feely as some people may want to make it.”
Mr. Newsom says he still supports the sanctuary ordinance, which grew out of worries in the 1980s about the deportation of Central Americans to war-torn regions. Made city law in 1989, the policy forbids city agencies to use resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or information gathering.
While proponents say such policies help the police by making immigrant communities — often suspicious of the authorities — more comfortable with reporting crimes, critics say San Francisco’s policy had been stretched to extremes, including the practice of occasionally flying some offenders back to their home countries rather than cooperating with immigration authorities.
Mr. Newsom says he discovered and stopped that practice in May 2008, and quickly ordered a review. Juvenile referrals began shortly thereafter and were formalized as policy in August.
In the interim, however, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a group of teenage Honduran crack dealers who had been sent to a group home simply walked away from confinement.
A second event was more serious, when a father and two sons driving home from a picnic were killed in a case of mistaken identity in June 2008. The police later charged Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador and suspected gang member who had had run-ins with the San Francisco police as a juvenile but had not been turned over to the immigration authorities.
At the same time, San Francisco found itself under criminal investigation by the United States attorney for the Northern District of California, and city officials were eager to show that their city was not a lawless haven for illegal-immigrant criminals.
“If we start harboring criminals as a sanctuary city, this entire system is in peril,” Mr. Newsom said.
For their part, immigration advocates say they are not asking the city to shelter felonious youths from deportation. The problem, they say, is the point of contact: at arrest, rather than after any sort of legal adjudication.
“Even if you’re undocumented, you have the right to due process,” said Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender.
The federal authorities, meanwhile, have been pleasantly surprised that the new policy has resulted in more than 100 referrals.
“We are now getting routine referrals,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency.
The most serious challenge to the policy is likely to come in July, when the Board of Supervisors is expected to take up a proposal that would apply the policy only to illegal juveniles found in court to have committed a felony. The measure’s sponsor, Mr. Campos, said he expected it to pass.
Such an ordinance would not help Roberto, who is still waiting to plead his case to an immigration judge. He said he had already learned a valuable lesson.
“I will never bring anything to school again,” he said.