San Francisco Wasn’t a Sanctuary for Kate Steinle
If sanctuary policies for illegal immigrants got Kate Steinle killed, did Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigration rhetoric help pave the way for her assailant’s unexpected acquittal last week on murder, manslaughter and assault charges?
Trying to make sense of Steinle’s horrific death was difficult enough. Now we must process the criminal justice system’s horrifically lenient treatment of her killer. Two years ago, a man with a lengthy criminal record—a man who should not have been in the country in the first place—fired a stolen semiautomatic pistol on a crowded San Francisco pier. The bullet ricocheted off the pavement and into the back of a 32-year-old woman out for a stroll with her father. The shooter then threw the gun into the San Francisco Bay and fled, while his victim died in her father’s arms.
Everyone acknowledges that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate is the man responsible for Steinle’s death, yet the system in place to bring the killer to justice seems far more interested in his well-being than it ever was in hers. At the time of the shooting, Mr. Garcia Zarate had racked up seven felony convictions and been deported from the U.S. five times. His lawyers argued that the stolen gun, which the defendant said he found under a bench, went off by accident. Prosecutors brought several charges. The jury could have found Mr. Garcia Zarate guilty of murder, manslaughter or even assault with a deadly weapon, but it declined to convict on any of those counts. Instead, he was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He could face up to three years in state prison—a term he may have already satisfied.
During his race for president against Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump spoke frequently and forcefully about the Steinle case and how local law-enforcement officials deal with the undocumented immigrants they encounter. “My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” he said in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last year. “But where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”
That question still looms after last week’s verdict given that sanctuary cities like San Francisco, which restrict cooperation between local police and federal immigration authorities, see no need to change their ways. Before the shooting, Mr. Garcia Zarate was in custody and on track to be deported (yet again) but was first transferred to the San Francisco Jail on an outstanding drug-related warrant. After city prosecutors declined to prosecute that case, he was released despite a request from federal agents to hold him for deportation. Which is to say that this wasn’t a mix-up. The San Francisco authorities did not make a mistake. Mr. Garcia Zarate didn’t fall through the cracks. He was released because that was the policy for dealing with illegal aliens, and it’s still the policy. Kate Steinle’s killer would be released again today.
Around 500 cities and counties in the U.S. can be described as illegal immigrant sanctuaries, though the level of cooperation with federal authorities varies. The Department of Homeland Security says that it doesn’t have the manpower to patrol the interior without help from the nation’s 765,000 police officers. Some police departments counter that sanctuary ordinances strengthen relationships between law enforcement and immigrants. If people in a community fear that the police are there to deport them, they are less likely to report crimes and public safety suffers. But isn’t fear of deportation also a deterrent to entering the country illegally? Doesn’t lax enforcement of our immigration laws beget more violations of our immigration laws?
Steinle’s death illustrates the significant trade-offs involved in constructing sanctuary jurisdictions. Americans understandably want immigration policies in place that prioritize the needs and concerns of U.S. citizens, not foreign nationals. In effect, San Francisco’s sanctuary policy prioritized the Garcia Zarates, which is another outrage.
Kate Steinle’s killer is not the poster child for illegal immigration, despite Mr. Trump’s efforts to turn him into one. The research consistently has shown that immigrants here both legally and illegally are less likely than their native counterparts to be arrested and imprisoned. And that holds true whether the immigrant hails from Japan, India or Ecuador. America’s violent-crime rates are driven mostly by Americans. But neither is every immigrant a blameless Dreamer, and too often immigration activists and liberal politicians are as unwilling as the president to make a distinction.
The San Francisco jurors who went easy on Mr. Garcia Zarate haven’t made public their reasoning, and maybe they never will. But don’t rule out jury nullification. The president is deeply unpopular in the City by the Bay, where less than 10% of voters supported his presidential bid. Kate Steinle may also have been a victim of ideologically driven jurors looking to send a message to the president.
Appeared in the December 6, 2017, print edition.