US attorney issues warning over sanctuary law

November 12, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
San Francisco's newest effort to protect illegal immigrants from deportation could land some city officials in jail. That is the warning from the U.S. attorney about the city's new sanctuary law for minors arrested for a felony.

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The city's controversial sanctuary law amendment takes effect four weeks from now. On Thursday, ABC7 spoke with the U.S. attorney, who has a dire warning for anyone in the city who tries to enforce it.

"The ordinance itself is, in my opinion, unconstitutional," says U.S. attorney Joe Russoniello.

He is responding to the city's new ordinance which prohibits the city from releasing to federal authorities illegal immigrant minors unless they are convicted of a felony.

The mayor had vetoed the legislation, but on Tuesday, the supervisors overrode his veto with an 8-3 vote. Under current city policy, juvenile probation officers turn over illegal immigrant minors when they're simply arrested for a felony.

Despite the controversy, the mayor has avoided talking to reporters since he dropped out of the governor's race two weeks ago, but his spokesman says the mayor will ignore the new city law.

"We can't put our law enforcement officials in the position of breaking the law," says the mayor's spokesman Nathan Ballard.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera advised in a previous memo to the mayor, a federal legal challenge is likely because federal law pre-empts the new ordinance.

On Wednesday, after supervisors overrode the veto, Herrera wrote a letter to Russoniello, asking for assurances that he will not prosecute city employees if they carry out the new law -- namely, juvenile probation officers who usually decide if minors are turned over to federal authorities.

Thursday, the president of the probation officers union, Gabe Calvillo, told ABC7 they too will ignore the new ordinance.

"My main thing is I want to make sure my officers are safeguarded against any federal criminal charges," says Calvillo.

Russoniello warns city officials there may be serious consequences if they try to enforce the new ordinance.

"If they were to basically take actions against employees who continue to provide information to federal authorities, they'd be subjecting themselves, that is -- the people who putting pressure on city employees -- to the possibility of federal prosecution," says Russoniello.

Supervisor David Campos says proponents may go to court to force the city to enforce the new law. However, Herrera says, that instead of waiting for a lawsuit, he may ask the federal courts to decide once and for all, the legality of San Francisco's new sanctuary ordinance.

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