How San Mateo Co.'s new sanctuary policy works, why some find it controversial

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, May 5, 2023
How San Mateo Co.'s new sanctuary policy works, it's controversy
Here's how San Mateo County's new sanctuary policy works and why some find it controversial.

SAN MATEO COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors passed a sanctuary ordinance that goes into effect in late May prohibiting the county from cooperating with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement without a judicial warrant. But county constituents criticize some of the statements made before the vote, which drew more controversy than the proposed legislation.

"I'm disturbed by you," Sup. David Canepa said to Sup. Ray Mueller. "You don't know anything."

San Mateo County has a code of ethical conduct. Treating people with respect and dignity is listed in the mission statement. But that's not what people witnessed during the April 25 meeting.

For people who were watching, it wasn't the difference in opinion that bothered them, but the way their elected leaders handled themselves. Several constituents spoke up to condemn the personal attacks made by members of the board.

MORE: What data shows about immigrants committing crimes in San Mateo Co. as sanctuary policy vote passes

Here's what data shows about crimes committed by immigrants in San Mateo County ahead of the sanctuary ordinance vote.

"After the embarrassing and really shameful display I saw from the board, I scrapped my remarks," a constituent said during the meeting. "I just want to say that was embarrassing."

"I am appalled at the behavior of the rest of the supervisors," another constituent said, "It's just disgraceful."

From personal attacks to false statements.

"How many rapists and murderers have been turned over from ICE? Turned over from San Mateo County to ICE? Mr. Mueller?" Sup. Canepa asked Sup. Mueller. "You want to know? Zero. You want to know why? They're at state prison."

MORE: What data shows about immigrants committing crimes in San Mateo Co. as sanctuary policy vote passes

Public records obtained by the I-Team found that between 2018 and 2021 there were at least five immigrants convicted of sex crimes and another charged with pimping that were transferred from San Mateo County to ICE. There were at least 39 people transferred to ICE during these years that were convicted of serious felonies ranging from child molestation, child abuse, rape, kidnapping, grand theft, elder theft, assault, burglary, robbery, and arson.

Supervisor Canepa denied our request to discuss these data points. But we asked him before the meeting about a study published by the Dept. of Justice that examined 191 child molesters 15 to 30 years after their release from a Canadian prison. The research found child molesters with previous sexual offenses had the highest recidivism rate.

Stephanie Sierra: "Does that change your answer?"

David Canepa: "No. Look, Stephanie. That's not going to change my mind."

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The ordinance passed with a 4 to 1 vote. Supporters believe it will bring more equality to asylum seekers and prevent collusion from ICE. Supervisor Ray Mueller supports the intent of the ordinance but wanted there to be three exemptions for people convicted of murder, rape, and child molestation.

The California Sanctuary Act or SB54 lists dozens of exemptions that include serious and violent felonies.

According to data compiled by ICE, San Mateo County joins Santa Clara County, San Francisco County, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Napa County, Santa Cruz County and Sonoma County that have adopted similar sanctuary ordinances, resolutions, policies, or actions over the years. Along with more than a dozen other Bay Area cities -- including San Francisco, San Leandro, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Richmond, Petaluma, Oakland, Hayward, Emeryville, Berkley, and Alameda.

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Many of them still have exemptions for serious and violent crimes without the need for a judicial warrant. For example, the ordinance in Hayward allows police to interact with ICE and inform them of an undocumented immigrant's release if the person poses a public safety threat.

In Emeryville, city employees are prohibited from working with ICE if it involves sharing a person's immigration status, but police can still interact with immigration authorities if there's any danger to the public.

In San Francisco, the sanctuary law has 46 exemptions for local authorities to cooperate with ICE in certain cases, including murder, rape, robbery, arson and carjacking.

Supporters of San Mateo's sanctuary ordinance argue the amendments use victims of violence as an excuse to provide double punishment to immigrants by putting them at the hands of ICE. A man formerly incarcerated when he was 14 spoke up about his transformation after his release.

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"I got my GED, graduated from college and worked as a peer counselor," he said during public comment of the board meeting. "Because of this transformation I was eligible for release, but was handed over to ICE and detained for over 18 months in ICE detention... that was the worst experience of my life."

Organizations like Silicon Valley Debug, which works on criminal immigration cases, criticized Sup. Mueller's exemptions as circumstances where people are facing very long sentences in prison.

"So this kind of fear mongering rhetoric that these folks are somehow going to get out into their communities is inaccurate and misleading," said Andrew Bigelow, an organizer with Silicon Valley Debug.

Immigration reform advocates, like Joaquin Jimenez, whose spent decades advocating and working with local immigrant communities says that's not true.

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"There's been cases where people get deported and they come back -- they come back to the same communities," Jimenez said.

Victims of brutal attacks and sexual assaults also spoke up, defending Sup. Mueller's amendments out of concern for public safety, telling the board there are people arrested for crimes that don't always go to trial or get an appropriate sentence.

"I've lived in fear because I've been a victim of abuse and the criminal that did this to me is still here," said one constituent. "So I have a question: are we going to allow these people to continue to do these type of crimes?"

"I'm a victim of sexual assault. As a victim, I can tell you all you want is the perpetrator as far from you as possible," another constituent said.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office stopped cooperating with ICE in 2021. The new board ruling expands that policy to prohibit all county departments, agencies, and employees from using any county funds to cooperate with ICE, including providing the agency with an individual's personal information or access to county facilities, unless they have a warrant signed by a federal judge.

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How long could that take?

"It could take as little as a half a day or it could take up to three days," said Mark Reichel, who's been a criminal defense attorney for 32 years.

Reichel says if there's a risk to public safety there are instances to get an emergency warrant.

"In all instances when someone is released they're either on parole or probation, which means they have a parole officer supervising them, and it's their duty to watch and make sure there's not recidivism," Reichel said.

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Data obtained by the I-Team shows a pattern of recidivism or reoffending among immigrants in San Mateo County transferred to ICE from 2018 through 2021. Most of those individuals had been arrested many times before -- seven to 20 times.

San Mateo is not the only county that has had controversy around amending sanctuary policies. In recent years, there have been failed efforts in San Jose after the high-profile murder of Bambi Larsen and the Grace Baptist Church stabbings in 2020. Including, most recently, in San Francisco -- after an amendment was proposed that would've exempted protections from immigrants convicted of dealing fentanyl.

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