Alberto Uc Ponce had been in and out of jail in San Francisco a half-dozen times, and each time he’d escaped ICE’s clutches, thanks to the county’s sanctuary policy.
So when he showed up for a hearing on his latest charges at the Hall of Justice last week, he likely couldn’t have imagined it would be any different.
But this time, ICE officers were waiting for him outside the courthouse Tuesday and took him into custody, defying a state sanctuary law that purports to ban those kinds of courthouse arrests, and escalating the ongoing feud between the Trump administration and California’s sanctuaries.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had made nine “detainer” requests from 2014 to 2019 for Mr. Uc Ponce to be turned over after convictions for a variety of offenses including shoplifting and burglary. They wanted to pick him up from the jail, in a safe transfer away from the public.
Each time local authorities refused, instead releasing him into the community — where he racked up more arrests.
So ICE officers tracked his court schedule after his last arrest in November on drug and burglary charges, and caught him outside the courthouse.
“I would have much rather picked this guy up, or any guy like him, at the jail,” said David Jennings, director of ICE’s San Francisco field office. “We don’t have those options, so I have to target them wherever I find them.”
California in 2017 passed SB54, which generally prevents state and local authorities from cooperating with federal immigration officials. Then last year the state enacted Assembly Bill 668, which attempted to outlaw courthouse arrests without a judicial warrant.
That was aimed at ICE, which, when it’s enforcing civil immigration laws, makes arrests on administrative warrants. ICE says Congress made no provision to obtain a judicial warrant for an immigration status violation.
Mr. Jennings said ICE isn’t bound by the state’s law.
San Francisco’s district attorney and public defender issued a joint statement condemning the arrest.
“ICE actions in or near our courthouses deters people from accessing our justice system, making us all less safe,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Public Defender Mano Raju promised to mount a legal defense for the man, and his office said it will hold a press conference this week on the matter.
Mr. Jennings said his office enforces federal law, and “whatever their opinion is on state law really isn’t my concern at this point.”
He said it’s the local communities that suffer by protecting people like Mr. Uc Ponce, whose rap sheet began in 2015 with arrests in Redwood City for shoplifting, carrying a knife and having burglar’s tools. He pleaded those charges down to shoplifting, but over the next five years notched one conviction for receiving stolen property and four convictions on burglary charges.
Each time ICE asked to be notified, and each time San Francisco refused, ICE says.
Mr. Jennings told The Washington Times that San Francisco could have turned Mr. Uc Ponce over even under California’s main sanctuary law, SB54, given the felony-level convictions on his record.
The number of sanctuary cities has skyrocketed under President Trump as anti-Trump local officials seek ways to resist his get-tough immigration policies and to stymie federal law.
Mr. Trump has pushed back, looking to withhold federal grant money from jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate. In recent months the Justice Department and ICE have stepped up their tactics. Attorney General William Barr has sued California, New Jersey and King County, Washington, over sanctuary policies.
ICE also has begun to use a new tactic of issuing subpoenas to try to pry information about undocumented immigrants from jurisdictions that say their hands are tied.
Several California localities have complied with those subpoenas in recent weeks, suggesting that tactic may have some worth.
ICE said Friday that it made an arrest earlier this week San Diego authorities, who’d released an undocumented immigrant under the state’s sanctuary law, complied with a subpoena revealing a last known residence.
Hector Manuel Bautista-Cardenas, 31, a twice-deported Mexican who is facing domestic violence charges, was picked up Tuesday near that last known residence.
But states are also fighting back.
After New York approved a sanctuary law denying ICE and Customs and Border Protection access to its state motor vehicle bureau records, CBP said it could no longer approve New Yorkers for trusted traveler programs. No data means CBP can’t vet applicants, officials said.
New York has sued, complaining that it feels singled out and calling the ouster from trusted traveler programs retaliatory.