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How San Francisco's Sheriff Is Helping Undocumented Immigrants Find Lawyers


Across America, sanctuary cities and states have taken a stand against the Trump administration's immigration crackdown. They argue it's not their job to enforce federal immigration law. The administration has answered by threatening to withhold federal funds. And earlier today, President Trump said he's thinking of pulling federal immigration authorities out of California altogether.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we ever said, hey, let California alone; let them figure it out for themselves, in two months they'd be begging for us to come back. They would be begging. And you know what? I'm thinking about doing it.

KELLY: At the same time, the Trump administration has been building on partnerships with local law enforcement in friendlier jurisdictions. Today we take you first to California and then to Texas, places on both sides of this dispute. First, Marisa Lagos with member station KQED has this story from San Francisco.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Nick Gregoratos sets up shop in a small room at the San Francisco County Jail. He introduces himself when the first inmate walks through the door.

NICK GREGORATOS: I am an attorney with the sheriff's office, and we have to give you some information regarding immigration because immigration has asked us about you. So I want to give you that information.

LAGOS: The inmate tenses up when immigration is mentioned. Gregoratos explains that Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants the sheriff to detain the inmate until federal agents can take him into custody or to let ICE know when they plan to release him. But Gregoratos says the sheriff won't cooperate with these requests.

GREGORATOS: While you're here in San Francisco, you don't have to worry about immigration coming to the jail and trying to pick you up.

LAGOS: Anytime someone is booked into jail for a crime in the U.S., their fingerprints are automatically sent to federal authorities. But both San Francisco and California have sanctuary laws. That means when ICE comes back and asks local jailers to turn over an undocumented immigrant, they can comply only if the inmate has a history of violent crime. In fact, Gregoratos is here to help this inmate. He gives the man a packet of information. It includes legal resources for undocumented immigrants.

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE: (Speaking Spanish).

LAGOS: The inmate thanks Gregoratos. Because of jail policy, we can't use the inmate's name without his permission, and he says he doesn't want to be identified because he's scared. He says he was deported back to Mexico a decade ago but returned. He was recently arrested for assault and battery, which sounds violent but doesn't fall under San Francisco's strict definition of a violent crime. The inmate was in jail waiting to be arraigned. He says through an interpreter he will be calling one of the immigration attorneys recommended by Gregoratos.

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE: (Through interpreter) Yes, I'm going to talk to him and see what can we figure out.

LAGOS: California has stepped up protections for undocumented immigrants. As of January 1, San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is required to tell inmates when ICE is looking for them. She says they have a right to know.

VICKI HENNESSY: Any time you're in jail for anything and there's any kind of document that comes up that has something to do with you, that is about you and could affect you, you generally get a copy of that.

LAGOS: Hennessy says she will honor any federal court warrant for an inmate in her jail. But she says those ICE detainer requests, they're just a form filled out by an ICE agent, not a legally binding document. This is all part of a larger battle playing out between the Department of Justice and sanctuary cities and states. Local officials across the nation worry if they work too closely with ICE, immigrants won't feel safe cooperating with police. Federal officials say the opposite, that these policies make the public less safe. In its latest move, the Department of Justice has demanded that local officials turn over documents by Friday to show whether they're sharing information with ICE or face a subpoena.


LAGOS: Meanwhile, ICE agents continue to raid immigrant communities. That's recent ICE footage of agents knocking on doors across Los Angeles, where they took more than a hundred people into custody. In a statement to NPR, ICE said if its agents can't get into jails, they will be forced to carry out more raids. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra knows he can't do anything about that. But he says local officials shouldn't have to spend their limited resources helping enforce federal laws against people who pose no danger to the public.

XAVIER BECERRA: Immigration may have the right to chase those folks because they may not have documents, but it certainly doesn't necessarily make our communities safer.

LAGOS: Becerra says all law enforcement agencies should be focused on locking up the dangerous criminals. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marisa Lagos