A San Francisco lawmaker wants to make it easier to detain and deport undocumented immigrants for fentanyl sales charges. Like other forms of criminalization, the plan would do nothing to reduce drug use or overdose. If implemented, it would become yet another example of how drug laws target immigrants more harshly.
Supervisor Matt Dorsey (D), representing District 6, has introduced a proposal to modify the city’s “sanctuary city” policy. Currently, San Francisco police are barred from working with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, meaning they can’t alert them if they arrest or jail an undocumented person—though there are some narrow exceptions.
“Ultimately, coming here and selling fentanyl on the streets is not the immigrant experience that we are trying to honor and affirm.”
“If you take a look at the things for which sanctuary already doesn’t apply, fentanyl dealing belongs there,” Dorsey told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Ultimately, coming here and selling fentanyl on the streets is not the immigrant experience that we are trying to honor and affirm.” He vowed that if the Board of Supervisors rejects his proposal, he will seek to put the question to voters on the ballot next year. San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto has endorsed the plan, saying, “It sends a message.”
First adopted in 1989, San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance “generally prohibits” using city funds or resources to assist ICE officials investigating civil immigration-law violations, unless required by federal or state law. A closer reading of the text shows that besides its stated compassionate purpose, the policy also protects the city from legal and financial liabilities.
When ICE, border patrol officers and other immigration officials (including, weirdly, aircraft pilots) want to have an immigrant detained, they send out a request called a “civil immigration detainer.” This detainer, sent to local governments and police departments, basically says: Please detain this person for up to 48 hours so we can come and retrieve them—at your own expense. So San Francisco saves money by refusing these requests.
The second and bigger issue is the legality of the requests. Because immigration officers don’t have to answer to a judge, or meet any standard of proof, “there are serious questions as to their constitutionality,” according to the city of San Francisco. And it’s not just San Francisco’s lawyers saying this—several federal courts have already ruled that such ICE requests lack probable cause and violate the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. So the city’s policy could afford it legal protection.
“San Francisco’s Sanctuary City laws are in compliance with federal law,” Ed Lee, the late former mayor of the city, stated in 2017. “If the federal government believes there is a need to detain a serious criminal, they can obtain a criminal warrant, which we will honor, as we always have.” The city’s policy does allow police to notify ICE if an undocumented person has been convicted recently of a violent felony, for example.
“Any time local law enforcement cooperates with ICE, that sends a very frightening message to the immigrant community.”
Dorsey’s plan would make fentanyl charges another exception to the rule. It would reportedly mean that if an adult has been convicted of fentanyl sales in the last seven years, and is then charged with another felony for fentanyl sales or violence, city police would be able to inform ICE officials, who may detain and deport them.
“Any time local law enforcement cooperates with ICE, that sends a very frightening message to the immigrant community,” Bill O. Hing, a University of San Francisco law professor specializing in immigration and deportation defense, told Filter.
“What that does is it results in the community being afraid to call the police if they’re victims of crime or witness to crime, because they don’t know where that partnership ends or begins,” he continued, “… and that affects everyone who lives in San Francisco.”
FreeSF, a coalition of local community and justice organizations, has also stated that it is “deeply disappointed” in the proposal, and that the city’s sanctuary policies are “crucial to upholding our values of equality.”
The proposal comes amid an increasingly threatening climate around drugs and immigration in San Francisco. In October 2022, Mayor London Breed made discriminatory remarks about fentanyl sales and immigrants that sounded like something out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
“There are unfortunately a lot of people who come from a particular country—from Honduras,” she said. “And a lot of the people who are dealing that drug happen to be of that ethnicity … We all know it, it’s the reality. It’s what you see. It’s what’s out there.”
Breed was forced to apologize after her comments drew backlash.
Overdose deaths in the city decreased in 2022, with 620 in total—down from a record high of 725 in 2020, but still far higher than previous years. Fentanyl is involved in 72 percent of deaths. Black residents are harmed the most, dying of overdose at a rate five times higher than the city average, according to the Department of Public Health.
“You’re not going to end the fentanyl crisis by deporting some low-level sales person.”
City officials like Mayor Breed and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins have accordingly made fentanyl a high priority—in pursuing harmful policies. In December 2021, Breed declared a “state of emergency” in the Tenderloin neighborhood—promising “tough love” for people who use drugs and unhoused residents, and urging police to target “criminals” and “drug dealers.” For her part, DA Jenkins has vowed to prosecute sellers whose drugs are linked to overdose deaths with second-degree murder, punishable by 15 years-to-life in prison.
Hing argued that using deportation as a punishment for fentanyl sales won’t solve anything or help people most in need. “That doesn’t mean the continuation of crimes is going to end,” he said. “You’re not going to end the fentanyl crisis by deporting some low-level sales person. You’ve got to deal with this at the root of the problem—the social problems, the demand problem.”
In the United States, non-citizens are uniquely targeted by the drug war. Even low-level violations—like marijuana possession—can subject people to detention and deportation. That includes those with legal permanent residence (green cards). Drug charges can also be used to deny people asylum or citizenship down the line. And these aren’t rare cases—more immigrants are arrested by ICE on drug charges than for any other reason, and they are the single biggest cause of deportations.
Photograph by Steve Mays via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.