SAN FRANCISCO — The killing of a woman at a sightseeing pier has brought criticism down on this liberal city because the Mexican man under arrest was in the U.S. illegally, had been deported five times and was out on the streets after San Francisco officials disregarded a request from immigration authorities to keep him locked up.
San Francisco is one of several cities across the country that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The city goes so far as to promote itself as a "sanctuary" for people in the country illegally.
In a jailhouse interview with a TV station, Francisco Sanchez, the 45-year-old repeat drug offender arrested in the shooting Wednesday of Kathryn Steinle, confirmed that he came to the city because of its status as a sanctuary.
The case has prompted a flurry of criticism from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, politicians and commenters on social media, all of whom portrayed the slaying as a preventable tragedy.
"Most of the blame should fall squarely on the shoulders of the San Francisco sheriff, because his department had custody of him and made the choice to let him go without notifying ICE," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which wants tougher immigration enforcement.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, blamed sanctuary practices and the Obama administration, saying in a statement: "The tragic murder of Kate Steinle once again underscores the need to end these reckless policies."
Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement Monday saying that city policy was never intended to protect "repeat, serious and violent felons." He asked for federal and local agencies to review what happened.
Many other San Francisco politicians stayed quiet as mourners held a late morning vigil at Pier 14 on the downtown waterfront, where 32-year-old Steinle was gunned down Wednesday, seemingly at random, during an evening stroll with her father and a family friend. She had recently moved to San Francisco.
For more than two decades, San Francisco has been considered a sanctuary for people in the U.S. illegally. In 2013, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi's office started turning over fewer people under arrest to federal immigration agents for deportation.
Many cities around the U.S. have scaled back collaboration with federal immigration authorities, but few have gone as far as San Francisco.
Earlier this year, Sanchez was released from federal prison — where he had served a sentence for re-entering the country after deportation — and turned over to the Sheriff's Department on an outstanding drug-related warrant. The San Francisco district attorney's office declined to prosecute what authorities said was a decade-old marijuana possession case, and Sanchez was freed on April 15.
Before he was set free, ICE had filed a so-called detainer with San Francisco authorities, asking to be informed if they intended to let him go, said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said. But she said ICE was never notified.
"We're not asking local law enforcement to do our job," she said in a statement. "All we're asking is that they notify us when a serious foreign national criminal offender is being released to the street so we can arrange to take custody."
Freya Horne, legal counsel for Mirkarimi's office, said that ICE could have issued an active warrant if immigration authorities wanted to keep him in custody, and that ICE is aware of San Francisco's policy.
Sanchez has been deported five times, most recently in 2009, and has seven felony convictions, four involving drug charges, according to ICE.
From jail, Sanchez told a KGO-TV reporter in a mix of Spanish and English that he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt while sitting on a bench at the pier.
"So I picked it up and ... it started to fire on its own," Sanchez said, adding that he heard three shots go off.
Asked if he came to San Francisco because of its sanctuary status, he said yes.
"I only want to say that if the court wants to find me guilty, I wouldn't get mad," Sanchez said during the interview, in which he appeared confused and spoke incoherently at times.
The Rev. John Anderson of St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco said that he favors sanctuary but that agencies should figure out how to cooperate.
"There should be, rather than a black and white, there should be, 'Let's have a conversation about certain individuals,'" he said. "It's really hard to find a middle ground, but I think we have to struggle better on a middle ground."
Lisa Leff contributed reporting from San Francisco.