2009 Eugene Katz Award For Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

Related Publications: Transcript, Video

Compared to its prevalence in prior years, immigration in 2008 received much less attention from the national news media. This was to be expected given that the two presidential candidates — the focus of media attention — had exactly the same views on immigration. No disagreement, no debate – and thus less news coverage.

But just because the Washington policy debates over immigration subsided last year doesn’t mean the issue went away. With nearly 40 million immigrants in the United States, close to a third of them illegal aliens, the issue will naturally arise in many areas of life, from the economy to education to health care to crime. It is in this last area that this year’s winner of the Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration distinguished himself.

Jaxon Van Derbeken has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years, working at newspapers in Los Angeles, Denver, and the San Francisco Bay Area. While at the Los Angeles Daily News, his coverage of the city’s police during the Rodney King beating was recognized by the ACLU, and he went on to do extensive interviews and research for the book Official Negligence by Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon about the beating and the ensuing riots.

He has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1997, where he has covered the city’s police department. His reporting on the department’s troubled track record in solving violent crime won several awards and led to an overhaul of the department’s investigative arm.

In 2008, as part of his beat, Van Derbeken learned that the city had a policy of not reporting to federal authorities for possible deportation those illegal immigrant drug dealers and other felons who claimed to be juveniles, instead paying for group homes and free flights home. Among the beneficiaries of this facet of San Francisco’s sanctuary policy was a violent gang member who was later arrested as an adult in the murders of a father and two sons who became innocent victims of a gang war. In the best tradition of journalism, his reporting shone light on hidden aspects of government conduct, forcing city officials to abandon their policy of shielding the juvenile offenders after the first story broke. Van Derbeken continued to report on the fallout of the sanctuary policy and was recently honored with the Fairbanks Public Service award by the Associated Press.

This award is named in memory of Eugene Katz, a native New Yorker who started his career, after Dartmouth and Oxford, as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman. In 1928, he joined the family business, working as an advertising salesman for the Katz Agency, and in 1952 became president of Katz Communications, a half-billion-dollar firm which not only dealt in radio and television advertising but also owned and managed a number of radio stations. Mr. Katz was a member of the Center for Immigration Studies board until shortly after his 90th birthday in 1997. He passed away in 2000.

Previous winners of the Katz Award are listed at http://www.cis.org/KatzAward.

The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan research institute that examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is animated by a pro-immigrant/low-immigration vision, but offers the Katz Award not to promote any point of view but rather to foster informed decision-making on an issue so central to America’s future.

Scroll down to read some of Van Derbeken's articles.

Mark Krikorian
Executive Director
Center for Immigration Studies
June 5, 2009


All Articles: Copyright © 2008, The San Francisco Chronicle. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.

City's shield of migrants probed;
Feds say drug lords 'gaming the system'
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, June 29, 2008

San Francisco juvenile probation officials - citing the city's immigrant sanctuary status - are protecting Honduran youths caught dealing crack cocaine from possible federal deportation and have given some offenders a city-paid flight home with carte blanche to return.

The city's practices recently prompted a federal criminal investigation into whether San Francisco has been systematically circumventing U.S. immigration law, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.

City officials say they are trying to balance their obligations under federal and state law with local court orders and San Francisco's policies aimed at protecting the rights of the young immigrants, who they say are often victims of exploitation.

Federal authorities counter that drug kingpins are indeed exploiting the immigrants, but that the city's stance allows them to get away with "gaming the system."

San Francisco juvenile authorities have been grappling for several years with an influx of young Honduran immigrants dealing crack in the Mission District and Tenderloin.

Those who are arrested routinely say they are minors, but police suspect that many are actually adults, living communally in Oakland and other cities at the behest of drug traffickers who claim to be their relatives.

Nonetheless, city authorities have typically accepted the suspects' stories and handled the cases in Juvenile Court, where proceedings are often shielded from public scrutiny.

Unorthodox strategy

Barred by state law from sending drug offenders to the California Youth Authority and bound by a 1989 city law defining San Francisco as a sanctuary city for immigrants - meaning officials do not cooperate with federal immigration investigations - juvenile officials settled on an unorthodox strategy.

Rather than have the drug offenders deported, they have recommended that Juvenile Court judges and commissioners approve city-paid flights home to Honduras for the offenders with the aim of reuniting them with their families.

The practice, federal authorities say, does nothing to prevent offenders from coming back, while federal deportation legally bars them from ever returning. Federal officials also say U.S. law prohibits helping an illegal immigrant to cross the border, even if it is to return home.

Federal officials recently detained a San Francisco juvenile probation officer at the Houston airport, where he was accompanying two Honduran juvenile drug offenders about to board a flight to Tegucigalpa.

They questioned him for several hours before letting him go, and seized the youths and deported them.

"Our job is to uphold the nation's immigration laws," said Greg Palmore, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE. "Although San Francisco is a sanctuary city, it's a problem whenever someone attempts to evade the law. ... Our law does not allow us to turn a blind eye to any individual who has come into this country illegally."

Feds 'flabbergasted'

Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney in charge of the San Francisco area, said he was "flabbergasted that the taxpayers' money was being spent for the purpose of ferrying detainees home. You have to have a perfect storm of dumb moves to have it happen."

William Siffermann, chief of San Francisco's Juvenile Probation Department, said federal agents have never specifically told his office not to send immigrants back to their home countries, but that he has stopped the practice until differences between the city and immigration authorities are resolved.

He said the city's stance is that it does not have to report illegal immigrant minors to the federal government, even if they are found in Juvenile Court to have committed a crime.

"We are not obligated to," he said. "We are abiding by the sanctuary city ordinance."

Siffermann added, "I don't believe we've done anything wrong." But he stressed that his office wants to make sure it is fulfilling its duties "in all arenas, with federal statutes, state statutes and the sanctuary city law."

Juveniles with beards

San Francisco police doubt that many of the young Hondurans they arrest on drug charges are even juveniles.

Police can report suspected adult illegal immigrants to federal authorities if they commit a crime, said Capt. Tim Hettrich, until recently the head of the narcotics unit.

So immigrant drug dealers "pass themselves off as juveniles, with a three-day growth of beard and everything else. It's frustrating," he said.

"Some of them have been arrested four or five times," Hettrich said. "That is one of the big problems with being a city of sanctuary."

He scoffed at San Francisco's strategy of returning the offenders to their home country. "They probably get the round trip and the next day, they will be right back here," Hettrich said.

Patricia Lee, head of the San Francisco public defender's juvenile branch, would not comment on pending cases. But, she said, "a lot of the young people have suffered a lot of abuse, abandonment and neglect in their native country and have been used as drug-running mules. There is lot of victimization and trafficking of these young people."

'Gaming the system'

Russoniello said the drug dealers are being sent here as part of an effort that takes advantage of San Francisco's leniency.

"What we're facing is a number of people gaming the system," he said. "Sooner or later the city will realize the advantage to cooperating with federal authorities, whether it's the threat of criminal prosecution ... or some other method."

Russoniello would not confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation, but juvenile probation officers connected to the case have been interviewed by federal agents about the flights.

City officials will not say how many juvenile drug offenders have been flown out of the country in recent years or how much the city has spent on the effort.

Federal immigration authorities stumbled on to the effort when they caught several illegal immigrants in December at the airport in Houston, along with a San Francisco juvenile probation officer.

The officer was on hand to make sure the immigrants boarded a plane to Tegucigalpa.

Federal authorities say they met with Siffermann and told him that any juvenile offender had to be handed over to immigration officials after completing his sentence.

The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency sent a letter to Siffermann on Dec. 17 stressing that it would soon "like to begin receiving referrals" about immigrant juveniles in custody in the city.

"The red flag was flown," Russoniello said.

City saw it differently

Siffermann, however, said federal authorities were not exactly clear about what the city could and could not do related to the flights or the status of immigrants held in juvenile cases.

"They did a little friendly stop-by," Siffermann said. "They said, 'This is something we would like you to cooperate on.' ... They said, 'Hey, look, this could be contrary to federal law, you might be in violation.' "

Meanwhile, the flights continued.

On May 15, two more illegal immigrants from Honduras were arrested in Houston, again accompanied by a San Francisco juvenile probation officer. Federal immigration authorities held the officer for more than three hours before releasing him.

Six days later, there was another meeting, Siffermann said. This time it was with a representative of Russoniello's office.

After that, Siffermann put the flights on hold. "We will look for other approaches for them," he said.

Siffermann stressed that the city ships out juvenile offenders to their home countries only after all other rehabilitative efforts have failed, including probation, foster care and juvenile detention.

The strategy is appropriate, Siffermann said, because deporting young offenders would doom them from ever becoming productive residents of the United States.

"It might prevent them from obtaining citizenship," he said, denying them a chance to "take a different course."

In a statement released by the city attorney's office, which is advising the city on the issue, spokesman Matt Dorsey said, "We've been in ongoing contact with the U.S. attorney's office on this, and we've informed them of our intention to address these issues in court proceedings.

"We're looking at the legal issues carefully and methodically," Dorsey's statement said, "and we're in the process of advising our client, the Juvenile Probation Department."

He said his office was not aware of the practice of flying juveniles back to Honduras.

Stranded juveniles

A recent count showed 22 of the 125 minors in custody at juvenile hall were immigrants and had no legal guardians in the United States, Siffermann said. He said his office is trying to figure out what to do with them now that flights are no longer an option.

Russoniello said the city has no choice but to comply with U.S. law and turn the youths over to federal authorities. "The alternative, now that they are all on notice, is a period of prolonged darkness," he said.

Judge Donna Hitchens, who oversees the city's Juvenile Court, said the original idea for flying youths home came from juvenile probation officials, and that it is up to them, not judges, to work out their differences with the federal government.

"We are only the judicial branch," she said. "The issue is between the city and ICE."

"What we're facing is a number of people gaming the system. Sooner or later the city will realize the advantage to cooperating with federal authorities, whether it's the threat of criminal prosecution ... or some other method."

Joseph Russoniello, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California

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S.F. MAYOR REVERSES POLICY ON ILLEGALS;
UPDATE: SANCTUARY CITY;
Newsom concedes the city was wrong to shield young immigrants convicted of felonies from possible deportation
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, July 3, 2008

San Francisco will shift course and start turning over juvenile illegal immigrants convicted of felonies to federal authorities for possible deportation, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday as he took the blame for what he conceded was a costly and misguided effort to shield the youths.

Newsom said he hadn't known until recently that the city was keeping the juvenile offenders from being deported as part of its sanctuary-city policy, but he added that "ignorance is no defense."

"All I can say is, I can't explain away the past," Newsom said. "I take responsibility, I take it. We are moving in a different direction."

Newsom had said Tuesday that he had no direct authority to order the change, but that did little to dispel a controversy that overshadowed his announcement this week that he was exploring a 2010 run for governor. National media coverage of the mayor in recent days focused not on his political ambitions but on Chronicle revelations that his city was harboring illegal immigrant youths who had been convicted of dealing crack on the streets.

"We're going to fix this," Newsom said Wednesday.

The mayor also revealed some of the costs to San Francisco taxpayers of protecting the offenders from the federal government, something his Juvenile Probation Department had declined to do.

The city has spent $2.3 million just to house illegal immigrants in juvenile hall rather than turning them over to federal authorities since 2005, the year Newsom appointed his juvenile probation director, William Siffermann.

San Francisco also has flown more than a dozen juvenile drug dealers back to their homeland of Honduras, allowing them to avoid deportation proceedings that could have resulted in their being barred from ever returning to the United States. The city halted the practice in May after federal authorities pointed out that it was a crime to help illegal immigrants cross the border.

From mid-2006 through April 2008, those flights cost the city nearly $19,000, Newsom said.

When those flights were halted, the Juvenile Probation Department recommended that the city place the illegal immigrant youths in group homes, at a cost to taxpayers of $7,000 per month per youth, rather than turn them over to federal authorities. The city stopped making those referrals after eight illegal immigrant crack dealers walked away from youth centers in San Bernardino County.

No sanctuary for criminals

Newsom had said at a City Hall news conference Tuesday that it was up to juvenile courts, the district attorney, the public defender and his own Juvenile Probation Department to work out whether illegal immigrant criminals under 18 should be turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. He and Siffermann said San Francisco was trying to balance its responsibilities under U.S. law with its 1989 designation as a sanctuary city, which allowed officials to refuse to cooperate with federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants.

But Wednesday, the mayor issued a statement saying the sanctuary-city policy "is designed to protect our residents. It is not a shield for criminal behavior, and I will not allow it to be used in that fashion.

"Adults who commit felonies are already turned over to the federal authorities for deportation," Newsom said. "There has been a lack of clarity, however, on our policy toward juveniles who commit felonies. ... I have directed my administration to work in cooperation with the federal government on all felony cases."

Newsom said in an interview later that the city was working up a protocol to determine how and when youths will be surrendered for possible deportation. Officials with the Juvenile Probation Department will meet with federal authorities today.

U.S. attorney pleased

"I think they have gotten the message," said Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, who had said he was "flabbergasted" by the city's now-discarded policy of flying the youths home at city-taxpayer expense. "It looks like it's what we wanted."

Newsom said he did not learn until May that the city was shielding convicted youths from deportation, putting them in group homes or flying them back to their native countries.

"This was accepted practice for decades, and Siffermann continued it, but now it's stopped," Newsom said.

He said the decision to send the juveniles to the unlocked group home in San Bernardino County "was wrong. It was a mistake, and he Siffermann needs to answer for that. I'm not pleased about any of this."

Siffermann said he had tried to do what was best for the incarcerated youths. "I regret not keeping the mayor's office informed of that alternative placement," he said.

Newsom said, "There's nothing good about all this. I can't beat around the bush. This, in the past, was something dealt with in the juvenile justice system - it just didn't get up the chain. That's my fault. Ultimately, I'm accountable. Ignorance is no defense."

Newsom said he has been "getting the heat, and I get it."

He said he had ordered a review of how much the city had spent on flights, group homes and other shielding efforts during his tenure.

From Jan. 1, 2005, through June 4 of this year, 162 immigrant youths were held a total of 8,164 days at juvenile hall, the mayor said. Some of the youths were arrested more than once. At $285 a day per youth, the cost to taxpayers totaled $2.3 million.

"I'm not in any way defending it," Newsom said. "It's not defensible."

15 flights to Honduras

The mayor said the city had paid for 15 flights to Honduras, at a cost of $18,951, from mid-2006 through April. He said most involved a single offender being accompanied by a city probation officer.

During the same period, the city paid for one flight of juvenile offenders to Mexico City and nine to the U.S. territory of American Samoa, the mayor said. The total cost of all the flights during those months was $38,955, he said.

"The practice of flying anyone with a P.O. probation officer - those flights have ended to anywhere," Newsom said.

Legal path followed by immigrant offenders

. How illegal immigrants are handled in San Francisco's juvenile justice system.
. Police officers who arrest minors deliver them directly to juvenile hall near Twin Peaks, where the youths are screened by counselors.
. Counselors interview and fingerprint the youths; immigrants typically say their only local relatives are aunts and uncles. It is unclear whether an immigration check is done. Counselors can keep a youth in custody until a judge or commissioner hears the case.
. A commissioner considers whether the youth has a responsible legal guardian locally. Youths who do are handed over to relatives; those who do not remain at juvenile hall.
. If a youth is convicted, a juvenile probation officer makes a recommendation to a judge on what action the court should take. Defense attorneys and prosecutors also make recommendations.
. Until May, the courts approved recommendations from juvenile probation officers that immigrant youths - most of whom have been Hondurans - be sent back to their native country, without being turned over to federal immigration authorities.
. Juvenile probation officers halted the flight recommendations in May. The officers briefly recommended that immigrant youths be sent to group homes, but stopped after eight offenders walked away from a center in San Bernardino County.

Legal path followed by immigrant offenders

162 arrests - Number of immigrants locked up at San Francisco juvenile hall since 2005.

8,164 days - Total time spent by immigrant inmates in juvenile hall since 2005.

$285 per day - Cost of incarcerating a youth at San Francisco's juvenile hall.

$2.3 million - Total cost to S.F. taxpayers of incarcerating immigrant youths since 2005.

8 inmates - Illegal immigrant crack dealers who were sent to unlocked group homes.

$7,000 a month - Cost to S.F. taxpayers of housing one immigrant youth at a group home.

15 Trips - Flights taking Honduran juvenile offenders to native country since mid-2006.

$18,951 spent - Cost to S.F. taxpayers of returning juvenile Honduran drug dealers to their homeland.

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Slaying suspect once found S.F. sanctuary;
Years before he was accused of killing a man and his two sons, Edwin Ramos was a teen criminal shielded by city from deportation
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, July 20, 2008

The man charged with killing a father and two sons on a San Francisco street last month was one of the youths who benefited from the city's long-standing practice of shielding illegal immigrant juveniles who committed felonies from possible deportation, The Chronicle has learned.

Edwin Ramos, now 21, is being held on three counts of murder in the June 22 deaths of Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16. They were shot near their home in the Excelsior district when Tony Bologna, driving home from a family picnic, briefly blocked the gunman's car from completing a left turn down a narrow street, police say.

Ramos, a native of El Salvador whom prosecutors say is a member of a violent street gang, was found guilty of two felonies as a juvenile - a gang-related assault on a Muni passenger and the attempted robbery of a pregnant woman - according to authorities familiar with his background.

In neither instance did officials with the city's Juvenile Probation Department alert federal immigration authorities, because it was the city agency's policy not to consider immigration status when deciding how to deal with an offender. Had city officials investigated, they would have found that Ramos lacked legal status to remain in the United States.

Federal authorities, however, also missed an opportunity to take Ramos into custody just this past March - after they had learned of his immigration status and started deportation proceedings, and after Ramos was arrested in San Francisco on a gun charge. For reasons the federal agents cannot explain, they did not put an immigration hold on Ramos.

Raised in El Salvador

Juvenile justice authorities locally had a policy for at least a decade of not turning over illegal immigrant felons to the federal government, interpreting San Francisco's self-proclaimed sanctuary-city status and state law as barring local officials from surrendering them for deportation.

Mayor Gavin Newsom rescinded that policy earlier this month after The Chronicle reported that the city had flown a number of youths out of the country on its own, in possible violation of federal law, and then housed some in unlocked group homes from which they quickly escaped.

Ramos came to the United States at age 13 from El Salvador, where he had been raised by his grandmother.

Authorities familiar with his background said Ramos wanted to be near his mother, who had abandoned him when he was 4 months old; she was living with two of her other children in San Francisco.

According to records, his first contact with San Francisco police came Oct. 22, 2003, when officers were summoned to investigate an attack on a Muni bus at 21st and Mission streets.

Ramos, who had just turned 17, had allegedly flashed gang signs and banged on the bus' windows with two other gang members. The three then yelled, "Who are you with?" at a passenger, who responded that he did not belong to a gang, police said.

At that point, Ramos and the other two boarded the bus and beat and kicked the man, an attack that was recorded by the bus' video camera, authorities said.

Ramos was taken to juvenile hall on charges of assault and participating in a street gang. He was later convicted in juvenile court and was put in a shelter.

At that point, under federal law, Ramos could have been referred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But the Juvenile Probation Department's policy for dealing with offenders stipulated that "probation officers shall not discriminate in any fashion against minors based on their immigration status." If the department made any inquiries into whether Ramos was a legal U.S. resident, it did not pass along its findings to the federal government.

New crime within days

On April 2, 2004, Ramos was released to the custody of his mother, but was still considered a ward of the court and was on probation. Just four days later, records show, he committed another crime at 19th and Mission streets, two blocks from the site of the attack on the Muni passenger.

Records indicate that Ramos and two other men approached a pregnant woman from behind during the middle of the day, and that Ramos tried to yank away her backpack-style purse.

The woman's brother was walking alongside and tried to stop the attack. He pushed Ramos away, he later said, but Ramos punched him and fled.

The man found a police officer and pointed out Ramos nearby. A month later, Ramos was convicted as a juvenile of attempted robbery, a felony, but cleared of assault.

Ramos was sent to Log Cabin Ranch, a city-run camp in the hills of the Peninsula, in June 2004. He was freed in February 2005, this time to live with his mother's sister.

Federal authorities finally learned that Ramos wasn't a legal U.S. resident sometime after he turned 18, when he applied for temporary residency status and was turned down. The records are confidential, so the exact date of Ramos' application is unclear, but ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that once he was turned down, he would have been considered deportable.

By that time, however, Ramos had married a woman who is a U.S. citizen and applied again to immigration officials to stay in the United States, this time as a permanent resident. That request was pending at the time Tony Bologna and his sons were shot to death.

Another break

In March, three months before the killings, Ramos was arrested in San Francisco after police pulled him over because his car had illegally tinted windows and no front license plate. An alleged gang member in the car tried to discard a gun, but police recovered it and later concluded that it had been used in a double killing, authorities said.

The police report of the incident cited "numerous documented contacts" that officers had with Ramos and the man who allegedly discarded the gun, and said both were active members of the Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 street gang.

San Francisco prosecutors, however, declined to file charges against Ramos, saying they couldn't prove that he knew his companion had the gun.

When Ramos was arrested, sheriff's deputies checked his immigration status on a national database and learned that he was considered deportable, immigration and sheriff's officials say. Eileen Hirst, chief of staff for Sheriff Michael Hennessey, said deputies had asked whether federal officials wanted to place a hold on Ramos so he could be taken into immigration custody.

"In our communication with ICE, they specifically told us they were not placing a detainer on him," Hirst said. "We cannot hold people in custody without a documented reason to hold them."

Kice acknowledged that federal authorities had not asked for Ramos to be held. She said she did not know why.

City now referring offenders

Since Newsom announced the city's policy shift, San Francisco has referred at least 10 juvenile offenders to ICE for possible deportation proceedings.

In an interview Friday, Newsom declined to comment on Ramos' history in San Francisco's juvenile justice system, saying it would be wildly inappropriate to do so given the confidentiality of juvenile criminal records.

Newsom's juvenile probation director, William Siffermann, inherited his agency's policy of not turning over illegal immigrant juveniles for deportation when he took the job in early 2005. All of Ramos' contacts with the city's juvenile justice system took place before Siffermann came on board.

Siffermann said in an interview, "I am not going to confirm any of his prior dealings with our department. I can't comment on what the implications were for our department when that decision was made. That is part of what we're reviewing."

Ramos' lawyer in the triple-murder case, Robert Amparan, did not address the issue of Ramos' immigration status, saying only that there were several people who would vouch for his client's character and good work in the community.

"I've gotten several calls from community workers, educators and city service providers who know and work with Edwin," Amparan said. "They all expressed support and say they had never known him to be involved in anything like the allegations against him."

What might not have been

Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, said he welcomed the city's re-examination of its policies related to how it handles illegal immigrant youths who commit felonies.

"A formula has to be found that accommodates the public's right to be safe and the juvenile's need to be protected, in many cases, from themselves," Russoniello said. "It is something that cries out for more attention than we're giving it."

As for the killings of the Bolognas, Russoniello said, "Is this something that could have been prevented? I don't know."

Danielle Bologna, however, said that if the government had done its job, the killings of her husband and two sons "would never have happened."

"It was senseless," she said. "And to think they didn't deport him back, knowing that he did not have papers and he was here illegally, it is a big issue.

"They need to take responsibility, the city," Bologna said. "They didn't do anything. ... He should have been deported. This is huge. I'm extremely angry about this."

"They need to take responsibility, the city. They didn't do anything. ... He should have been deported. This is huge. I'm extremely angry about this."

Danielle Bologna widow and mother of slaying victims

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Protected immigrant charged in stabbing;
UPDATE: Sanctuary City;
S.F. twice shielded him from deportation as young offender
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, August 21, 2008

An immigrant suspected of being in the United States illegally - freed after being shielded from possible deportation by San Francisco officials despite committing two gang-related assaults as a juvenile - faces charges that he tried to stab a man to death last year in San Mateo County, authorities say.

The case of Eric Antonio Uc-Cahun, now 19, a native of Mexico, is the second in which a youthful offender protected from deportation in San Francisco has later been arrested for a violent crime as an adult.

The San Mateo County stabbing was especially vicious, authorities said - a top prosecutor said the victim had been "gutted, like you gut a pig."

Uc-Cahun's history of youth offenses in the city was similar to that of Edwin Ramos, a 21-year-old Salvadoran native facing triple-murder charges in connection with the slayings in June of a San Francisco man and two of his sons on an Excelsior district street.

"How many of these people are there who were the beneficiaries of this process?" asked Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, who has been critical of the city's practice of shielding immigrants from deportation.

"This is what happens when the best intentions are misapplied," Russoniello said. "If there was any justification for this program, cases like this certainly undermine that expectation."

Both Uc-Cahun and Ramos were in San Francisco's juvenile justice system at least twice during Mayor Gavin Newsom's time in office, Ramos for an assault and an attempted robbery he committed when he was 17, Uc-Cahun in connection with assaults and other crimes for which he was arrested in 2006.

Juvenile justice officials protected both Ramos and Uc-Cahun from federal authorities under their interpretation of San Francisco's sanctuary law, which bars the city from cooperating in U.S. efforts to hunt down illegal immigrants.

However, City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office concluded last month that nothing in the law prevented San Francisco from turning over suspected youth felons to federal immigration authorities. Newsom has since ordered juvenile justice officials to provide information on felons suspected of being illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Since the policy change, more than 50 juvenile offenders have been referred to federal immigration officials, according to juvenile probation authorities.

No more, spokesman hopes

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the mayor, said Wednesday that he could not comment about any juvenile records. However, he said, "because of the mayor's change of policy, we are optimistic that tragedies like this one can be avoided in future."

Uc-Cahun's attorney in his adult case, Chris Morales, said his client left his parents in Mexico and came to the United States to live with siblings about four years ago.

Morales would not comment on whether Uc-Cahun was in this country legally, but federal authorities have placed an immigration hold on him since his arrest in the San Mateo County case, indicating that they believe he is not a legal resident.

Uc-Cahun's criminal history as a juvenile dates at least from Aug. 13, 2006, when San Francisco police reports show that he was arrested along with two other suspected gang members in the assault on a man at Dolores Park. The victim was hit in the head and threatened with a gun after the group demanded to know whether he was a gang member, according to the reports.

Uc-Cahun did not cooperate with police, refusing even to say where he lived, authorities said. The police report on the attack says Uc-Cahun was a Sureño gang member known as "Tweety" who had "numerous prior contacts" with law enforcement.

Uc-Cahun, then 17, was taken to juvenile hall and eventually was found to have committed felony assault. A San Francisco Juvenile Court placed him on probation and freed him from juvenile hall.

On Oct. 18, 2006, shortly after his release, Uc-Cahun was arrested again, this time for allegedly being part of a group that accosted a stranger on the street and ripped a chain from his neck.

He spent four months in juvenile hall before being found responsible for a single charge of felony assault. He turned 18 by the time he was freed in February 2007 and put on a year's probation.

Arrest as an adult

Uc-Cahun was still on probation May 22, 2007, when he and several other suspected gang members allegedly jumped a man waiting for a ride on the 2700 block of Bayshore Boulevard in Daly City, said Steve Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County.

Three men approached, accused the man of being a rival gang member and started beating him with a broomstick that eventually broke, Wagstaffe said. Other members of the group stripped the man of his jacket, and Uc-Cahun allegedly used a box cutter with a 2-inch blade to slash his abdomen open in two places.

"He basically gutted him, like you gut a pig to get to the meat," Wagstaffe said. The man survived and later identified Uc-Cahun as the man with the box cutter.

Uc-Cahun was arrested in September 2007 and has been held without bail since. In March, following a preliminary hearing, a judge ordered Uc-Cahun to stand trial.

The victim, whom The Chronicle is not identifying at the request of prosecutors, testified at a preliminary hearing that, "I pulled up my shirt and I seen my guts were hanging out of my stomach.

"My friends wanted to get them back," he said, but "all I did was lay down, and say 'Man, take me to the hospital.' "

Suspicious letter

A month later, a still-jailed Uc-Cahun allegedly wrote a letter to a friend that provided the name and address of the victim and suggesting that the friend "take care of things," Wagstaffe said. San Francisco police executing a search warrant in May at a house suspected of being used by gang members found the letter, he said.

Uc-Cahun was charged with witness intimidation along with attempted murder, robbery and other gang-related counts.

Morales said other lawyers represented Uc-Cahun when he was a juvenile. As an adult, he said, his client appeared to be a successful participant in a San Mateo County jail education program. Authorities put him in isolation after the letter was discovered, the attorney said.

"He had redeeming qualities," Morales said. "He was doing well in custody. Now it looks like he did a stupid thing in allegedly writing the letter out of desperation."

Russoniello said the arrests of Uc-Cahun and Ramos raise the question of whether other juvenile offenders who were kept from deportation in San Francisco went on to become criminal suspects as adults.

"These attacks demonstrate that these people are acting with impunity because they have little to fear," Russoniello said.

Ballard said officials are conducting a "top to bottom" review of practices under the sanctuary city ordinance to make sure San Francisco is complying with federal and state laws related to immigrant felony offenders.

"These are complex questions," Ballard said. "It's not just one ordinance, it's many, many years, going back to 1985, of policies made in many ways. There's a lot of excavation to be done."

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Family of 3 victims blames S.F. policy;
UPDATE: Sanctuary City;
Claim filed with city: Immigrant suspect had a violent history
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, August 23, 2008

San Francisco's immigrant sanctuary policies played a "substantial" role in the slayings of a father and two of his sons by allowing city officials to shield the alleged killer from deportation, despite his violent history, according to a legal claim filed Friday on behalf of the victims' family.

The claim is likely to be followed by a wrongful death lawsuit in which the family of Tony Bologna and his sons could seek millions of dollars from the city.

Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, were shot to death on a street in the Excelsior district June 22. Edwin Ramos, 21, of El Sobrante, who authorities say is a member of a street gang, has been charged with three counts of murder.

Tony Bologna's wife, Danielle, and other relatives denounced the city's sanctuary practices after The Chronicle reported that Ramos, a Salvadoran native suspected of being in this country illegally, had committed felony attempted robbery and assault as a juvenile.

The Chronicle reported that officials with the Juvenile Probation Department, relying on their interpretation of San Francisco's sanctuary city ordinance, had not referred Ramos to federal immigration authorities for possible deportation. The ordinance bars city officials from cooperating with federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants.

After other Chronicle stories on the city's practices appeared, however, City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office reiterated a 1994 legal opinion that nothing in the law prevented the city from handing over juveniles to federal immigration authorities, if the minors have committed felonies.

The city attorney has 45 days to respond to the Bologna family's claim. The city typically rejects such claims, after which plaintiffs are free to file suit.

A spokesman for Herrera declined to comment on the matter Friday, saying attorneys had not yet reviewed the claim.

In response to the claim, Mayor Gavin Newsom released a statement saying, "I am deeply saddened by the Bologna family's terrible loss. My heart goes out to the family during this difficult time."

Nathan Ballard, the mayor's communications director, said it would be inappropriate for Newsom to comment on the specifics of the legal claim.

The claim does not make a specific request for damages.

Lawyers for Bologna's wife and his two surviving children assert in the claim that the city's sanctuary policy was illegal, reckless and a "substantial factor" in the slayings.

The claim says the city knew that Ramos was an illegal immigrant and was part of a gang, the Mara Salvatrucha MS-13, that attacked Latinos and African American men who were not members of the gang.

Police have theorized that Ramos shot the Bolognas because he mistook them for rival gang members. The father and his sons were shot in their car as they returned home from a Sunday afternoon family barbecue.

Ramos' attorney, Robert Amparan, has denied his client was a gang member or an illegal immigrant. Ramos has pleaded not guilty to the murder counts.

The Bolognas' claim asserts that the city knew that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were targeting illegal immigrant gang members for removal from the United States and would have sought to deport Ramos immediately had they known of his juvenile record.

"It was highly foreseeable that Ramos, upon his return to the streets of San Francisco, would murder men who appeared to be Latinos or African Americans," the claim says.

The claim places blame on the city's Juvenile Probation Department for adopting "official and unofficial policies" that amounted to unlawfully harboring illegal immigrants who committed violent crimes.

The claim says the city's sanctuary policies and practices violated federal laws that grant "unfettered discretion" to local authorities to report to immigration officials any "dangerous person" not in this country legally.

"There are clearly many, many restrictions on when and whether San Francisco police officers can communicate with the federal government on an individual's immigration status - and those restrictions played a role, in a significant way, to horrible events that unfolded on June 22," said one of the family's lawyers, Kris Kobach, a one-time counsel to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"It was just a horrific tragedy because it was preventable," Kobach said. "If the city had followed the law, Anthony, Matthew and Michael Bologna would most certainly be alive today."

The claim cites a 2006 bulletin to police officers signed by Chief Heather Fong limiting how and when officers could communicate with immigration authorities.

It also cites a directive issued by Newsom in March 2007, which prohibited "dissemination" of immigration information by police or other city departments to the federal government unless the agencies were required to do so by U.S. law.

The claim says the city created an environment that was hostile to anyone who would report offenders for deportation.

"All of these official enactments, orders, mandates and endorsements of ... sanctuary policies were reinforced by an unwritten but enforced policy that discouraged police officers from reporting any illegal alien," the claim says.

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Adult offenders shielded by S.F.;
Sanctuary city: San Francisco juvenile justice officials reported 58 illegal immigrants to federal authorities since the city stopped protecting youths from deportation. It turns out 17 of them weren't minors.
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nearly 30 percent of the felony offenders San Francisco juvenile justice officials have reported to federal immigration authorities since the city stopped shielding youths from deportation have turned out to be adults, authorities say.

The city's Juvenile Probation Department has referred 58 offenders to federal authorities since Mayor Gavin Newsom announced July 2 that the city no longer would protect youths from deportation under San Francisco's sanctuary law. The mayor took the step after The Chronicle revealed that the city was paying for flights home and $7,000-a-month group homes for underage, undocumented offenders, who as adults could face prison and automatic deportation.

Of those 58 offenders, authorities have concluded that 17 - or 29.3 percent - were adults, based on immigration records and the statements of offenders themselves, federal immigration officials say. Most of the 58 were being held on drug-dealing charges.

"It confirms our early suspicion that adults were taking advantage of the sanctuary policy in order to evade detection, responsibility and prosecution for criminal behavior," said Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California.

Russoniello said adult illegal immigrants convicted of felonies face almost certain deportation, but San Francisco's previous policy of not reporting juveniles who had committed similar offenses to federal officials encouraged offenders to "game the system" and say they were underage.

Advocates denounce change

Advocates for the immigrant youths say that just because some offenders turn out to be adults does not mean the city should report all juvenile immigrant offenders to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"We believe all youth in the juvenile justice system in San Francisco should be treated the same," said Renee Salcedo of La Raza Centro Legal, a Mission District law center for the immigrant community.

"Adults are legally required to be turned over to immigration, and that happens," Salcedo said. "But for fear of the system being abused, we are now going to treat minors the same way as adults. We don't buy it; we don't believe that immigrant youths should be treated any differently than other youth. We believe what the mayor is doing, his change in policy, is wrong. We see him caving in to anti-immigrant interests."

Salcedo added that "the benefits of the sanctuary policy for juveniles far outweigh the potential for abuse. ... San Francisco values people being able to live peacefully, regardless of whether they are immigrants."

Federal immigration officials say most of the offenders they have determined to be adults either admitted they were over 18 or had previously been caught crossing the border and the birth dates they provided then confirmed they are adults now.

Feds want access to jail

"There are people who are going to take advantage of the system," said Tim Aitken, field office director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention operations in San Francisco. "The key point is, we need to be able to do our job."

He said federal officials should be allowed access to juvenile hall and adult jail so they can check inmates' immigration status more easily.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey, however, has balked at providing more access in the adult jail. He said that no law requires his agency to allow federal officials to screen inmates, and that the city's sanctuary ordinance requires San Francisco officials to have a legal basis for helping the federal government track down illegal immigrants.

The national head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Myers, asked Newsom to intervene in the dispute in a July 23 letter. "Absent access to this kind of information, ICE is unable to effectively identify criminal aliens in sheriff's custody and lodge the detainers necessary to prevent the release of these criminal aliens back into the San Francisco community," she wrote.

The mayor's office has yet to reply. Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Newsom, said the city is drafting a response.

Federal officials still happy

For all the back-and-forth over the issue, Aitken said, the city officials' revised policy of referring juvenile offenders is still an improvement over their former refusal to do so.

In July, City Attorney Dennis Herrera reiterated a 1994 opinion that nothing in the sanctuary city law provided protection for juveniles who commit felonies.

Among the 17 offenders found to be adults was Javier Martinez, who claimed to be 16 when he was arrested for drug dealing. Martinez was one of eight Hondurans the Juvenile Probation Department put in unlocked group homes in San Bernardino County who fled in June. When he was caught last month, he told juvenile authorities that he was really 25 and his true name was Jose Mendoza Cerrato.

He is now in adult jail after pleading guilty to a drug charge and is expected to be transferred to federal authorities when he is sentenced Friday.

Juvenile probation officials have said they are often forced to trust offenders when they say they are underage. They say that while courts can order dental examinations in an attempt to determine an offender's age, the findings are inexact.

Juvenile Hall less crowded

Probation officials feared that the Juvenile Hall population would spike after Newsom changed the city's policy and barred offenders from being put in group homes. In fact, the opposite has happened. The average population at Juvenile Hall this month has been 114, a 13.6 percent drop from the 132 in May.

William Siffermann, the head of the Juvenile Probation Department, said that such fluctuations are not unusual and that "this slight reduction cannot be attributed solely or directly" to the decision to turn over immigrant offenders for deportation.

The Juvenile Hall population had been steadily increasing since 2004, the year Newsom took office. That was also the year Juvenile Probation Department officials expressly prohibited staffers from reporting illegal immigrants to federal officials, a ban that the agency had observed for more than a decade.

Advocates for immigrant youths criticized Newsom and Siffermann last year when the Juvenile Hall population hit a 30-year high of 156. Authorities quickly acted to move offenders out of the lockup, including a youth held in a weapons case who was subsequently accused of murder.

Caring for immigrant youths takes up a disproportionate share of Juvenile Probation Department resources, because often they have no local relatives to whom they can be released. Housing youth offenders costs the city an average of $285 a day.

"It confirms our early suspicion that adults were taking advantage of the sanctuary policy in order to evade detection, responsibility and prosecution for criminal behavior."

Joseph Russoniello, U.S. attorney for Northern California.