Transcript: 2009 Katz Award Ceremony

Related Publications: Award Booklet, Video

FRIDAY, JUNE 5, 2009
Transcript by
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Okay, folks. If you could take your seats, please, and feel free to keep eating. But we’ll get the program started. I want to respect people’s time. Some people may have to run. Feel free to get up and get more food. We’ve paid for all of it, so eat as much of it as you can. That’s always my theory, anyway. And Steve, my research director, operates on the same theory as well. (Chuckles.)

STEVE CAMAROTA: (Inaudible) – brownies and cookies.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thanks for coming out to our annual journalism award luncheon. The Eugene Katz award for excellence in the coverage of immigration is named after Eugene Katz, who was a former board member of the Center for Immigration Studies. He retired from our board after his 90th birthday in ’97 and passed away a few years later. We named it after him both because of his service to the Center, but also because he had worked his whole career in media, on both sides of the media business.

He started out as a reporter, actually, at the Daily Oklahoman in the ’20s and after that moved over to work for the family business, which is now called, I believe, Katz Media Group or Katz Communications. It’s a huge company, no longer owned by the family, but his grandfather had started it in 1888 and was involved in selling radio ad time, that sort of thing, and spent his whole career there. So we thought it was especially appropriate to name a media award after Gene.

We present this award not to promote any particular point of view, our own point of view or anybody else’s but really to recognize outstanding journalism on immigration topics and hopefully to foster more informed decision-making on an important issue like this. And unfortunately, much of the coverage of immigration, as many of you may be aware, is – ends up either being a horse-race about what congressman is pushing what bill or state legislator or human interest sob stories often ginned up by advocacy groups and successfully placed with sympathetic reporters. And there’s a place for that kind of thing. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. There’s often a paucity of straight news, actually reporting facts that might be considered uncomfortable.

And I’ll talk a little bit more about our recipient this year. Jaxon Van Derbeken is his name. He’s the cops and crime reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. But first our keynote speaker will also talk about him and introduce Jaxon a little bit to you. That’s Debra Saunders. She’s a columnist at The San Francisco Chronicle. And a kind of – I don’t know, what’s the word? – she’s, I guess, the token, she’s a token conservative at The San Francisco Chronicle.

And I realize, I didn’t know this, she got her Bachelor’s degree at U-Mass Boston, so – (chuckles) – talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire, from Boston to San Francisco. But I’ve always admired her writing and she does address and come back to the immigration issue with some frequency and I’ve always admired the soberness and incisiveness of her writing on the issue. So I’m going to have Debra come up, give us some thoughts about the issue in general, and also about Jaxon’s writing, and then we’ll get to Jaxon. So, Debra?

DEBRA SAUNDERS: Greetings from the sanctuary city of San Francisco. I very much appreciate being invited here because Washington, of course, is home of all the big-time journalists and here I am, a provincial from San Francisco who gets to come before you to the capital of journalism where we sort of see aggressive, confrontational journalism, people speaking truth to power – (laughter) – at least until January 20.

So and I was thinking about this award, I thought – you know, I work in the business and The San Francisco Chronicle is still in business, there are different kinds – thank you – there are – a lot of people who think of it as being like Watergate and it’s very confrontational and aggressive, but in fact there are certain beats that have tended to be pretty boosterish, where the reporters seem to – they’re not anti-establishment. They’re part of the establishment. Education would be an example where a few years ago I started writing about math and reading curricula, a whole language where instead of kids learning how to decode words, they would be told to sort of absorb their meaning. New, new math where kids didn’t have to learn multiplication tables, the model being there is no right answer.

And I remember going back at time and thinking, well, what did people write about these math-light texts when they first came out? And, of course, the education reporters would show up at a school where the curriculum committee had chosen these curricula and you’d see these stories about, there’s this great new math program, and then the teacher and the kids love it. And then a couple years later, parents start hiring tutors because their kids can’t get into algebra. And the education beat reporters were the last to know. They were so into this thing.

I mean, you’ll see it in other ways, too, like when we talk about school funding, we often don’t talk about how much we actually spend or we leave out the federal amount or the local amount so that it seems less. And I, by the way, I have to – I got caught up in this, too, because there was a time when some educators came to me and they showed me this thing they called it the class test and it was supposed to be a real higher-level way of teaching. I love you.

MS. : I’m from California.

MS. SAUNDERS: Okay. (Chuckles.) She knows this. I can see this. So they showed us this thing and they said, we’re really trying to get to show that kids can know how to think. And I wrote this thing, oh, this is a great test. So I’m guilty. And then one day, this teacher sends me something that shows me how they taught educators how to grade the tests.

And they asked a simple math test, there’s a fire, 3,000 trees are destroyed, each kid gets two trees every day, one day one kid plants two trees, the next day, two, four trees, next day, four, eight trees, how long does it take for the forest to be fixed? And by the way, of course, students have to plant the trees, not the park service, and it’s all about – there’s this whole environmental thing in the question and the answer is 10-and-a-half days. But this little girl, and you can tell she’s a girl, said 450 days and she got a higher answer, higher test score, than the kid who said 10-and-a-half because he didn’t have a little essay with a happy face. Remember, she said, only 450 days.

Another area of real booster reporting is the environment. If you look at medical issues, caffeine, wine. One day you read a story about they’re good for you. The next you read a story about how they’re not. Global warming, unh-unh. I mean, every – the only stories that papers tend to print on global warming tell – it’s the end is near, or it doesn’t make the paper. And I’ll just give one other example. When you read stories that talk about the late Michael Crichton, they don’t mention he’s a doctor. He’s a novelist. Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner, right? (Laughter.)

So and then there’s immigration. Now, for a lot of people who cover the immigration beat, the story is, well, Nancy Pelosi’s view, I think, would sort of pass for their view. And that is that everybody who is an immigrant is good – and I think most people are, by the way – but enforcement of the laws are bad, and they’re always bad. Even – and this is sort of amazing because these laws, I believe, were passed – now, I’m just from San Francisco, folks, but they were passed by Congress. But we often seem to treat them as if they came from outer space.

And so the stories that Jaxon Van Derbeken has written about – and I’m sure you’re aware of them, it has to do with how the sanctuary city policy in San Francisco was gamed by MS-5 – MS-13 was gamed – I’m thinking of MI-5 – how the sanctuary policies in San Francisco were gamed by a drug cartel and it was not – it sort of made San Francisco not a sanctuary for law-abiding people. This is a story that no immigration reporter would ever uncover. It took a crime reporter like Jaxon to see what was going on.

And basically that MS-13, somebody there had figured out, hey, they’ve got this stupid sanctuary city policy, so if you’re caught selling crack in the Tenderloin, just say you’re a – you know, give them a phony name, say you’re 16, you can have a beard – (chuckles) – you can have a full beard, and there’s nothing they can do. That’s exactly what happened. And, by the way, and what did San Francisco do? Well, they didn’t hand you over to the federal immigration officials because, of course, they’re evil. No, they flew you back to Honduras or El Salvador or wherever, do not stop – sort of do not go to jail, go directly to go. (Laughter.)

And after that policy was discredited, they started sending people to halfway houses with no security so that the drug dealers could just show up for a couple days and skip town and get back to San Francisco. This policy was not good for Tony Bologna, who was shot, he’s age 48, with his two sons, Michael and Matthew, age 16. The man who’s been arrested has not been tried, was someone who had been arrested by San Francisco authorities for assault for a man on a bus in 2003, for assaulting a pregnant woman in 2004, and he was free last year. And he’s now being charged with these murders.

A little boy named Ivan Miranda was knifed, nearly beheaded, killed by another person with a beneficiary. Well, the person who was charged in this case was a beneficiary of the sanctuary city program. And I can only say that San Francisco has now changed the policy and they are now cooperating with ICE officials when they catch people doing it. And since Jaxon’s stories started running, they figured out that 30 percent of the people who had said that they were minors were adults.

I’ve worked for two newspapers: The San Francisco Chronicle and The Los Angeles Daily News. And Jaxon Van Derbeken has worked for both of them. And he’s always just been one of those great reporters who will go after a story no matter what. He’s a relentless reporter and he, I think, should be the ideal of what reporters do and that’s why I’m so thrilled that he is getting this award today. Thanks, Mark Krikorian, for asking me to come here.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Debra. Thank you. That’s a better intro for Jaxon than I could have done. Jaxon, if you could come up. We’re – this is the 2009 Eugene Katz Award for excellence in the coverage of immigration. I’ll hold it up for all the people to see. In fact, engraved on it is what I just said, the 2009 Eugene Katz Award for excellence in the coverage of immigration. There you go. There’s a check that comes with that, too.


MR. KRIKORIAN: There you go.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. When I started to do these stories, San Francisco was a different kind of place. (Laughter.) And it turns out it had its own foreign policy, as many of you know. And part of its foreign policy that it wasn’t part of the United States of America, in that, if a kid was caught committing an offense, or allegedly committing an offense, they would decide that they weren’t – even though they knew he wasn’t here illegally, when he was here illegally or wasn’t here illegally, it was amazing that they filled out the form and they – a lot of these kids were from Honduras, for some strange reason, I mean, why they wound up there, apparently somebody got the word that it was okay to come here and nothing was going to happen.

So when they filled out their form, they always said, 14 Unknown Street, Honduras. (Laughter.) And – or else they gave an address in Oakland, which turned out to be a house where a lot of them all lived and they all claimed to have relatives. Sometimes they were the same people. And, as a matter of fact, one guy – see, one of the things is the probation officers who are supposed to be the people who are trying to rehabilitate these folks, they would call.

And in one case, one uncle answered and he said, hi, oh yeah, I remember him, yeah, yeah, I’m his uncle – (laughter) – but I don’t know anything about him. And then they called back an hour or two hours later and they got another guy who said, yeah, yeah, I’m his uncle, too. And it’s – so what happened was – why this story ended up happening is that a lot of people became frustrated over a lot of years. And it turned out that they had – this policy dates back to the 1990s and no one was going to – it’s San Francisco, it’s not like something you want to raise attention to that they had basically made this sort of an agreement amongst themselves that they weren’t going to report youths caught committing offenses to the ICE folks, or before it was the INS.

And so one of the things that happened after the story started running is that they said, hey, wait a minute, we had this agreement, we really did. We talked to these guys back in 1996 and they basically agreed that this was okay, that we don’t have to turn these folks over to ICE. We can just basically treat them as if they’re U.S. citizens and if they commit offenses, they’ll be entitled to the same treatment as the folks that are here legally.

The trouble was with that whole premise is that the people that came here from Honduras – they had no relatives here. They had no one. They were basically brought here, as they called, unaccompanied minors. And there was no one minding the store. If they were youths, there was no one supervising them. They had no one to turn them over to, so they had to keep them locked up because they had no place to – they knew that the putative relatives weren’t their relatives. So they kept them in juvenile hall and they just – they were there day after day, waiting for something to happen, and finally they would plead guilty or the equivalent thereof in the juvenile system. And then they had to figure out, well, what do we do with them? That’s when they hit upon the idea of flying them back to their native country.

Now, it wasn’t a matter of deporting them, because they didn’t want to report them to ICE. So they had to use probation officers as basically escorts. So they put them on planes and they would go as far as Texas or Florida and then they would go back to Honduras or the original country that they were from. Then they’d come right back. Or if they didn’t come back, there was no supervision of them. So no one knows what ended up happening.

But when they did come back, it became this horrible frustration for folks. So one of the reasons that generated this story was that people just didn’t – they just didn’t understand how this could keep going and how this system could keep going on for so long. And there were people that were trying to call attention to it and they would go to the judges or the commissioners in the youth system and they’d say, how can you do this, this is illegal, we have to report these folks to ICE. And they’d say, you do that, you’ll be in big trouble. And they didn’t.

And – but they were so frustrated by it, they ended up coming to me. (Laughter.) So that tells you how truly frustrated these folks are. It took more than a decade involving I don’t know how – one kid, as the story goes, one probation officer turned him over and they found out about it. So not only did they get the probation officer in trouble, they spent tens of thousands of dollars to get the kid back. (Laughter.)

Nobody knows how much because none of this information is public. I don’t know who this kid is to this day, but I have been told that they spent a lot – that guy got into a lot of trouble, he ended up quitting, and they ended up spending god knows – a lot of lawyers’ fees, paying to get the kid back from which country, I don’t remember if it was Honduras or El Salvador. But anyway, they finally got him back.

But that was part of the lore of this thing, because it’s not exactly they keep records. And the other thing is that because these things are mostly juvenile offenders in the system, we could never – we couldn’t go to court, we didn’t have – I had to rely on people who were prepared to break the law, although sending them back without reporting to ICE theoretically was also breaking the law. But anyway, the people would be able to give me their records so we could see how many times that Mr. Ramos, who was – is now charged with killing three family members of the Bologna family, he had benefited not once, but twice. And as a matter of fact, I subsequently heard that he was youth of the year, as part of one of the programs – (laughter) – that were designed to assist.

And there was a whole like entire network of people that were relying on this – not deporting these kids because they had to be housed, they had no supervision, no adult supervision, so they created this whole thing where they learned – they got cultural training. I’m not quite sure what that was. But they, you know, they – housing, medical care. Probation officers had to take them to medical appointments. I mean – and so you had a whole – on the other hand – I could talk about this for longer than I should – on the other hand, you had this entire group of folks who came storming to my newspaper who traditionally held sway when it came to issues like this involving journals.

See, I’m not part of that. I cover crime, see, I’ve got nothing to do with that. They don’t know me. They’re mad at me. They don’t know who to talk to. They’re – all their friends, you know, they pick up the phone and they go, hey, why are you guys writing all these stories, can’t you stop this? I mean, I’m serious, we want to meet with you, we really do. And I said, well, you can meet with me, but I understand your point of view that a lot of these kids are exploited, they’re brought here by drug cartels who take advantage of the fact that San Francisco is a sanctuary for Honduran drug dealers. It’s okay.

I mean, I understand that these kids are exploited. And as one activist said in a meeting, these kids just want to make money – (laughter) – and this is the best way. And I was like, okay, I can’t do that if I’m an American citizen, come into court and say, I robbed a bank because I just wanted to make money. (Laughter.) I’m just floored. But you know, everybody sits there and they go, yeah, yeah. And I’m like, this is not the world that I’m used to. I’m just – I cover crime in courts.

And unfortunately there is one negative element to this in the sense that they – these folks have a point that under the federal immigration rules, it doesn’t matter whether a junior committed the offense or not, he’s back, he’s gone. So if for some reason somebody gets caught wrongly accused of a crime, and that does happen, they get deported anyway. And so – but that – the vast majority, I would say, admit the offense very quickly because they get freed. They were freed when they committed the offense. If they just said, yeah, I did it, they would go back to their little half – you know, this little house they had this phony house in Oakland where they could live and make a lot of money.

And it was – and when – so when they sent them down, they sent them all the way down to San Bernardino County, all the way down to the bottom of the state almost, a long way from San Francisco, almost 500 miles, I think. In any event, they’d come right back. They’d be back in a week because there’s no way to make money in San Bernardino. They can make a lot of money in San Francisco. Anyway, so that’s what this story was.

And what I think the interesting thing was is that in a sense I agree with Debra Saunders because I don’t think that immigration reporters are going to cover this story. It just wasn’t something that they – because they have to presuppose that people here are here because they’re exploited and they’re here to seek a better life. And that’s – I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, people come here for all sorts of reasons. But my view, as a crime reporter, my bias is that typically if you’re responsible for a crime, the idea of the system is that you should be held responsible for it. In any event – (applause) – there you go.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Do you want to take some questions, in case people have them.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Sure, sure.

MR. KRIKORIAN: If anybody has any questions, Jaxon can take some.

Q: I’m curious what, if any, response you’ve gotten from colleagues who are immigration reporters or who focus on that.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, I could say one thing, that during the pendency of the story, when it first broke, they assigned the immigration reporter to do something about the story. And she did do a story about it. What essentially it was is that the sanctuary city was a good idea. And the sanctuary city may be a good idea. I mean, I don’t think there’s any evidence one way or the other. The idea of a sanctuary city is to encourage people to come forward if crime is committed, that if you’re not here legally, you can talk and not be held – they’re not going to throw you to the man.

Okay, so that’s fine, but when it comes to criminals, I think that even the city it was on the books that if you were an adult and you committed an offense, or were you simply arrested for an offense, you would be deported. Juveniles had a separate thing. So anyway, long story short, the answer was that I don’t think that the person who normally covered immigration – she was on the side of the folks who wanted to meet with me, couldn’t want to get me to change my mind, still are working to change this policy now that it’s been revised. So –

Q: Restore the policy to the old one?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yeah, to restore the old policy. They want to modify it. They want to make it so that not every kid who commits an offense or who is arrested for an offense is deported and then they would decide who would get it. They wanted – they honestly did. I mean, I looked at this and I go, well, wait a minute, this seems weird. These kids’ records are confidential – I can’t learn them – but they’re going to turn them over to you and you can decide whether they get deported or not.

And, you know, but that’s the way the system works in San Francisco. The groups that are really powerful and entrenched in this particular process, they own this system. It’s a closed loop. They’d call me up and accuse me of committing crimes and they’re threatening me and they’re threatening me because these youth records are confidential and that me printing the stories is the subject of a huge investigation and they’re trying to find out who my sources are and, you know –

Q: So they can send them to jail.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well – (laughter) – it’s a misdemeanor to do this, to give someone’s kid’s record. But I made sure that if we did have a record of a juvenile that was here, I didn’t use their full name, lest they were charged with an offense that ended up making them be charged as an adult. But they were concerned that, you know, that juvenile records are sacrosanct. And whether people are here legally or not, that’s the issue.

Q: But your sources were all illegal immigrant juveniles, so it’s probably okay.


Q: Did any of your – have any of your sources been punished or found out, or are they all –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: So far, so good. Although, ironically, the only – it’s funny because one of the attorneys for one of these kids said there’s a grand jury investigation about how you got this information. Turns out there’s a federal grand jury investigation of San Francisco and whether they violated a federal law. (Laughter.) And she was trying to think that I somehow not know the difference – I couldn’t quite figure that one out.

Q: Have you been accused of being racist or –


Q: – intolerant or anti-immigrant or –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yes, yes, yes. (Laughter.) Hysterical, unfair, biased, awful, evil, anti-Christ, yeah.


Q: I’m sure that you hit the tip of the iceberg for San Francisco in terms of violations for juvenile – I mean, I’m trying to ask the question, do you know any idea of a real scale of how many more of these that happened –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Oh, you’re talking about – oh, I see what you’re saying. Beneficiaries of the policy committing new crimes –

Q: Yes.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: – based on after they’ve been –

Q: Yeah, you just touched on San Francisco. Not only New York and San Francisco, but, you know, we saw instances in Newark where students were killed and so forth and others. But there’s no tally. And I’m wondering any idea of the scale, just how – and just in San Francisco, how extensive – (inaudible, background noise) – is.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, I have to tell you, I think that almost every gang member – every street gang that I know of that involves youth – and they start and then they graduate and most of the time, they get arrested. By the time they get arrested for serious offenses, they may be 15,16, 17, and as it goes on, you know, there are ample opportunities for the system, in this case, to give them a break. And every crime that I came about involving gang members – Latino gang members, serious crime – it just so happened that almost all – someone involved in that crime had been a beneficiary of this policy.

Q: Wow.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: So you could probably argue that it was at least subsidizing street gangs. The idea that in other jurisdictions perhaps – you know, I don’t know, it’s all confidential, but I can tell you in other – the law may be followed in other places. I’m assuming it is. In San Francisco, since it wasn’t, they were essentially creating a no-cost environment for kids to operate criminally.

Q: And just one follow-up: Do you get support from police or law enforcement?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Sure, but they hate me for a whole host of other reasons. (Laughter.) Because that’s my beat and if I gave them a break, like the folks from the immigration advocacy community, you know, they would love me, but I don’t, so they’re out of luck. And but then some of them, you know, secretly – well, see the problem is the police department was specifically told, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, don’t tell on these kids; if you do, you’ll be an agent of law enforcement and ICE and you can’t do that, we’re a sanctuary city. So they were the frustrated thing. This was beyond that.

See, the policy required – the policy, as I understand it, the federal policy – it’s really kind of an odd policy, to be honest. It doesn’t say that authorities have to turn these kids in, but it says that you cannot create an impediment by which the authorities do turn them in. So if you drop a dime on a kid, they can’t hold it against you. And they can’t create a policy that says you can’t do it. San Francisco had that policy.

Q: Is this going to hurt or help Mayor Newsom’s political ambitions?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, I can tell you that Governor Brown’s press aid knows about these stories and he’s his number one opponent. (Laughter.) So in the Democratic side of things – I don’t know about what the Republicans are going to do, but if his Democratic opponent is looking to read up on these stories, I assume that it may have some impact.

Q: Was there much of a debate when the policy was rescinded, at the supervisor level?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: The trouble was is that San Francisco is one thing. It may be its own country, but when it gets caught, it suddenly abides by the law. And so in this case, they knew that they had a problem, that the federal government was going to come down on them like a ton of bricks for having a policy that was obviously blatantly adversarial to their own policies, which is that you, as a government entity, cannot stand in the way of anyone associated with your government or anyone from reporting someone to ICE.

And so they really didn’t have a leg to stand on. Trust me, they’ve been trying to find one. I mean, all the advocacy folks want to change this back. And San Francisco says, well, we’ve got a problem, there’s a federal grand jury going on, they’re hauling people in responsible for this policy, so they can’t turn around and change it again. But if they could, they probably would.

Q: But, I mean, I think even for San Francisco, this was too far – (laughter) – in that a lot of – and while – so when the mayor changed it, yeah, there are a lot of advocates who are angry, but there are plenty of people who are, you know, Obama voters and Gore voters who are appalled that the city had gone – wouldn’t you agree with that?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: I think a comment – we have a comment that’s typical in a lot of the comments, where I’m a Democrat, but even I think it’s bad.


Q: You heard that every day that those stories were running.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Because, I mean, it’s like – it seemed to me such a cut and dry issue and I think that that’s one of the issues for the advocacy community, because they’re having a hard time figuring out why they don’t believe in the United States law. They may want to change it. And I don’t have – I say, fine, go do it. It’s sort of this – this law creates all sorts of problems in law, challenges and such.

Another example, just to tell you the contradictions of San Francisco: There’s another state law that says that if you’re a drug dealer and you’re not here legally and you haven’t been convicted yet, cities and anyone who arrests them in California and San Francisco, you have to report them to the feds. Now, San Francisco stood in court and said, well, wait a minute, you can’t create a state law that interferes with the feds’ activities. (Laughter.) And yet, they were doing exactly the opposite when it came to this thing. They were ignoring federal law. So like I said, whatever works for them, you know. I mean, that’s my view. Go ahead.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the political culture in San Francisco that underlies these attitudes? Where does it come from? Do people gravitate to San Francisco?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yes. I think San Francisco is a place where a lot of people rent. They’re not – the vast majority of folks are renters and they’re young. Most – it also happens that the city is divided in such that all the crime happens here and all the wealthy folks and the people kind of live over here. And there’s this divide. So they don’t really have to pay the consequence of the acts –

Q: What’s the attitude of the wealthy folks who live over here? Do they –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, I’m sure they’re offended, but see, one of the things is that they don’t go to these meetings where all this policy is developed. There’s no – they vote, but like I said, a lot of this – they’re like, I don’t know a hundred boards and commissions. I discovered all sorts of boards and commissions I had no idea. There’s the immigrant rights board, the youth advocacy rights board. There were like 10 or 15 boards that I never even knew existed. I’m just a police reporter, you know.

But they would come and the advocacies – advocate groups would come in and say, this policy, you know, is in violation of these kids’ rights; they just want to make money. (Laughter.) And I’m sitting here going, you know, I mean, if the San Francisco city residents saw this, they’d be a little flabbergasted. I sure was.

Q: Where are the voices of sanity in this?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN : Well, they’re viewed as lunatics. I mean, the people who are offended by this are thought of as being right-wing lunatics, in the context of this sort of closed loop of San Francisco politics.

Q: Do the eight different Asian groups fall in line with the rest of the left-wing groups?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yes, the Asian Law Caucus – Angela Chan was one of the leading advocates for the idea of retaining the other policy.

Q: You have to admit, there’s something in the water out there.



Q: I know that journalism is being de-funded – you know, losing a lot of money – but if there were the budget, would you like to go to Honduras to try and see – follow this thread, see if you can unwind any networks down there? Do you think there are networks?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: I mean, both sides thought we should go to Honduras. Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language there. We had thought about doing it. It’s just a matter of – you know, we presuppose – see, my point of view is this, okay, we could have gone to Honduras, well, we presuppose that these kids are seeking a better life, that they may be exploited, that they may very well come from a war-torn, impoverished country. But living in San Francisco’s poor, impoverished, Bay View, Hunter’s Point area, if that doesn’t give the U.S. citizens a break, why should it give people from Honduras a break?

And so I mean, I just assumed – I don’t know whether there are networks there. I don’t think I could uncover them. The federal authorities believe that these were cartels essentially, that more likely that they were bringing people into Oakland where they were staying en masse and that they were sponsoring them. People would come to court on behalf and say they were relatives to several of the kids. All the same person would.

And they, you know, the people in the D.A.’s office, the prosecution would go, well, wait a minute, she can’t be related to all these guys. And yet she was their legal guardian that they were turning them over to, so that it seemed like the criminal activity, from the cartel perspective, was here in the U.S. I mean, they just had an endless number of people who would like to come here and make a lot of money. I mean, it seemed like there was no end of folks from Honduras who wanted to come to San Francisco to make money.

Q: Do any of the immigration advocacy groups that you talked about pressuring you or pressure the paper, do any of them have influence beyond San Francisco, state-wide, national?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: I don’t think so. They couldn’t even convince Gavin Newsom that, you know, the guy who’s the mayor, to change his mind. And they’ve been trying. They’ve been trying really, really hard. Because they benefited by – oh, and the one more thing, excuse me for boring you guys, but the city was paying for programs to help these kids. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of city money was designated for undocumented, unaccompanied minors and they were giving them all this money. And all these advocacy groups were taking the money to help these kids; you know, they’re these poor victims that just want to make money.

Q: Because most of the kids were undocumented, so they didn’t actually – I’m trying to figure out, they didn’t have birth certificates or they didn’t have any kind of documentation, could some of them already have been adults, 18, 19?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, that’s what happened. It turned out that 30 percent of them were adults. And the way they figured out is that when they started reporting them to ICE, they had prior contact with the system and their previous birth dates that made them juveniles then made them adults now. (Laughter.) They really couldn’t do much about that.

And that was – and a lot of them had been deported legally and had they been committing a new offense here that was serious, they’d be subject to a 10-year penalty. But whether they were adults or juveniles – when they were adults, if you committed an offense here, you get a 10-year prison stint. If it’s a violent crime that the government decides they don’t like you and you’re not here legally, they can throw 10 – they can throw you in the clink for 10 years. And some of these guys are facing 10-year penalties.

Q: What about the ones that you talked about going to San Bernardino? And I was – I originally reported from San Bernardino before coming to D.C. What – did you find anything out about what was happening to these folks when they were in San Bernardino County?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: They just came back to San Francisco.

Q: They just moved up the highway. So they weren’t like –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: They were there for days. They were there for days, sometimes most of them stayed – the most was like three weeks. One person stayed and then when it got wind of the fact that we knew about it, they walked away. So it was kind of funny; they blamed me for having these kids walk away. (Laughter.) My reporting encouraged them to leave. So – but they were in an unlocked facility and there was nothing binding them, so they could leave anyway.

And then they would come back to San Francisco and get rearrested. So then they would – now, they’re subject to be deported. Now some of the people they deported under this policy have started to come back. So I’m not saying deporting is the magic – it’s not the solution to this problem. I mean, you know, it increases the costs for these folks that are doing this, as a criminal cartel, because they’ve got to get them back here.

Q: Well, was it also a way to recruit from Honduras and bring more back? Because I would think if you were sending youths from MS-13 back to Honduras and they were making, you know, a thousand bucks every seven days or something, dealing narcotics –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: They’re sending it back home, yeah.

Q: Yeah, they were sending it back home, so they would bring more with them, maybe.

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yeah. And I think that they had to be able to trust folks. I mean, you know, that’s the thing. One of these cases was solved – one of the murders was solved when one of the kids decided to turn to state’s evidence and he got legal residency as a result, as an agreement. That’s one of the, you know, the government’s enticements to come forward. And he was the one who broke the story about the kid that had got stabbed and nearly beheaded. He agreed to be a cooperator and they tape-recorded their statements in which they said, you know, MS-13 forever, and stuff like that. They were talking and boasting about how they nearly beheaded this poor kid, who was not a legal resident.

So I mean, everybody was a victim of these crimes. They’re immigrants, too, and they’re here trying to make a better life. And so it’s like, well, why do we think that people who commit crimes who are here to come here to get a better life should get a break? I mean, you know, and so now that family, they can’t sue, because if they did, they’d be afraid. Whereas the Bologna family, they were here legally, and as a result, they’re suing.

And they’ve got the city on the hook. I don’t know how many millions of dollars they’re going to get out of the city. But the city has a big problem in that they had a policy that was specifically in violation of federal law. That’s all you need in a civil suit, one violation of federal law, it’s payout time. If they can prove that Ramos did it, and ironically, Ramos has admitted that he drove the car, so he’s done, you know, whether he pulled the trigger or not. Go ahead.

Q: Since the aliens seem to be coming back after being deported now, do you expect that there will be any change in the crime rate as gangs are involved?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, you know, what’s kind of interesting about this is that there were two sets of folks we’re talking about – people who just happen to benefit, like Ramos, who was committing crimes as a youth when he came here. His mom couldn’t control him and there was no place to really put him and they put him in a halfway house. He got out and committed more offenses. There’s that guy.

And then there’s the Honduran train of people who jammed up juvenile hall because they keep getting arrested and they’ve got nobody to put them in touch with. They’ve got no place to send them, except back home, and they weren’t doing that. They were putting them in halfway houses, and then only as a last resort would they send them home. And they would do that secretly.

And that’s how this policy came to light because federal immigration folks who had caught them at the airport. What are you doing with this guy? I’m his probation officer. (Laughter.) Where are you guys going? You know, they spent hours trying to explain themselves at the Houston airport when the two kids and a probation officer who happened to be going there because as an enticement, he’d got a house-hunting trip out of it. So you know, I mean, that’s the kind of stuff that was going on.

And I mean, anyways, like I said, there are two separate groups, so it’s really difficult – I mean, I personally – I flatter the stories to think that perhaps this may encourage some people, perhaps, to stay out of the law’s way because they know they might get deported if they do, if they’re kids, or their parents, maybe, just maybe. But it’s probably a pretty small shot.

Q: Jaxon, I had a question for you, too. What kind of support have you gotten from your editors and from the publisher? Have you heard anything from them about the pressure of the advocacy groups? In other words, have they tried to go over your head and what’s been the result of that?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, the advocacy groups did meet. I don’t know, were you there that day, Debra Saunders?

MS. SAUNDERS: No, I missed the –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: They came en masse – like 20 folks came to our paper to meet with my editors and the editorial board. And the trouble is that – I don’t know, call me biased, but their advocacy on behalf of people who commit crimes or get arrested committing crimes just didn’t really go over so well. (Laughter.) I mean, I – like the lady who told – sit up in a meeting and said, these guys are just trying to make money.

MR. : Give us a break!

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, well, they don’t commit any other kinds of offenses, they just deal crack. (Laughter.) Come on! I said – honestly, this is – I’m not kidding you, this is the stuff that they were peddling. And I’m going, well, if I dealt crack, they’re not going to give me a break. I mean, come on, it’s ludicrous. And black people are being locked up on prodigious numbers based on a discrepancy between powder and crack cocaine. And I’m looking at this and saying, you know, guys, maybe this works in your own shop, but I wasn’t there when they came. But they did call me, we want to meet with you, we really want to talk to you, we want you to know how much harm and damage you’ve done.


Q: But so my point is, your editors didn’t put any pressure on you?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: They backed us. They sat at the meeting.

Q: They ran the stories?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Yeah, well, obviously. They backed the stories. I think that – like I said, the stories sort of had a power of themselves. I mean, even if the editor didn’t want me to do them and got tired of them because they kept coming. (Laughter.) Not another one, you know, not another kid – oh, he almost beheaded that – oh god, oh no. And I guarantee you Gavin Newsom, the mayor, didn’t want to see these policies anymore. And I called up his PIO gang and he goes, uh oh, what are you calling me about now? What did they do now? (Laughter.)

And so he was – and they – and the thing was is that – here’s the thing. This is the really funny thing, is that the mayor tried to say that he didn’t change his policy as a result of our stories. He said that he was told about it and he changed the policy. The trouble was, I kept interviewing the people that were charged with implementing the policy and they were still defending the policy before it got changed, because they didn’t know. They didn’t get the memo that the policy had been changed.

Only in the mayor’s mind did the policy get changed. And he keeps calling me up and says – he called me up, his PIO called me up – we changed this policy, we changed it! I said, well, why is that no one in the whole city knew that you changed your policy? Well, we ordered a policy review. (Laughter.) Okay, that’s not exactly changing the policy. And he didn’t actually change the policy until after the stories came out. So that much is –

Q: Can you just clarify? You said that there is now cooperation with ICE on this specific set of offenders, juvenile. Does – can you just clarify how exactly they do that? And then if this extends beyond this narrow set of offenders –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, in San Francisco, it’s kind of different. Okay. In any other jurisdiction, ICE can just waltz into the jail and go, oh, I don’t like the look of that guy, what’s his – I think he might be here illegally. In San Francisco, they can’t come there. They’re not allowed. ICE people cannot come to the jail. San Francisco has a policy in which they do their own review and turn over the people they think ICE should want to see. And that agreement ICE didn’t particularly like, but they didn’t really have any place to appeal to. They tried to write letters that this is no way to run a railroad, this isn’t what we normally do. And that’s for adults.

For the juveniles, ICE never even heard about. I mean, that’s part of the secret agreement that was done 10 years before. ICE hadn’t deported a single youth in San Francisco for 10 years. And since they hadn’t, people in San Francisco were busy saying, see, that proves that they know that they had this agreement because they didn’t deport anybody. And so, you know, I had a hard time escaping that logic. But I didn’t really – it could have been just laziness, I mean, maybe they don’t want to deal with the headache of San Francisco, because it is a headache.

So anyway, so what had happened was that we started seeing that a lot of adults who should be turning over to ICE when they commit offenses weren’t. And they had a lot of them on probation. And other reporters started chipping in. So it turned out that, you know, San Francisco’s – and one of them was Edwin Ramos, the guy that was responsible for the – allegedly for the three murders. He had been arrested as an adult and, although he wasn’t charged, they knew he was a gang member.

They knew the guy in the car with him who was charged had the gun that was used in another double murder. So and he’s driving around with him and so they put him in jail for a couple of days and there was an ICE mess up, you know, faxes got confused, things got screwed up, then Ramos walked out the door. And they knew he was here illegally, they were trying to deport him, supposedly. He was what they call “pending removal,” but they hadn’t done it.

And so then Gavin Newsom turns around and says, see, it’s ICE’s fault. They could have removed him if they wanted to. But then of course, ICE probably didn’t know that he had been arrested for two prior violent felonies as a juvenile and that would have cemented the fact that – that would have put the policy really to the test. So you know, which started first?

You know, but the bottom line is in San Francisco, the city officials liked this idea of a sanctuary city and this was a little part of the sanctuary city that nobody wanted to really talk about. Because nobody really knows what the sanctuary city is. I mean, in a sense, they have some idea, but it’s not like, oh well, we give sanctuary to juveniles who nearly behead people. You know, we won’t deport them, you know, if they’re found responsible or whatever. They weren’t talking about that.

Q: So it’s still –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: It’s still a mess. And ICE is not, I assume, very happy. But they’ve gotten a lot more cooperation suddenly. They started getting people all the time. San Francisco started sending people, a lot more people, after we wrote the Ramos story. Suddenly, they were just flooded with both juveniles and adults.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Let’s just take one last question.


Q: What sort of geographic area was covered here? Is this all about San Francisco or –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: You mean for the story itself or my job?

Q: No, for the impact of the drug business?

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: Well, these guys don’t just deal drugs in San Francisco and they don’t just commit offenses in San Francisco. One guy committed an offense down in San Mateo, a serious crime, and he had been the beneficiary of San Francisco’s policy.

Q: So was this – this is a –

MR. VAN DERBEKEN: San Francisco is a pretty small place and it’s surrounded by a ring of other small – large cities, by some standards. San Francisco is the biggest city there, but it’s only 700,000 plus folks, so it’s not that big and it’s only 49 square miles. All the cities around it, they all absorb and reflect the crime that happens both in San Francisco and in Oakland.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Okay, good. Well, thank you, Jaxon. (Applause.) Thank you, folks. I’ll respect people’s time. People have to get back to work, although it is Friday and it’s raining – (laughter) – do any work, so if you want to stay and if there’s any food out there, finish it off, feel free. Thank you for coming and we’ll see you next year, I hope, at our next award. Thanks a lot.