As I absorb the reaction to the verdict in the Kate Steinle murder trial from my perch in southern California, I am reminded of just how ignorant and dishonest the New York and Washington media can be in covering the immigration debate.
The San Francisco killing two years ago of 32-year-old Steinle by an illegal immigrant in front of her parents was a tragedy. And the fact that her alleged assailant walked out of court with nothing more than a conviction on a minor gun charge amounts to a travesty.
But, contrary to what they tell you on Fox News and conservative talk radio, this had nothing to do with those fabled lands of make-believe known as sanctuary cities.
The right-wing media refuse to let go of that fantasy. But sanctuary cities aren’t real. This is because of three things: federalism, criminal law and common sense. Federal immigration agents don’t take orders from local officials who pass symbolic resolutions so they can feel more powerful than they are. Nor are the local police who arrest bad guys or the sheriff’s deputies who put them in the county jail under any legal requirement to do the job of federal agents for them – except in Texas, where it’s now a state crime for local and state cops to not help federal immigration agents.
In the Steinle case, there is only one reason why Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents didn’t take Jose Ines Garcia Zarate into custody when he was released from the San Francisco County Jail in April 2015. It’s because ICE didn’t issue a warrant demanding that Garcia Zarate be handed over. The agency only issued a “detainer” requesting that the suspect be kept in custody until immigration authorities could pick him up – when they got around to it, if they got around to it.
Garcia Zarate was set free – because he was small potatoes.
Sure, Garcia Zarate had at that point been deported five times, a fact that really angers the critics of sanctuary cities. Yet they don’t seem too angry at those who employ illegal immigrants. It’s also strange that many of the same people who are bothered by the fact that Garcia Zarate kept coming back after being deported still support President Donald Trump’s call for a deportation force. What good will that do?
Nevertheless, even with multiple deportations, Garcia Zarate was still a low priority for law enforcement. That’s because – while he had been convicted of seven felonies – his offenses were tied to nonviolent drug crimes. He was not considered dangerous.
The undocumented immigrant became dangerous when he accidentally shot Steinle by playing with a loaded gun that he claims he found under a bench – a gun that belonged to a park ranger, who said he left it in his locked vehicle – and firing off a bullet that killed Steinle.
Once that shot was fired, Steinle became – for then-presidential candidate Trump and conservative media – a martyr for the cause of eliminating sanctuary cities. That’s when ICE resorted to CYA. The federal agency pointed the finger at local authorities and insisted it wanted Garcia Zarate real bad and was denied access to the murderous fiend.
A nickel-and-dime criminal with a second-grade education who was living on the streets was – as a result of politics – suddenly raised to the level of famed drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
That’s how prosecutors treated him, charging Garcia Zarate with second-degree murder and allowing jurors to consider first-degree murder, which requires premeditation and motive. They were never going to get that in this case from a jury that was halfway sober and sane. And while they gave jurors the option of convicting Garcia Zarate for the crime he actually committed – involuntary manslaughter – they either confused or angered the panel by giving them a menu of outcomes.
The prosecutors messed up. They should have just charged the defendant with what he actually did, and take the bird in the hand. But political pressure likely got the better of them, and as a result, a killer did not answer for his crime.
We should not be surprised by any of this. Politics has a way of distorting reality and making the absurd seem plausible. And in the immigration debate, the effect is magnified exponentially.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.