SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Kathryn Steinle, a medical device saleswoman who loved travel and dance, is the newest symbol for those seeking stricter immigration enforcement. They point to her death, from a gun prosecutors say was fired by a Mexican man in the country illegally after five deportations, as heart-wrenching evidence of the need for tighter border controls.
The story is burning up conservative talk radio, with hosts and callers lamenting the senselessness of the seemingly random killing, expressing anger that Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez still was in the country and consternation that San Francisco authorities had rejected a request by federal immigration authorities to hold him until they could take him into custody.
Daniel Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for tighter immigration controls, said his organization has been doing six or seven media interviews a day on the killing since the news broke last week.
“You have someone who has been repeatedly deported,” he said. “In the end, it so clearly illustrates the complete breakdown of the system.”
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Steinle, 32 of San Francisco, was gunned down July 1 while walking along a city pier with her father. After Sanchez, whom authorities have identified as 45-year-old Mexico native, was arrested it was revealed he had seven felony convictions related to drugs and repeated illegal entries into the country. It also became clear that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, citing city policy on immigrants with no violent criminal background, released Sanchez in April despite a federal immigration request that they hold him until U.S. authorities could take him into custody for deportation proceedings.
Critics across the country have slammed San Francisco as a too-liberal “sanctuary” city that provides a haven for criminal immigrants. Some are calling for a “Kate Steinle’s Law” to enhance enforcement.
Jesse Watters, a correspondent with Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, showed up at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting this week and held up a photo of a smiling Steinle.
“I’m not saying you pulled the trigger, but you’re partially responsible. Her last words were, ‘Help me. Help me.’ Why aren’t you guys helping her?” he asked.
Immigration rights advocates say that Sanchez is a rare exception to the millions of people who are in the country illegally but live lawful lives while here. They say that “sanctuary” cities like San Francisco seek to build trust within that community, and that helps public safety.
“Every time I talk about this, I feel so sad and so much loss for this obviously beautiful young woman,” said Julia Harumi Mass, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “But it’s really important that we also recognize this is a terrible tragedy, one that would have been difficult to foresee almost, it seems.”
Laura Polstein, an attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, echoed a statement made by many advocates of sanctuary protections: “The actions of one person should not be used to stereotype or criminalize the immigrant communities that are part of the fabric of our city and state.”
In a jailhouse interview with a news reporter, Sanchez said he is 56 years old and from Guanajuato, a picturesque town about a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. He said he found a gun under a bench and that it fired accidentally. Police have said the gun was reported stolen from a car belonging to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger.
At a court hearing this week, Sanchez appeared to know little English and seemed confused at times. He repeated “I’m not guilty” to a question of whether he wanted to waive attendance at a future hearing. His attorney, public defender Matt Gonzalez, said Sanchez has a second-grade education level.
Steinle’s mother, Liz Sullivan of Pleasanton, described her daughter as strong and sensitive, deep and spiritual.
“We were best friends,” Sullivan said. “She and I drew strength from each other, and I just feel that she’s still here.”
On Thursday, family and friends held a private memorial for Steinle at a winery in Pleasanton. The family requests that people who want to help can donate to Steinle’s charity of choice, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego fund that provides sporting opportunities for disabled athletes.
Her family has not taken an active role in the immigration debate since the killing, but Sullivan said Sanchez should not have been free.
“Hopefully out of this there will be stronger laws that will come about,” she said. “Maybe this will facilitate something to expedite it.”
San Francisco’s handling of the case has drawn widespread criticism, even from many in the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton and the state’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. On the Republican side, Sen. Rand Paul was among Republicans calling for an end to sanctuary cities.
Groups advocating stricter immigration enforcement are hoping the episode leads to closer collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration authorities. In recent years, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have joined 293 cities and counties to restrict cooperation, according to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for tighter policies and enforcement, posted a lengthy commentary Monday on Steinle’s death that was titled, “Another Life Needlessly Lost to Poor Immigration Policies.” It added a map of sanctuary cities to its website.
“It’s been a great opportunity to educate the public,” said Marguerite Telford, a spokeswoman for the group.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Paul J. Elias contributed reporting from San Francisco.