The Zarate case provides a tragic and glaring example of a common public safety lapse that, in this instance, happened to involve the participation of an immigrant. But the underlying problem would be just as serious in the complete absence of immigrants from the U.S.
Jose Zarate, an undocumented immigrant charged with the murder of a woman two years ago, was found not guilty on Thursday by a San Francisco jury. Kate Steinle was walking with her father along the city’s Embarcadero pier in July of 2015 when police said a man walked up to her and shot her.
She died from a single gunshot wound to the back. Zarate, who had been charged with murder and manslaughter in the case, has several convictions and deportations under his belt. He claimed that a firearm he found underneath a bench on the pier went off accidentally when he picked it up. That weapon had been stolen from a Federal Bureau of Land Management ranger’s car several days earlier.
The case was seized upon by anti-immigration groups as evidence of a failed system that permitted Zarate to be on the San Francisco streets. Zarate had been deported from the U.S. on five previous occasions and he had been released from a San Francisco jail just three months prior to Steinle’s death.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump also used the case as fodder for his campaign against undocumented immigrants from Mexico in particular. Trump invoked the Steinle case as proof that U.S. borders were not secure and thus a “wall” was needed on the border with Mexico. He also used the case to agitate against the concept of “sanctuary cities” in the U.S.
Sanctuary cities are those in which municipal law enforcement agencies do not check the immigration status of persons suspected of or arrested for crimes.
Tom Homan, the Deputy Director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), blamed the killing on San Francisco’s refusal to cooperate with ICE procedures, saying in part:
San Francisco’s policy of refusing to honor ICE detainers is a blatant threat to public safety and undermines the rule of law. This tragedy could have been prevented if San Francisco had simply turned the alien over to ICE, as we requested, instead of releasing him back onto the streets.”
ICE officials say they will seek to deport Zarate once his sentence in the case — for his conviction on the lesser charge of felonious firearm possession — is served.
Political exploitation of a coincidence
While there were obvious failures on the part of the immigration service, which permitted Zarate to re-enter the country repeatedly, the hysteria linking public safety and illegal immigration is as predictable as it appears to be overblown.
The Zarate case provides a tragic and glaring example of a common public safety lapse that, in this instance, happened to involve the participation of an immigrant. But the underlying problem — which is the negligence of law enforcement agencies in maintaining possession and control of their weapons — would be just as serious a problem in the complete absence of immigrants from the U.S.
A report last year from the Bay Area News Group found that 944 guns were missing from various area law enforcement agencies. Sixty percent of those missing weapons were stolen from vehicles, like the weapon that killed Steinle.
In Southern California, the Orange County Register found that 329 firearms were unaccounted for last year from area law enforcement agencies. It was the Steinle case that led California Governor Jerry Brown to sign a law making it mandatory that officers lock up their weapons or face penalties.
The fact that law officers leaving weapons in unattended vehicles was legal and acceptable prior to this tragedy should be troubling to us all. The fact that one such weapon, among that goodly arsenal of missing and unaccounted for weaponry, wound up in the hands of an undocumented immigrant, unfortunately, is the stuff of which political theatre is made — predictably seized upon to advance an unrelated agenda.
Top photo | A man walks past candles, flowers, and a photo of Kate Steinle at a memorial site on Pier 1, Dec. 1, 2017, in San Francisco. In this fiercely liberal city, city leaders remained attached to San Francisco’s sanctuary city status despite a not guilty verdict in a killing that sparked feverish immigration debates because the man who fired the gun was in the country illegally. (AP/Ben Margot)