Harris, who was San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004 to 2011, sided with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in a political fight over San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city that split the city’s municipal government, with the mayor’s office supporting the policy and the city’s elected Board of Supervisors opposing it.
Harris’ past position could open her up to attacks from immigration activists as well as the more progressive wing of the party as she seeks the Democratic nomination in 2020. The fight over the San Francisco policy was covered extensively at the time, but Harris’ role has not been closely examined since she entered the national spotlight. KFile explored her position during a review of her record on immigration.
In a statement to CNN, Harris campaign spokesman Ian Sams said that the “policy was intended to protect the sanctuary status of San Francisco and to ensure local police, who needed to have strong relationships with the communities they serve regardless of immigration status, were not forced to operate as immigration agents, which is the responsibility of the federal government. Looking back, this policy could have been applied more fairly.”
Since winning election to the US Senate in 2016, Harris has established herself as an advocate for undocumented immigrants by pushing hard for a deal to protect from deportation those who came to the country as children, a group known as Dreamers. She has also called for the role of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be re-examined.
Still, her past position could prove a vulnerability in an increasingly crowded Democratic primary where candidates have been highly critical of President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration and abolishing ICE has become a popular position among the party’s base.
At issue in 2008 was Newsom’s policy of reporting juvenile undocumented immigrants arrested by local police to ICE. As district attorney for San Francisco, Harris was responsible prosecuting crimes in the city.
This policy came under scrutiny in 2008 when a 21-year-old undocumented man named Edwin Ramos was arrested for murdering three members of a San Francisco family.
After the news of the Ramos murders — and his previous arrest records — was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsom announced a change in the city’s policy so that police would begin reporting arrested undocumented juveniles to ICE, regardless of whether they had been found guilty in court of any crime. Ramos had previously been arrested as a youth at 17 and was found guilty of attempted robbery and assault, but he was never reported to federal immigration authorities.
“While detained juveniles are under the custody and control of the juvenile probation office and the court every city agency needs to work together to balance our obligations under federal law and the sanctuary ordinance to solve crimes and put the offenders behind bars.”
During the fight between Newsom and the Board of Supervisors, Harris publicly supported Newsom and opposed the Board’s legislation. She argued her position by saying that she believed the ordinance would be in violation of federal law and would be struck down in courts. San Francisco City Attorney’s office told CNN this month that the ordinance has never been challenged in court.
The lead figure opposing Newsom and Harris was David Campos, a former member of the Board of Supervisors who introduced and passed the legislation to protect undocumented juveniles form deportation.
In a recent interview with CNN, Campos discussed the political fight and his disappointment with Harris position, and said that the two are friends who supported each other early in their political careers, but they disagreed over the issue.
“I tried to reach out to her on that issue and I never really got a response from her,” Campos said.
“And actually when she left the district attorney’s office, one thing that did happen was there was more openness to discussing the issue with the new D.A., when George Gascón became the district attorney after Kamala left. It was after Mayor Newsom and after Kamala Harris left that that issue potentially got resolved.”
Newsom was attacked from both the left and right for his position during his successful run for governor of California in 2018. He ultimately admitted that the policy could have been handled differently.
Sams, spokesman for the Harris campaign, invoked Newsom’s response in a statement to CNN, saying, “As Governor Newsom said last year, his policy was intended to protect the sanctuary status of San Francisco and to ensure local police, who needed to have strong relationships with the communities they serve regardless of immigration status, were not forced to operate as immigration agents, which is the responsibility of the federal government. Looking back, this policy could have been applied more fairly, as the governor has stated as well.”
The spokesperson continued, “Senator Harris has always been a supporter of San Francisco’s commitment to protecting undocumented people and keeping communities safe, which is why as D.A. she cracked down on trafficking that preys on undocumented immigrants, prosecuted individuals scamming or exploiting undocumented immigrants, and pushed for temporary protection visas for victims of crime.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of George Gascón’s name.