Immigrants fearful as policy debate swirls after San Francisco shooting

After the killing of Kate Steinle, the conversation that has erupted – led by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – has left immigrants frustrated

Pier 14 in San Francisco
Flowers and a candle form a makeshift memorial for shooting victim Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Noah Berger/Reuters

While debate over immigration from Mexico swirls – led by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – following the shooting of a 31-year-old woman by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, one voice has been almost absent: that of the immigrants themselves.

“We have lived here for years and yet we are considered violent and are treated like the worst in society even when we work hard and try and make a better life for ourselves and our families,” said María Salazar, 32, an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco who has lived in the United States for nearly 12 years.

The killing of Kate Steinle at San Francisco’s Pier 14 has seen numerous Republican presidential hopefuls speak out against a tolerant immigration policy. Leading the charge has been Trump, who has said undocumented immigrants are “rapists” and “killers” and has called for a wall to be built along the US-Mexico border.

“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said in a Friday statement.

Juan Francisco López Sánchez, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder, had been deported to his native Mexico five times and was suspected of living in the United States illegally when Steinle, 32, was gunned down last week.

Sánchez told two television stations that interviewed him in jail that he found the gun used in Steinle’s killing wrapped in a shirt on the pedestrian pier she was walking on. Sánchez said the gun went off in his hands, and his public defender, Matt Gonzalez, said on Tuesday that the San Francisco woman’s death appeared accidental.

On Tuesday, a law enforcement official told the Associated Press that a check of the gun’s serial number showed it belonged to a federal agent, but declined to elaborate further. The San Francisco police department, which is investigating the case, refused to comment on the disclosure.

For Salazar and other immigration activists, the conversation that has erupted has left them frustrated and fearful over their future and ability to seek legal recourse to remain in the country.

“I see what is happening and I really see what people are saying is very racist and doesn’t understand why people come to the US,” said 27-year-old Miguel Sosa, an immigrant who came to the country on a valid visa, but overstayed. He was able to obtain a green card in 2012 after eight years of processing.

He now regularly demonstrates for immigration reforms and justice for undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area.

“Why should I be blamed and called a murderer or rapist just because I am not from this country originally? It is like what I was taught in high school about slavery and what people said about black people then,” he added.

Trump and his supporters have homed in on the SFPD and other departments who have a policy of not handing over undocumented immigrants to customs officials, citing their belief that doing so is a violation of the fourth amendment and its assurance against unreasonable search and seizure.

CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck said San Francisco’s so-called “sanctuary” policy is to blame for the shooting. “This woman would still be alive today if they did not have this stupid sanctuary law in that crazy city of San Francisco.”

California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, has urged the public against using the incident as a basis for immigration policies, saying “on the issue of immigration, our policy should not be informed by our collective outrage about one man’s conduct”.

That is exactly how Salazar sees the debate. “I am just a young woman working and living in America. Should I then be accused of being a bad person or whatever nonsense is said about me and others just because I don’t have the right paper? If that’s really the case, then aren’t all white people here racist killers of black people because of the church killing,” she said in reference to the South Carolina church shooting by a white 21-year-old that killed nine people last month.

While America grapples with the discussion over the future of immigration policy, for those like Salazar and Sosa, they are more concerned with the way others are beginning to view Latinos in America.

“I am here with my papers, but for a while I didn’t have them, so this whole thing about how horrible Latinos are is just part of why it is so hard to live our lives. I’m sure that is what they said about Italians when they first came, and we know that was wrong,” added Sosa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report