Fentanyl Crisis Moves San Francisco To Reconsider Its Status as Sanctuary City

Nearly 2,000 people in San Francisco have died from drug overdoses since 2020, most of them from fentanyl.

Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP
A display of the meth and fentanyl seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Nogales Port of Entry in Arizona. Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP

San Francisco, which for years has refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, is rethinking its sanctuary city status when it comes to fentanyl dealers.

A San Francisco supervisor, Matt Dorsey, a Democrat, this week proposed legislation that would carve out a new exception to the sanctuary city ordinance to make it easier to deport illegal immigrants convicted of dealing fentanyl.

Nearly 2,000 people in San Francisco have died from drug overdoses since 2020, according to the city’s Department of Public Health. More than 70 percent of overdose deaths last year were from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin.

San Francisco’s current sanctuary city ordinance places strict limits on when the city can notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement upon releasing a person from jail. There are exceptions to the rule in cases of prior convictions for serious or violent crimes, such as rape, murder, or arson.

Mr. Dorsey’s proposal would make cooperation with the federal immigration agency possible when a person who has been convicted of fentanyl dealing in the last seven years is charged with a new fentanyl-dealing felony or another serious or violent felony.

“The proposal won’t weaken sanctuary — it will update sanctuary to reflect the moral imperative of a public health calamity San Franciscans have not witnessed since the deadliest days of the Aids crisis,” Mr. Dorsey, who is HIV-positive, gay, and open about his past struggles with substance use, said during a Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this week.

The liberal city by the Bay is struggling to contend with a large homeless and addicted population and to balance enforcement of drug laws with a harm-reduction approach that also protects immigrants. Many residents, though, say that the open-air drug use, tent cities, syringe litter, human waste on streets, retail theft, and car break-ins have gotten out of control in the last three years, and that an ideological aversion to enforcing drug war policies is harming residents more than helping the addicted.

San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, was recalled last June in large part because of residents’ concerns about the city’s drug and homelessness problem and Mr. Boudin’s paltry number of drug dealing prosecutions. The new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, has promised to prosecute drug dealers, calling it “a top priority.”

In an indication of Mr. Dorsey’s political savvy, he calls his proposal “a harm-reduction approach.”

“It draws a hard line on the most lethal street drug San Francisco has ever faced, while preserving the status quo for less lethal drugs,” Mr. Dorsey said.  

Heroin, crack, and methamphetamine are included in the “less lethal drugs” category. The carveout Mr. Dorsey is proposing is strictly for fentanyl sales.

The city has not released statistics on what percentage of drug dealers arrested are illegal immigrants. Mayor Breed got in hot water and later apologized last fall for suggesting that most of the dealers come from Honduras. A recovering addict and advocate who used to inject fentanyl and was homeless on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, Tom Wolf, tells the Sun the Honduran dealer stereotype is true.

“Ninety-nine percent of the dealers on the street are from Honduras,” Mr. Wolf tells the Sun, saying he apologizes if that makes him sound racist. He says that he used to work as a mule for them when he was homeless and that the dealers operate in organized shifts — morning, afternoon, graveyard — like a legal business would.

“They’re not trafficked. They come here of their own free will for socioeconomic reasons,” Mr. Wolf says. “While I get that they’re poor and they’re trying to make a living, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re selling a drug that kills two people a day in the city.”

Opposition to Mr. Dorsey’s legislative proposal is already lining up. A coalition of groups that includes the San Francisco Aids Foundation and San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, called FreeSF, says it opposes the plan.

The district attorney is also this week seeking an exemption to the sanctuary city law for two suspects accused of murder and child sexual abuse who escaped prosecution by fleeing the country. The Department of Homeland Security will not extradite the men to San Francisco to face prosecution unless the city agrees to the exemption. FreeSF is also opposing this.  

The mayor’s office would not clarify her position on Mr. Dorsey’s legislative proposal but wrote in a statement to the Sun: “Mayor Breed is working to address the significant challenges we have with open air drug dealing in our City. Our Sanctuary laws are important for protecting our residents and for supporting our immigrant communities which are critical to the success of our City, not for shielding convicted drug dealers selling a deadly drug like fentanyl that is killing people every day.”

The New York Sun

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