Mayor Gavin Newsom's office has argued that San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy protects undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding residents.
But as The Chronicle's Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported Monday, San Francisco has a new policy starting on Nov. 1 that prevents city cops from automatically impounding cars driven by giving never-licensed drivers 20 minutes to find someone with a valid license to drive their car. Only if an unlicensed driver is caught again within six months, is there an automatic 30-day impound, which can cost around $2,500.
So otherwise law-abiding residents now refers to people who only violate federal immigration law and the state law that requires that drivers have valid licenses. (And auto insurance.)
Consider it a sop to the pro-illegal immigrant lobby, which has been angered by the Newsom decision to allow SFPD to notify federal immigration officials when illegal immigrant juveniles are arrested on felony charges. After all, Newsom is running for governor.
"We recognize that this is a problem within the Hispanic community, where people working here can't get a driver's license because of their immigration status," Police Chief George Gascon told Matier and Ross.
Gascon told me that the new policy should not be confused with a get-out-of-jail free card. Unlicensed drivers will be cited and subject to fine. "We're stopping them from driving. We're replacing a licensed and uninsured driver with a licensed and insured driver," said the chief.
Except that they'll be letting unlicensed drivers keep their cars -- after they have been chauffeured home by a licensed pal.
Gascon also argued that the new policy should discourage unlicensed drivers from fleeing the scene of an accident. He also believes that locals will buy better vehicles -- not "throwaway cars" -- if they believe they can keep them.
Great. Now cross your fingers and hope that you aren't in an accident with an unlicensed driver. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety updated its study of fatal accidents last year and found that from 2001 through 2005, 20 percent of fatal car crashes involved one or more unlicensed or improperly licensed drivers. In California, 29 percent of fatal crashes involved an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver. Now, 1,964 those drivers had their licenses suspended or revoked, but 1,802 were simply unlicensed, while 1,200 were unknown -- which often means they fled the scene. Those folks should not have been behind the wheel.
Gascon asserts that the new policy "has nothing to do with immigration per se" -- as it also could apply to people who can't afford to get a license or undergo driver training. "It's a much broader population."
OK, but there is another "broader" population -- people who ride the bus. If this were the desert, you might understand the argument that people need their cars to get to work. But this is San Francisco -- with BART, cable cars and Muni. If Newsom and company don't think people without licenses should be limited to the bus, then why spend more than $700 million on public transit each year?
Talk to City Hall about how expensive it is to park, and city solons will tell you there is no right to drive. But if you break federal immigration law, they'll work on it.