SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco's sheriff touched off a new round of fighting Friday in the immigration enforcement blame-game that has surrounded the shooting death of a young woman walking with her father along a scenic pier.
Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi ardently defended his jail's release of a Mexican national later blamed for the slaying of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle, saying federal officials know city law requires a warrant or court order to detain an inmate for deportation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials fired back, saying Mirkarimi has mischaracterized the incident and shown a "manifest misunderstanding of federal immigration law" by demanding a warrant for deportation to cooperate with federal authorities.
"There is no such document, nor is there any federal court with the authority to issue one," ICE said in a statement. The agency has said Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez would have been deported if the San Francisco jail had complied with its requests.
The latest salvos come as the case dominates the immigration debate. Top politicians from both parties have criticized San Francisco's law of non-cooperation with immigration officials and have called on the city — and the estimated 300 other municipalities with similar laws — to revamp their policies.
In response, Mirkarimi called Friday's City Hall news conference to "set the record straight" about the sequence of events that led to Sanchez's April release.
Mirkarimi told a packed crowd of reporters that he personally informed high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials of the city's requirements in February.
He also criticized San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and others for suggesting that the sheriff's department had a minimum duty to make a phone call to alert ICE of Sanchez' release from jail. "We require a warrant," Mirkarimi said. "I don't think we can be subjective."
Assisting immigration officials without a warrant "really defeats the purpose of the law," Mirkarimi said.
"Our policy will continue to reflect the spirit and letter of the law," he added.
Aside from saying no such warrants exist, ICE has said it relies on cooperation from jails across the nation to arrange deportations. The agency has said tracking down immigration offenders without local assistance requires far more resources and manpower.
Investigators have said Sanchez shot and killed Steinle as she walked with her father and a family friend July 1. Sanchez had several drug convictions and was in the U.S. illegally after being deported several times.
Authorities have said the gun used in the random shooting had been stolen.
Sanchez, meanwhile, has said he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt and that it went off accidentally.
He remains jailed on $5 million bail awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to murder charges.
Groups advocating stricter immigration enforcement are hoping the episode leads to closer collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration authorities. In recent years, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have joined 293 cities and counties to restrict cooperation, according to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
"Having to obtain a court order as suggested by the sheriff is a waste of taxpayer dollars and valuable court resources and time when the real problem is the sanctuary policy," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "The roadblocks that some state and locals put up preventing cooperation should be kicked to the curb in order to protect public safety."
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union and others argue the restricted cooperation prevents unfair deportations.
"Local governments should not be blamed for the federal government's inability to fix our broken immigration system nor should they be held responsible for doing the federal government's job," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat running for president, said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin in Santa Ana and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this report.