Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has made protecting undocumented youth a top priority during her time in the Senate.
She’s been a vocal supporter, for example, of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives temporary protections to more than 700,000 young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, brought to the country as children.
But on the campaign trail in Iowa this past weekend, Harris made some questionable statements about a 2008 San Francisco policy that reported undocumented youth to federal immigration officials upon their arrest by local police. Harris, San Francisco’s District Attorney at the time, supported the policy, which didn’t take into account whether the youth were actually found guilty of a crime.
Speaking on an Iowa politics podcast on Sunday, Harris said handing over undocumented youth to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, was "an unintended consequence" of the policy.
Here’s the exchange:
Question: "Could you kind of give us some insight on how, from that time, when for whatever reason you were supporting this policy that was essentially handing over undocumented people to ICE before they had been convicted to now -- kind of what's changed on that and how you came to those changes?"
Harris’ response: "That ended up being an unintended consequence of the policy and I did not support that consequence of that policy. And that policy I believe has since changed because it was not the intended purpose of that policy."
We decided to fact-check her claim that turning over undocumented youth to ICE was "an unintended consequence" of this strategy.
Background on San Francisco policy
Before 2008, San Francisco’s policy was to not report arrested undocumented youth to ICE at all, as part of its sanctuary city protections.
Then Mayor and current California Gov. Gavin Newsom changed that approach in 2008 after a 21-year-old undocumented man was arrested for killing three members of a family in San Francisco. The man had been arrested before, at age 17, and convicted of attempted robbery and assault but was not reported to federal immigration authorities.
Former San Francisco County Supervisor David Campos strongly opposed the policy change. Asked about Harris’ statement, he said "it just doesn’t fly."
"With all due respect to Sen. Harris, who has been a friend, I don’t understand how she can say that," said Campos, who led the board’s effort to reverse the policy, and is now chairperson of the San Francisco Democratic Party.
"Turning over young people and children who were accused of a crime that later turned out they did not commit was not an unintended consequence of what was going on. It was precisely what was going on and what we were trying to avoid," Campos said. "You can’t rewrite history."
But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Newsom refused to enforce the reversal.
"His administration cited a memo from City Attorney Dennis Herrera, which argued that the supervisors’ reform would be "likely to result in a federal legal challenge," potentially to the sanctuary city law as a whole — although it also noted that "the law in this area is not well developed," the paper reported.
Harris explained her position this way:
"There was then an initiative that was written by the board of supervisors that was passed and there was opposition to that but it did pass," Harris said in the 2009 speech. "And so we're gonna have to wait to see how the courts interpret what it means. From my perspective, I think that it would be in conflict with federal law, and we have to follow the law. We have to follow that law. You may not agree with it, but you know, that's why we have a process where you can challenge laws. And it is the law."
Newsom’s policy was eventually changed by his successor in the mayor’s office, Ed Lee, who ordered in May 2011 that most juveniles with family ties to the Bay Area not be reported to ICE, the Mercury-News added.
It "was the purpose of this troubling policy"
Angela Chan, a San Francisco immigration attorney who opposed the mayor’s policy, told PolitiFact California this week in an email that referring youth to ICE "wasn't an unintended consequence, it was the purpose of this troubling policy."
Chan is policy director at Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus. She represented a family whose 13-year-old son was referred to ICE under Newsom’s strategy.
The mayor’s approach "was a pretty drastic change," she told us last year, when we reported on the policy during the gubernatorial campaign. "Prior to that point, the focus was on rehabilitation and on the appropriate placement of the child and also on reunification with the family."
Last summer, then-Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox claimed Newsom "separated families and deported children before he was against it," comparing what Newsom did to the the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. We found Cox was partially correct but that his statement also unfairly conflated Newsom’s policy with Trump’s, despite some stark differences in detail and circumstance.
Even so, some undocumented youth were deported due to Newsom’s policy.
Chan said "dozens" of juveniles between the ages of 12 and 18 were reported to ICE each month, both on felony and misdemeanor charges and "some kids were actually deported as a result of that policy."
She said her legal efforts blocked the deportation of a 13-year-old she represented who was nearly deported for punching a classmate and stealing 46 cents.
Harris didn’t lead the charge on the new strategy, Chan added, but was "a tacit supporter." Harris has subsequently said the policy "could have been applied more fairly."
Asked about the senator’s claim on the podcast, her campaign spokesman issued a written statement:
"As Governor Newsom has said, his initial policy was intended to protect the sanctuary status of San Francisco, which Senator Harris has always supported and defended. In Iowa, Senator Harris was clearly talking about how she believes the policy shouldn’t have been done the way it was done."
We asked Campos and Chan about that response. Campos said the claim that Newsom’s policy was necessary to protect the city’s sanctuary status "doesn’t pass the straight-face test." Chan, who listened to the podcast, said San Francisco’s sanctuary status, which is decided by city leaders, was never in jeopardy.
"That makes no sense whatsoever," she said of the campaign’s explanation.
An in-depth look at Harris’ statement by CNN.com this week also found the senator "mischaracterized" the policy, finding multiple inaccuracies.
Sen. Kamala Harris claimed on a recent podcast that turning over arrested undocumented youth to immigration officials was "an unintended consequence" of a 2008 San Francisco policy she supported.
That, in fact, was the very purpose of the policy. It was specifically designed by then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to allow local police to report arrested undocumented youth to ICE, according to news reports and those who opposed the policy. Previously, the city did not refer arrested undocumented youth to ICE.
Harris also stated she "did not support that consequence of the policy," which is also dubious given past news articles that cite her support for Newsom’s change.
Additionally, Harris said the policy was only changed because of an "unintended consequence." That’s also wrong. Newsom resisted changing it, and it was only reformed after a new mayor was elected.
On the podcast, Harris said she feels strongly that undocumented residents should be protected by and able to trust local law enforcement "without having to worry about" whether they will be deported.
That sentiment, however, doesn’t take away from her mischaracterization of the goal and fraught history of the 2008 policy she supported.
We rate Harris' claim False.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said San Francisco’s policy, before Newsom’s change in 2008, was to refer arrested undocumented youth to ICE only after a criminal conviction. In fact, before the change, the city’s policy was to not refer undocumented youth to ICE at all.