Republican politicians quickly found a visceral issue that tapped into conservative voters’ fears about minority crime and disdain for liberal big-city politicians when a 32-year-old woman named Kate Steinle was shot to death at a crowded tourist site on the Embarcadero in San Francisco on July 1. Police quickly apprehended a homeless undocumented immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. It came to light that Lopez-Sanchez had been deported on five different occasions and had a string of felonies. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Office had released him from jail after dropping a 20-year-old marijuana charge, but had declined to honor a federal detainer from ICE.
Predictably, Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate to make an issue out of the case.
“This is something that never should have taken place,” he said in a July 4 interview on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends.” “He was sent out of the country many times. He was a violent person. And we have many cases like this. Nobody wants to talk about it. It seems like I’m kind of a whipping post because I bring it up. And I don’t understand. Whether you’re liberal or you’re conservative. Whether you’re Republican, Democrat, why wouldn’t you talk about a problem? There’s tremendous crime. Illegal immigration is just incredible. You talk about terrorism and the terrorists, they’re gonna come in on the southern border, too, because it’s the easiest thing — you just walk right in.”
Putting an exclamation point on his tirade, Trump concluded, “The crime is raging, raging. And it’s violent. And people don’t want to talk about it. And if you talk about it you’re a racist.”
Lost in the froth of Trump’s comments, and those of his Republican rivals and other politicians, was the fact that none of Lopez-Sanchez’s prior felonies were for violent crimes: Two were for illegal entry into the country, while others were for drug offenses, according to various news reports. The weapon used in Steinle’s killing was a firearm stolen from an unattended federal Bureau of Land Management vehicle. Adding another layer of nuance, a ballistics expert hired on Lopez-Sanchez’s behalf testified that the shooting was accidental because the bullet bounced off the ground before striking Steinle, according to a story in the San Jose Mercury News. The same report said the prosecution contends the shooting was intentional, arguing Lopez-Sanchez was just a “lousy shot.” The defendant has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Trump’s Republican primary rivals quickly joined the chorus against so-called sanctuary cities, with all three candidates using Fox News to broadcast their appeals in early July.
Arguing on the House floor on July 23, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina subtly placed the killing of Kate Steinle in a racial context by drawing a corollary with a statement by President Obama about Trayvon Martin, the black unarmed Florida teenager who was killed by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in 2012.
His voice trembling with emotion, Gowdy said, “Burying a child is what each of us who has ever been called ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ fears the most. After Trayvon Martin was killed, the president said, ‘That could have been my son,’ Mr. Speaker. And when I see a picture of beautiful Kate Steinle, smiling, that could have been any of our daughters.”
State Sen. Jerry Tillman echoed the same appeal as HB 318 moved through the NC General Assembly in late September.
“32-year-old, beautiful, talented Kate Steinle would probably be alive today if San Francisco had any guts about them whatsoever, which they don’t,” he said.
And with HB 318 ratified and placed on Gov. McCrory’s desk on Sept. 30, Trump continued to amplify the call on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
“We have to get rid of these sanctuary cities,” he said. “It’s disgraceful. Because I’ve had so many friends that I’ve made. First of all, Kate magnificent Kate, shot in the back and killed in San Francisco.
“I’ve become very, very friendly with a lot of people because it’s become an important issue for me,” he continued. “The whole thing with illegal immigration and crime, it’s far worse than anyone in this room understands. Far worse. Far worse.”
While HB 318 sets the pace for a national wave of anti-sanctuary city legislation, it also insulates incumbent Republican lawmakers in North Carolina against primary challenges from the right.
“In my view, all that legislation was designed for one thing: a palm card in the Republican primary that someone at the polling place could hand out in March so they could get the most conservative parts of the electorate to support them,” said Jeff Thigpen, the Democratic register of deeds in Guilford County. “For the incumbent, it’s a way to be able to say, ‘I was hard on immigrants.’”