San Francisco Sells Out on Sanctuary

by Detroit Richards

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey represents District 6—an area that includes portions of the Civic Center neighborhood, which is home to so many unhoused individuals. Dorsey introduced legislation that would exclude undocumented immigrants who have been arrested for selling fentanyl from the city’s sanctuary city policy.

If his ordinance passes, any undocumented person convicted of fentanyl distribution within seven years of their previous conviction will be deported, in spite of San Francisco’s sanctuary city status which has been in place since 1989.

San Francisco is a sanctuary city within the sanctuary state of California, so this move is a particularly shocking episode of scapegoating a vulnerable population in a political point-scoring exercise that wrongly blames an easily demonized section of society, and it does so without actually providing solutions to the overdose crisis. Not since Trump tried to withhold federal money from San Francisco due to its sanctuary city status—an effort that was fortunately rebuffed by the court—has the undocumented population of the City come under such a concerted attack.

Undocumented immigrants convicted within seven years of a violent felony are already deported from San Francisco, in what proved to be a controversial move. This was the beginning of the dismantling of San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Status, and this new proposal would only weaken protections for undocumented people even further, bringing us one step closer to removing Sanctuary City status from the City entirely.

Dorsey asserts that undocumented immigrants make up a vast majority of distributors and is framing the legislation as a solution to overdoses and fentanyl addiction in San Francisco. This is a typical move of whipping up moral panic over fentanyl without providing realistic and pragmatic solutions that would work to solve the suffering on all sides. Dorsey asserted that San Francisco police officers seized enough fentanyl in 2022 to kill every adult in California, a statistic Dorsey is leveraging to instill a fear-based response in residents, instead of a realistic view of the actual danger the drug poses to the non-using population.

The proposed legislation would remove sanctuary for adults who have been convicted of a fentanyl-dealing felony within the past seven years, then re-arrested for another fentanyl-dealing crime or violent felony crime. When the City closed down the harm reduction center in the Tenderloin last December, it removed a life-saving resource that helped protect the safety of users of fentanyl and other substances. To replace this resource with legislation that calls for the deportation of undocumented individuals, instead of providing easier and free access to Narcan and other harm reduction services, alongside detoxification assistance, is a terrifying prospect. Dealers will still find a way to sell to their customer base. The War on Drugs has long been lost, but Dorsey is still trying to fight addiction with punishment, not compassion.

“My legislation is a harm-reduction approach,” Dorsey said. “It draws a hard line on the most lethal street drug San Francisco has ever faced. It will help save the lives of those struggling with substance use disorders, who deserve the same chance at recovery I had.” 

To frame deportation as harm reduction defies belief, but still the rich and powerful of the City will love the chance to scapegoat the undocumented population instead of helping addicts either recover or into maintenance therapy.

San Francisco’s sanctuary status is a subject dear to my heart. I am a law-abiding, sober, undocumented person living within San Francisco. I am here for safety. I am here because it provided a means to escape the danger I was in. I am here because it felt like the kind of place that might embrace my family, instead of demonizing and hurting us. I love this City, and I thought it loved me, too. I’ve involved myself in homelessness issues and tried to be a force for good, but now feel as if the clock is ticking down to a time when I will not be welcome in San Francisco, and nor will I be safe here either. 

First, they came for those that were labeled “violent,” then for the undocumented people they label as “dealers.” Who is next? Those without paperwork? Those who fail drug tests? Those who are caught working illegally? The question is not whether this will end the fentanyl crisis, but whether this will end San Francisco’s sanctuary policy, and the safety of the City’s undocumented residents, of which I am currently one.

Reading today that San Francisco was blaming the fentanyl crisis on undocumented people, adding to the already terrible discrimination we suffer, and painting the mostly law-abiding and hard-working undocumented population as the cause of death and suffering in the city is a willful act of cruelty as well as a deliberate misunderstanding of the issues behind the fentanyl crisis.

Relinquishing sanctuary city status in fragments, weakening protections and dismantling a policy of compassion in small pieces is a dangerous path to take. You see, it is so easy to blame the ills of the city on a group that cannot defend itself, that is already marginalized, and roundly demonized for merely existing. It is easier to blame undocumented people than it is to blame a total mishandling of the crisis on every official level. It is easier to blame the undocumented than it is to take stock of the situation, ask the perspectives of those who understand addiction and come up with solutions that the NIMBYs and closet-Trumpers won’t detest. They are playing to the cheap seats, to the peanut throwers and to the “deplorables.” The Powers-That-Be get to point the finger in a direction of an already vulnerable and marginalized group, and then they can breathe a sigh of relief that no one will ask them to actually DO something about the problem at least for a couple of years, while they push their policies of criminalization, which we already know do not work.

It is business as usual in politics, and it stinks worse than the sidewalk outside my Tenderloin apartment building. If any dealers are removed from the street and also the country who happen to also be undocumented (hey, let’s think about it, what job is a poor boy going to do with no social security number? How about making it easier for the undocumented to get a legitimate job), they will simply be replaced by the shadowy figures that work higher up in the multi-billion dollar illicit drug industry. It is like throwing water out of a sinking ship with a teacup and forgetting to plug the giant hole in the side of the boat that is letting in an entire ocean. The problem cannot be solved by demonizing a vulnerable section of society, nor by the threat of jail.

The solution has to come from a place of compassion, not from fighting an unwinnable war. The Drug War has proved to be a failure and yet still pollster-friendly policies of criminalization are thrown out there to appease the masses while increasing numbers of Americans die from the affliction of addiction. There is an easier and more effective way to solve the problem, but since politics is about appealing to the most uninformed and passionate about stuff they do not know, and not about actually helping people, it will never happen.

If there is no one buying fentanyl on the streets of San Francisco, then there will be no one selling it. Economics 101. How is this achieved? Not by prohibition. Not by closing harm reduction resources in the Tenderloin and putting people and residents at risk. It is not achieved by education, not by hysterical reactions, nor by making hard to access  life-saving, easy to administer Narcan. It is achieved by the safe supply model that has been such a huge success in Canada and Switzerland. Safe supply removes the customers, by stopping addicts being capitalists and making them into patients. This will not happen by offering people with fentanyl addictions methadone or suboxone, which only maintains and does not even get them well from their habits. It comes from offering people the drugs they will take anyway, only under controlled circumstances, and with support alongside the safe supply of their drug of choice, be it stimulant or opiate.

Switzerland, like any other nation, could not stop people from using. No one can. Instead, it went for pragmatism and support for users of drugs instead with a safe supply program.

A similar program in Vancouver has also achieved similar success. With no one having to pay for their drug of choice, by bringing addicts under medical assistance without pressuring them to stop, but instead makes using as safe as possible, by removing the supply’s illicit nature, the drug problem is solved. The dealers will not be on the corners of the Tenderloin, but instead finding something else to do, since they are now out of a job.

Painting undocumented people as essentially criminals is beyond dangerous in today’s stressed climate where everyone needs someone to scapegoat for their own pain and struggles. Punching down on the undocumented community is a new low, but not one that surprises me. I have been told by people who were meant to help me, that I should not be in the City or in their country, and I should leave, which considering that my family is fleeing violence and extreme danger, is unforgivable.

I love my home in San Francisco. I love my friends, and am immensely fond of the City, despite the fact that things are tough and getting tougher out here in the Tenderloin since the policies of compassion and the shelter-in-place hotel system have been replaced with criminalization, cruelty and lack of care. As ever, it is not the people of this great City who are to blame, but those leading it into disaster through a total lack of compassion and unwillingness to do what will work instead of what will be popular with the rich and uncomprehending of the struggles of the undocumented and poor.

Scorched earth tactics are for war, not for dealing with people who are suffering from a disease, and not for dealing with vulnerable groups of society. I used to think there was a way I could become Californian, American, and be wanted where I have lived for so many years, where I fled to, and where saved me and my child. Now, I am starting to think that I’m beyond unwelcome here and I was being overly optimistic about ever being welcome. In fact, I suspect that there will be more rationalization to deport my family, leaving us in terrible danger. The sad thing is I am not alone in this fear of becoming a reality.