Smothered By the Law: An Immigration Raid in Sheep’s Clothing

by Tee Hoatson

If you work in community with folks on the streets near downtown San Francisco, news of the August 7 mass arrest has reached you by now. 

In one fell swoop, the San Francisco Police Department arrested 50 individuals allegedly selling meth, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine in a 50-block area, covering large portions of the Tenderloin and Civic Center, and Federal Agencies arrested 37 more. All of the individuals arrested by the feds were Central American immigrants. The very same day, U.S. Attorney David Anderson announced this operation as part of a year-long “crackdown” on crime in the Tenderloin: the Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin, or FIT. The initiative comprises 15 federal agencies, including the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and — frighteningly — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security more broadly.

At first glance, housed San Franciscans have reason to support this measure. They might think that reducing crime in the Tenderloin will make the streets safer for everyone, and the smaller the drug supply, the better for the community. The people who will actually be affected by the police presence deserve it—they’re organized criminals, drug dealers or “bad hombres,” as Donald Trump might say. And they don’t even live in the Tenderloin, right?

Not quite. It’s more complicated than that. 

This point of view is seductive and easy to justify, if you skip a dose of critical thinking. Reporters across the nation are falling for it, and even Randy Shaw, longtime executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and editor of Beyond Chron, echoes similar sentiments. Everyone wants to believe that those designated to “protect and serve” are actually doing so, that arresting drug dealers is a surefire way to make us all safe.

But make no mistake: FIT and SFPD’s agenda do nothing but strengthen the reach of Trump’s detention machine and terrorize our fellow San Franciscans. With this initiative, the federal and city governments are taking a devastating approach to substance use and public safety that has been ineffective for decades: criminalization. 

Heavy government spending on increased police presence and aggressive incarceration has been the standard response to visible signs of poverty—like street drug dealing—since the height of the racist War on Drugs, which Richard Nixon started. Despite their popularity, these tactics fail to solve the underlying and systemic causes of street crime and substance use. At the same time, they do the double harm of disproportionately subjecting vulnerable and suffering communities to abuse and violence at the hand of the state. 

In short, even though it might temporarily make housed San Franciscans more comfortable on their commutes, criminalization does far more harm than good. Let’s spell out exactly what that harm looks like. 

1.FIT fuels the fires of xenophobic and anti-immigrant hatred and violence.

Remember the interview in which top Nixon aide John Erhlichman revealed the true motivations behind the War on Drugs? Well, history repeats itself.

As a refresher, Erhlichman said the following:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” 

Sound familiar? Trump’s government is using the same trick with FIT. By getting the general public to associate Central American immigrants with violence and drugs, and understand their criminalization as a matter of public safety instead of inhumane cruelty, they are able to avoid criticism while pursuing explicitly racist agendas. 

Imagine what would happen if the federal government invested the money from FIT into employment case management and immigration transition services, ensuring the many young boys forcibly trafficked into the drug industry were able to escape the cartels, instead of taking an approach towards drug use and sales that’s failed for half a century…

Imagine if they helped support the economies of desperately poor countries like Honduras, where people could flourish and have control of their own resources, and stopped supporting corrupt leaders aligned with capitalist exploitation.

But they won’t.

They don’t actually care about rehabilitating drug users and sellers or keeping the streets of the Tenderloin safe for everyone. FIT is a shoddy cover-up to to further the federal government’s existing racist and anti-immigrant agenda. 

In a supposed “sanctuary city,” we can and should be doing better.

2. Crucifying drug users goes against the advice of public health officials.

FIT deceptively masquerades as a public health and safety initiative, but it employs a clear double standard to who deserves health and safety. As Kristen Marshall of the DOPE Project explains, “…in the next few days and weeks, people who use drugs, specifically those who use opioids like heroin and fentanyl, may not be able to get their needs met consistently. Their tolerances could fluctuate wildly, which puts them at higher risk for overdose. Additionally, as the supply replenishes (because it always does), it could vary in potency from what people were used to earlier this week, and given the strength and inconsistency of our fentanyl supply, this also deeply impacts people’s risk for overdose.” 

Despite these harrowing risks, FIT has no intention of providing substance use treatment, peer counseling, case management or permanent supportive housing for people who use drugs on the streets of the Tenderloin.

In the eyes of FIT supporters, only a select few deserve “safety”—those who are wealthy, white and housed American citizens, regardless of whether or not they sell or use drugs.

3.FIT robs people socializing or living on the street of their humanity.

As Sam Lew, policy director of the Coalition on Homelessness, puts it: “The Tenderloin is a community with poor housing stock and a shortage of affordable housing, populated primarily with people of color who for the most part do not have kitchens, living rooms or backyards. Therefore, most residents do most of their socializing on our city sidewalks.” 

When SFPD shows up in the Tenderloin to enforce FIT, any and every low-income or unhoused person on the streets is subject to criminalization. FIT’s job is not only to detain and deport immigrants under the guise of stopping drug trafficking, but to clear as many people from the sidewalks as possible. This will happen regardless of the facts that they have nowhere else to go and most have committed no crime other than taking up public space while poor.

When Trump and the Right target one place in our city, our whole community pays the price. FIT is bad news for everyone in the Tenderloin—either you’re losing your humanity, or denying someone else’s.