A jury in San Francisco rendered a controversial verdict Thursday by acquitting a Mexican man accused of killing a San Francisco woman, an incident that sparked a national debate on immigration and “Sanctuary Cities.” Matt Gonzalez, one of the defense attorneys and a McAllen native, said the immigration issue is more complicated than people realize.
The shooting of Kate Steinle by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican man who was in the country without proper authorization, occurred in 2015 and caught the attention of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump who used the issue to push for a wall along the Mexican border. Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation when he shot Steinle.
To Gonzalez, the case was straightforward and it was clear to him that the killing was accidental. However, he said it would be a mistake to enact laws based off of one incident.
“You don’t typically make good law by focusing on one incident to try to draw public policy conclusions from,” he said.
Gonzalez is the chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1987 and his Juris Doctor degree from Stanford Law School in 1990. However, he said his parents continue to reside here and thus visits every year.
His experience growing up here, he said, has informed his perspective on all the legal work he’s done.
“I think people that come from McAllen, or from the border area, just understand that you’ve got a lot of economic reasons for why people come to the United States,” he said. “They’re trying to seek better lives, there are a lot of employers in the United States that want to hire people to do work that they have trouble finding a workforce for.”
Gonzalez added that he didn’t believe people understood the multicultural and economic complexity of these issues.
“So someone, when they get upset at the thought of somebody coming to the United State without documentation and illegally, quote, unquote, they’re not thinking that that’s the only reason they don’t pay more money for their food or why certain jobs get done,” he said.
“It’s a population that’s very easy to scapegoat and so I think that kind of contradictory aspect of the argument is apparent to people from the border.”
Much of the criticism surrounding the case stemmed from San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city, meaning authorities don’t have to comply with federal detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
However, Gonzalez said the idea is not that cities are defying federal law, but instead, federal courts have said there should be probable cause before someone is held in jail.
“And so it’s really not cities defying federal law, it’s federal agencies like ICE and Homeland Security that are defying the law,” he said.
So while he argues the issues around immigration are complex, the pushback by federal agencies against sanctuary cities, he said, is not.
“They don’t want to have to go to the federal courts and get approval for their actions. It’s really that simple.”
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.