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Not long ago, La Prensa San Diego, a biweekly, bilingual newspaper endorsed Steve Francis for mayor.

It wasn’t altogether surprising. La Prensa has never been a fan of Jerry Sanders, and it goes back years before Sanders was mayor. But here was the main reason La Prensa gave (emphasis mine):

La Prensa San Diego is encouraged by Francis’ commitment to focus Police Department efforts on critical law enforcement issues facing residents and not exhausting already strained resources on enforcing federal immigration law. He believes San Diego needs to have compassionate leadership and humane policies that treat people equally and will not divide the community for the sake of political gain.

I was a bit taken aback by this. After all, if true, Francis had committed to the paper to not enforce federal immigration laws with local police. And this would be interesting given Francis’ plain statements otherwise.

In the first mayoral debate, in fact, Francis hammered the incumbent mayor for not participating in a federal grant program that would allow city police to start enforcing immigration laws. And in his sprawling policy tome “Steve Francis’ Vision for San Diego,” the mayoral candidate ties illegal immigration to terrorism threats and proposes a solution to protecting us from both (emphasis mine):

In the post 9/11 world, law enforcement must have greater tools and resources to protect citizens from harm, as first responders they are on the front line of the war on terrorism. Steve supports giving local police officers greater discretion in asking the immigration status of detainees and cooperating with federal officials if it will protect the lives and property of San Diegans.

And when Francis was talking with Roger Hedgecock, who has done all he can to push a movement based around the end of illegal immigration, Francis took the rhetoric up a notch.

If the police officer has pulled somebody over or has encountered somebody that they clearly know is an undocumented worker, you don’t just hold the person for 20 minutes and then let them go, which is being done right now. You need to make sure that you turn them over to immigration officials. That’s what you do. That’s what you ought to do because they’re violating the law.

So what’s going on? How does this early (as in March) hard-core rhetoric about making sure undocumented immigrants are deported square with the “commitment” La Prensa cited that Francis was going to leave it alone and be “humane?”

I asked him to clarify.

He said that he was guilty in the past (again, as in March) of “giving short answers to difficult questions.”

He has now had more time to think.

“I’ve come to appreciate how complicated the issue is,” he said.

Meet Steve Francis, populist, embracer of nuance.

Francis said he still supports cooperating with the federal government as part of the 287(g) program that allows local governments to carry out local immigration enforcement and ostensibly provides some funding for them to do that. But he said he wouldn’t do it until the Police Department had enough resources to dedicate sufficient efforts to it. And he wouldn’t even do it then. He’d let the police do immigration things only after he convened local Latino leaders, police and immigration officials in some kind of summit on the issue.

“We need to get consensus to decide on outcomes,” Francis said. He said he didn’t want to cause “racial strife” — hence the need to bring Latino leaders to the table to somehow negotiate a compromise.

So I asked what if these Latino leaders are perfectly fine with the status quo where officers do not enforce federal immigration law? “That’s not a reasonable position,” Francis said.

Why? He said that the city of San Diego is considered a “sanctuary city” and that’s not acceptable.

On the other hand, he wouldn’t commit to what he thinks that means. And the talk is dangerous.

“I’m very concerned that in order to satisfy certain people who have very strong feelings about immigration, we’re going to get into racial profiling and that’s what I don’t want,” Francis said.

So, there you go. Yes, enforce federal immigration law locally, just not until we have enough money to do it and only if Latino leaders, the police and immigration officials agree to a consensus and only if that is the consensus they come to. Oh yeah, and Francis is still in favor of contracting police to enforce federal immigration laws through the 287(g) program, just not until we have enough money to do it and only if Latino leaders, the police and immigration officials agree to a consensus and only if that is the consensus they come to.

I think the truth is a little less nuanced. Francis’ instinct before his great leftist epiphany was to hammer Sanders from the right and take advantage of some of the visceral political power that comes from the anti-immigrant sentiment. He started to go with it. But when he began courting Latino union members, and Spanish-language outlets and others in the community, he was confronted with the other side of the debate.

He realized that hard-core Lou Dobbs and Roger Hedgecock-style immigrant baiting wasn’t going to fit well with his compassion thing. So he’s trying to back away. He’s trying to find a middle in this mess. And, yes, he realizes his “thinking about it more” is going to be hard for people to swallow.

“If you take a reasoned approach on this issue, no one is going to be happy with you,” Francis said.

SCOTT LEWIS

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