Mayoral candidate Bob Filner has repeatedly linked rival Carl DeMaio to tough immigration enforcement but the two actually claim similar views on how San Diego officers should enforce the laws.

DeMaio told Voice of San Diego he thinks city police officers should focus more on keeping residents safe than on crackdowns against those who may be in the United States illegally. He also said this week he doesn’t support Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

“The trust of the community in our local law enforcement is vital to maintaining public safety,” DeMaio said. “It is not the job of San Diego police to enforce federal immigration laws.”

He said that enforcement should only come into play if someone has committed a serious crime, and that doesn’t include running a red light.

Filner, who could not be reached for comment, took a similar stance at an August debate.

“(San Diego police) have an incredible, tough job of policing the neighborhoods of our city,” Filner said. “Immigration has a whole different set of bars, a whole different set of expertise, a whole different approach so we don’t want the local authorities enforcing those laws.”

The candidates’ positions mostly match the Police Department’s policy, which advises officers to generally not seek out immigration violations.

But the Democratic congressman and his supporters have repeatedly said DeMaio holds a more polarizing position.

Earlier this month, Filner said at a press conference that DeMaio has a “lack of understanding of what our officers should be focusing on every day” and that the Republican mayoral candidate supported the controversial Arizona law, Senate Bill 1070.

On Wednesday, a political action committee that backs Filner released a Spanish language commercial that claims DeMaio is a proponent of tougher enforcement.

DeMaio says that isn’t true despite the fact that he cast the lone vote against a 2010 San Diego City Council resolution that called for the repeal of the Arizona law, which requires officers to try to determine a person’s immigration status if there’s reasonable suspicion that person is in the country illegally. The resolution passed 7-1, with only DeMaio dissenting.

At the May 2010 meeting, DeMaio lobbied to add amendments to the resolution. He proposed language about a second Arizona bill that denounced racial profiling and clarified when an officer could check a person’s immigration status. The councilman also asked that the resolution call on the federal government to secure the nation’s borders and be sent to President Barack Obama and the San Diego congressional delegation.

The council didn’t vote on those suggestions.

DeMaio now says he does not support the Arizona law but his “no” vote left a deceptive impression.

Jeff Jordon, vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said the union had been led to believe DeMaio would call for more frequent immigration checks. The association has endorsed Filner.

Jordon said DeMaio’s take on immigration enforcement could be more lax than current police policy if it means officers would be barred from checking a person’s status unless the crime meets a certain bar.

“We constantly check on immigration status under certain scenarios that might not be serious crimes,” Jordon said.

For example, an officer who struggles to establish someone’s identity during a traffic stop may end up checking the person’s immigration status during the verification process.

But even that action rarely results in enforcement.

Jordon said most officers seem satisfied with that policy.

“Our mindset is that our department is very focused on community policing and the enforcement of immigration is counterproductive to that,” he said.


Update: DeMaio’s tone on immigration enforcement appears to have shifted since the primary race.

After we posted this story, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council sent us a video from a San Diego Young Republicans mayoral debate held in February.

At the Republican gathering, DeMaio said San Diego police should work with federal authorities when an undocumented person has broken the law. That’s a departure from what he told VOSD this week: “It is not the job of San Diego police to enforce federal immigration laws.”

Here are DeMaio’s comments on immigration enforcement back in February:

If someone breaks the law and they’re not here legally, then I believe it’s important for our police department to hand them off to federal authorities so that the law can be enforced. What I hear from the Latino community in San Diego is that you’re letting these people who are breaking the law off and reintroducing them into my neighborhood. I’m a law-abiding U.S. citizen. I‘m a legal immigrant. And you’ve let these people off the hook and reintroduced them into my neighborhood where they continue to cause trouble and so we have to remember that enforcing of the law, when you don’t enforce the law, there are impacts, there are consequences, by reintroducing these individuals. So as mayor I’m gonna to make sure that our police department fully and faithfully enforces our local laws and helps as a partner, as a facilitator, to the federal government performing its role, that it’s not performing currently, to secure our border.

Lisa Halverstadt is the newest reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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