San Jose mayor and police chief push sanctuary policy changes following fatal stabbing
San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia briefs reporters on latest details surrounding Grace Baptist Church killings. Screenshot from SJPD livestream.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Police Chief Eddie Garcia are demanding Santa Clara County change its sanctuary city policy — for the second time in a little more than a year — after discovering the suspect arrested for a fatal stabbing spree at Grace Baptist Church is undocumented.

The suspect, Fernando Lopez, allegedly stabbed five people at the church and homeless shelter on Nov. 22, injuring three and killing two. Four of the victims were homeless and one was a city employee and volunteer, Garcia said.

“Currently, the Santa Clara County policy prohibits responding to immigration detainers, which allowed the suspect to be released,” Garcia said in a news conference. “I received the question, ‘What could have prevented this tragedy?’ I won’t point to a single thing, but rather a multitude of tools and opportunities that were not utilized or failed.”

However, County Executive Jeff Smith told San José Spotlight that Garcia’s and Liccardo’s judgement of the situation is premature and chastised them for using the tragedy to advance their political agenda of making drastic changes to county’s immigration policies.

He called the mayor and police chief “unprofessional.”

“This sort of popped up out of the blue with them — basically trying to take advantage of a horrific double-murder, trying to promote their political agenda, which has been talked about, numerous, numerous, numerous times,” Smith said. “I think it’s extremely unprofessional. Obviously, with a murder like this, there are many factors that contributed to it. It’s not just the immigrant status. It’s not just methamphetamine use. It’s not just homelessness.”

Lopez was staying in Grace Baptist Church for shelter and Garcia speculated he may have been under the influence of drugs based on witness reports.

Liccardo insisted Santa Clara County should alter its sanctuary city policy to allow county jailers to call ICE agents before releasing undocumented immigrants with a history of convictions for violent crimes.

“As I publicly advocated in 2015, and again in 2019, in those very rare circumstances where an undocumented offender has a record of violent or serious prior convictions, the county should be acting in accordance with the state’s Values Act and notifying ICE that a person will be released out into the community,” Liccardo said.

No changes to the county’s sanctuary city policy are being made, Smith said, and it is illegal for local law enforcement to detain someone based on their immigration status.

The county ultimately voted against changing the policy in 2019 after the high-profile killing of Bambi Larson prompted outcry and a proposed amendment. As of now, the county bars law enforcement from alerting immigration authorities to the release of an undocumented immigrant.

The mayor said these changes would align with the California Values Act or Senate Bill 54, which permits local agencies to contact federal authorities about undocumented immigrants charged with violent felonies.

“The state has set out a balanced approach to both protects our immigrant community and public safety,” Liccardo said. “The county should do the same. The county has had several opportunities to do so, including recent last year after a horrible murder.”

Lopez was released from jail by a judge after facing a misdemeanor charge in Santa Clara County prior to the stabbings, Garcia said. The chief said the suspect was also on probation for a domestic violence felony conviction in San Joaquin County.

Garcia said Lopez was previously deported three times, but had re-entered the country.

The police chief added Lopez had a “violent history” and missed a required court appearance under the release program he entered under the Santa Clara County judge’s decision.

Garcia and Liccardo last year faced a barrage of criticism from immigration advocates for their support of altering the sanctuary city policy.

Advocates for the unhoused said they feared the violence would increased stigma toward people seeking shelter.

Housing advocate Shaunn Cartwright told San José Spotlight that people against building affordable housing and shelters would use this as “Bambi Larson part two” and stigmatize unhoused people.

However, Liccardo and Garcia said the crime was not representative of all immigrants and unhoused people of San Jose.

Despite efforts to not tie the violence to stereotypes of either community, Cartwright said investing in more mental health and shelter resources for the unhoused would be the best prevention measure authorities can make.

“Police are doing all these warrant checks all the time and things like that keep people on the run, even when they’re not wanted by police,” Cartwright said. “You just constantly feel like you’re being harassed, which exacerbates mental health issues. If you’re somebody who’s prone to paranoia, schizophrenia, constantly having police show up just exacerbates your issue.”

Providing more housing could have been a preventative measure, Cartwright added.

“Fernando is a victim as well. He is a victim of this system that does not provide enough low-income housing, enough mental health treatment, enough detox beds, enough rehab facilities,” she said. “He is a victim of this entire system.”

Organizers for predominantly immigrant communities said linking crime with the county’s sanctuary city policy would stir fear and paint a “broad-brush” stigma toward immigrants.

Maritza Maldonado, founding executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment, likened the proposal by the mayor and police chief to something President Donald Trump would say.

“That’s what the president said. He just wanted to get rid of the bad hombres,” Maldonado said. “It gets into people’s due process. Who categorizes them? Who’s going to say they’re fit to live in this country or not?”

She said such an abrupt announcement may threaten immigrants’ trust in the government and discourage them from seeking COVID-19 testing and vaccines.

Other advocates demanded the mayor and police chief focus on the need for more shelters and greater services for addiction.

“Those are the tools we need in greater supply for public safety, acutely during this COVID pandemic, and permanently,” said  Serena Alvarez, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in San Jose.

Fundraisers have been set up to help the victims of the Grace Baptist Church stabbing, including Nguyen Pham, a city employee who is hospitalized but is reportedly in stable condition.

Find more information on all fundraising efforts here.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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