A sanctuary ordinance in San Francisco is protecting young drug dealers from federal deportation in what a U.S. prosecutor is calling a "gaming of the system" for illegal immigrants.
The San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department has been shipping underage crack dealers to group homes in an effort to shield them from the feds under the city's 1989 "City of Refuge" ordinance, which prohibits city employees from informing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of illegal immigrants.
Up until last month, the department flew the drug dealers back to their home countries without informing ICE agents. But now, after being sent to the group homes under the new policy, the youths just run away.
"These kids are gaming the system," Joseph P. Russoniello, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, told FOXNews.com. "Whoever they are, they're playing it like a Stradivarius because the cops are saying they're seeing these characters three and four times."
As first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, eight Honduran crack dealers escaped from youth rehabilitation centers run by Silverlake Youth Services in San Bernardino County in recent weeks.
Russoniello would neither confirm nor deny an investigation into the department's shielding of illegal immigrants, but he told FOXNews.com that he was informed in January of ICE's brushes with the city's probation officers as they transported detainees south of the border via the Houston airport.
"They had stopped them and found out that they were — despite the fact that they had claimed they were juveniles — they were adults," Russoniello said. "In some cases, they were convicted felons; in other cases, they had actually entered the country after deportation, and so on."
The U.S. Attorney's Office approached the city for an explanation and was told on June 16 that the probation department had ceased deporting underage offenders.
Russoniello said that still did not "resolve the ultimate problem, which is why wasn't juvenile probation reporting to ICE that they had in their custody people who were illegal aliens?" He said he's still awaiting an answer from the city.
A spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom said late Tuesday that San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance "provides no protection for those who are felony suspects."
"The mayor refuses to allow San Francisco to be a sanctuary for drug dealers," Nathan Ballard, the mayor's communications director, told FOXNews.com in an e-mail.
"When the mayor learned that the courts were ordering officials to arrange flights to transport minors to Texas for purposes of facilitating their return to Honduras, he ended the practice," Ballard said, adding that the mayor has "called upon the courts, the DA, the public defender and all city agencies involved to forge a sensible policy to address the issue."
Ballard said the flights stopped on May 16 and added that the flights home were a court-ordered practice.
Requests for comment from the city's probation department and attorney's office were not returned.
William Siffermann, the chief of the Juvenile Probation Department, told the Chronicle his agency was abiding by the sanctuary city ordinance.
Last year, Newsom ordered the city's departments to develop training on the ordinance. In April, he began a public awareness campaign to promote the city's sanctuary policy to undocumented residents.
Siffermann told the paper that his agency flew home only offenders who had failed all other rehabilitative efforts, from foster care and juvenile detention to probation.
"In the mayor's view, the policy should resemble the sheriff’s policy of taking the appropriate steps to turn over suspected felons to federal authorities — but the policy must, of course, be tailored specifically to address the unique legal status of juveniles," Ballard said.
Greg Palmore, an ICE spokesman in Houston, referred all questions by FOXNews.com to the Justice Department. But he told the Chronicle that "although San Francisco is a sanctuary city, it's a problem whenever someone attempts to evade the law. ... Our law does not allow us to turn a blind eye to any individual who has come into this country illegally."
Siffermann defended the city's policy to shield youthful offenders from deportation.
"It might prevent them from obtaining citizenship," he told the paper.
"No matter whose immigration reform is adopted, nobody is going to have a line for people who are drug dealers to get the benefit of amnesty or citizenship," he said. "So you're wasting your time trying to protect them."