Despite San Francisco criticism, Clinton once backed sanctuary city policies

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High-profile Democrats now speaking out about San Francisco's "sanctuary" treatment of an illegal immigrant charged with the murder of a young woman weren't always so critical of the policies.

Hillary Clinton and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., both criticized San Francisco for ignoring a federal request to hold Francisco Sanchez -- who already had been deported five times -- when he went into city custody in March. He was released in April, and is now in jail for the murder last week of Kate Steinle, 32.

"The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported," Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, said in an interview with CNN. "So I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on."

But Clinton, when she was a New York senator running for president in 2007, was openly supportive of sanctuary city policies, which limit cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Clinton said during an MSNBC debate that these policies exist to encourage people to report crimes. Without them, she said, "You will have people hiding from the police. And I think that is a real direct threat to the personal safety and security of all the citizens."

Asked if she would allow sanctuary cities to disobey federal law, Clinton said: "Well, I don't think there is any choice. The ICE groups go in and raid individuals, but if you're a local police chief and you're trying to solve a crime that you know people from the immigrant community have information about, they may not talk to you if they think you're also going to be enforcing the immigration laws. Local law enforcement has a different job than federal immigration enforcement."

Feinstein also has raised questions about San Francisco's actions, as has California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democratic member of the House, has not spoken out on the case.

Feinstein, in a letter, called on San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to start cooperating with federal immigration officials who want to deport felons such as Sanchez.

"I strongly believe that an undocumented individual, convicted of multiple felonies and with a detainer request from ICE, should not have been released," Feinstein said. "We should focus on deporting convicted criminals, not setting them loose on our streets."

Feinstein, though, got the ball rolling on the city's policies when she served as mayor from 1978-1988. She signed legislation in 1985 making the city a "sanctuary" for immigrant refugees from Central America.

That policy was expanded significantly after Feinstein left office and now limits cooperation with federal officials for a range of illegal immigrant cases.

Feinstein said in her letter that "dangerous criminals" should not be released.

The mayor's office has said it reached out to Homeland Security officials to determine if there's a way to cooperate while still upholding the city's sanctuary policy.

"Mayor Lee shares the senator's concerns surrounding the nature of Mr. Sanchez's transfer to San Francisco and release," said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "As the mayor has stated, we need to gather all of the facts as we develop potential solutions."

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi defended Sanchez's release and the city law requiring it to ignore ICE detainer requests. The sheriff said ICE could have obtained a warrant or court order to keep Sanchez in custody.

"My long-held belief is that local law enforcement should not be in the civil immigration detainer business," Mirkarimi said last year.

Sanchez entered a not guilty plea Tuesday in the shooting death of Steinle last week at a popular San Francisco tourist spot.

His bail was set at $5 million and he could face life in prison if convicted in the murder.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.