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(Left) Sandy Valenciano of California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, (middle) Pedro Figueroa, District 11 Supervisor John Avalos and Figueroa’s immigration attorney Zachary Nightingale hold a news conference at San Francisco City Hall, Friday, Feb. 5. Photo Alejandro Galicia Díaz

After two months in a county jail, Pedro Figueroa—the undocumented Salvadoran immigrant who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents shortly after leaving SFPD custody—was released on Feb. 3.

The arrest occurred in December of 2015, when Figueroa, who earlier had reported his car stolen, was called in to police headquarters to sign some paperwork to retrieve his vehicle. However after showing his ID card to the officer, police detained him for further questioning. Figueroa was released a few minutes later, but as he stepped outside of the SFPD headquarters in Mission Bay, he was detained by an ICE officer.

On Feb. 5, Figueroa, his attorney, Zachary Nightingale, District 11 Supervisor John Avalos and immigration attorney, Francisco Ugarte, of the Public Defender’s Office, held a news conference to discuss Figueroa’s release.

“Congratulations for Pedro. As egregious as an injustice this was, today was also a victory,  because when people come together and fight injustice in this city we have shown the immigrant community that we can win,” Ugarte said, noting the vital role that immigrants  (who make up 40 percent of the city’s population) play in San Francisco.

Figueroa’s legal trouble began in 2005 when he failed to appear at an immigration hearing in Texas. However, he never knew about the deportation order until his arrest. He was never mailed any notice because immigration never knew his address. A Texas judge recognized the mistake and has reopened the case.

Pedro Figueroa and his fiancee, Dora Cortes hug with joy after Figueroa has been released from Contra Costa West County Detention Facility. Courtesy photo

“He (Figueroa) had a deportation order that he was not aware of,” said Nightingale. “He never got the notice, because they didn’t have his address, and we don’t know why.  It’s very strange that immigration would have released someone with no forwarding address.”

Nightingale and Avalos believe that San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance was violated when Figueroa was turned over to ICE, although the SFPD has denied this.      

“We do not pass prisoners off to ICE,” said SFPD Capt. Jerome DeFilippo in late January. “We cleared him, we released him and as he walked out, the ICE agent had shown up, saw him on the sidewalk and grabbed him. We want the community as a whole to be comfortable to come talk to us.”

According to DeFilippo, it was the Sheriff’s Department-Central Warrant Bureau that contacted immigration about the warrant, not SFPD. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided records that show the SFPD did in fact alert ICE of Figueroa’s location.

The SFPD has since backpedaled, with spokesperson Sgt. Michael Andraychak admitting in a statement published by various media outlets that Figueroa should never have been detained by ICE following his release from the Southern Police station.

“It is the policy of the San Francisco Police Department to foster trust and cooperation with all people of the city and to encourage them to communicate with SFPD officers without fear of inquiry regarding their immigration status,” Andraychak continued in the statement. “We are aware of concerns this incident has raised with some members of our community.”

Avalos feels that the Figueroa incident has further eroded the trust between San Francisco and the immigrant community, and that appropriate action should be taken.

“What we’re seeing is that ICE is changing their policies and strategies to try and get around local protections and so we have to play the role of making sure that our local protections can be strong enough to withstand those changes that are really undermining our local law enforcement and public safety efforts,” he said.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Figueroa. His case is considered “low priority.”  His next hearing has been scheduled in 2019.  Nightingale will ask the Texas court to transfer Figueroa’s case to the local San Francisco immigration court jurisdiction. But with the local courts also backed up, it might be months or years before the case gets resolved, according to Nightingale.

As for Figueroa, he’s happy to be with his family and try and get past this ordeal.  Seeing his daughter emotionally suffer the night that he was detained still haunts him.

“My daughter came to see me as I was getting arrested,” said Figueroa. “‘Papi, daddy, daddy I love you, daddy,’ she would tell me as she was banging on the van’s window.”

However, there’s some joy for Figueroa, his fiancé and his daughter. As promised, he plans to take his daughter to Disneyland next week.

“We couldn’t go because of the news conference, but I think it’ll be this upcoming weekend that we head down there,” said Figueroa.