When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in June of 2015, he made an unforgettable statement that was, depending on who was listening, decried as the ramblings of a racist or praised as a bold "truth" in the age of political correctness: "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best," he bellowed. "They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists."
The idea that immigrants, but particularly those who are undocumented, are hardened criminals is a tired narrative that has been disproven over and over again. In fact, academic studies show that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans — and a huge proportion of the number of non-citizens who are inmates are incarcerated because of nonviolent immigration-related offenses, such as unlawfully entering or staying in the U.S. But those inconvenient facts haven't stopped President Trump from claiming repeatedly that immigrants are more likely to be criminals.
Numbers don't get to the heart of voters or inspire "Build the wall!" chants at rallies. Stories do. And there's one particular case that Trump has trotted out again and again to justify his anti-immigration stance: The tragic killing of Kathryn Steinle.
Steinle, 32, was fatally shot by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco on July 1, 2015, just 16 days after Trump's inflammatory announcement. "Beautiful Kate," as Trump calls her, was walking with her father along the city's tourist-heavy waterfront when a bullet struck her in the back. She died soon afterwards.
The man accused of killing Steinle is Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (he also goes by the alias of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez), a Mexican national. When he was arrested in connection with the shooting, it quickly became national news. He wasn't just any type of immigrant: Garcia Zarate had a felony record and had repeatedly been caught crossing illegally into the U.S. for roughly two decades. Adding fuel to the political fire is the fact that San Francisco is a "sanctuary city," which means it doesn't cooperate with federal authorities in the detention of undocumented immigrants.
On Monday, Garcia Zarate's trial began. He's pleaded not guilty to the charges of second-degree murder— his defense attorneys say the shooting wasn't intentional. The case is being treated like any other murder trial, prosecutors say. But because Steinle's death has become so politicized, the trial has become part of a larger national debate surrounding immigration policies and whether they have links to violent crimes. Anti-immigration folks argue that because San Francisco was a sanctuary city, it let go of a violent criminal who went on to kill a young, innocent woman.
But there's a problem with that narrative, too. Despite proclamations that he was a dangerous felon, Garcia Zarate didn’t actually have a violent criminal past, according to NBC Bay Area. His record includes three felonies because he kept re-entering illegally, and four drug-related convictions — the latest of which took place in 1996, a full 19 years before Steinle's death. He was never charged with a gun offense or violent crime.
The last time Garcia Zarate tried to enter the U.S. illegally was in September 2009. He was caught, and spent more than five years behind bars. When he was released in March 2015, he was set to be deported. Instead, in an unusual move the Department of Justice decided to send him to San Francisco where there was an outstanding warrant for Garcia Zarate for buying $20 worth of marijuana. But his case was dismissed, and because San Francisco is a sanctuary city, it made no sense to send Garcia Zarate back to federal custody to be deported. He was freed just two months before Steinle died.
Though hardline immigration advocates say San Francisco's sanctuary city policies led to Steinle's death, there's another element of the case that seems to be missing from the national conversation: the circumstances surrounding how her alleged killer got the gun in the first place.
It's not entirely clear how Garcia Zarate came into possession of the firearm, which belonged to a Bureau of Land Management ranger. The ranger has said the gun was stolen from his car. Garcia Zarate says he found it wrapped in a rag or T-shirt on the pier and that it accidentally went off as he was taking it out. There is some evidence that seems to back his claim that telling: Authorities say the bullet ricocheted, traveling nearly 100 feet, before striking Steinle.
And yet, for more than two years, Steinle's death has been used as a political volleyball without context. President Trump has continued to exploit her death: He called Garcia Zarate a violent "animal," falsely claimed the immigrant was "pushed back [to the U.S.] by Mexico," and alleged that Steinle had been shot five times by Garcia Zarate, which is untrue. He isn't the only Republican distorting the narrative. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said she was "murdered in cold blood." Rep. Raúl Labrador attacked Democrats for opposing "policies that would have prevented Kate’s death and murder." He was one of the backers of a bill called "Kate's Law," which seeks harsher punishments for undocumented immigrants who re-enter the U.S. It passed the House in June.
Steinle's parents have spoken up in support of Kate's Law in the past, but their understanding of the U.S. immigration policies is much more nuanced. For example, they've said they're not against the concept of sanctuary cities. They also filed a lawsuit against San Francisco for allowing the release of Garcia Zarate (the suit was dismissed, but they're appealing the judge's decision) and also sued the U.S. government, alleging that the ranger who left his gun unsecured was negligent.
But seeing their daughter used as a political pawn over the last two years, particularly by President Trump, has been frustrating and painful. “[We] were just what he needed—beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime, and yadda, yadda, yadda,” Steinle's mother Liz Sullivan said in 2015 to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We were the perfect storm for that man.”
At this point, Jim Steinle just wants people on both sides of the aisle to leave Kate's name out of the immigration debate. "You just hope it ends someday,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in July, his most recent interview to the press. "I don’t know when.”
The trial, now on its third day, is expected to last several weeks. As for exploiting this case for political reasons? Given today's climate, it's possible that will never end.