By Luis Ramirez
The acquittal of Jose Garcia – a homeless undocumented immigrant involved in the accidental shooting death of Kathryn Steinle, a white woman, in San Francisco ignited a firestorm of anti-immigrant vitriol last week. The verdict finding Garcia not guilty of murder or manslaughter came after a week’s worth of deliberations. The judge requested they consider whether Garcia’s firing of the gun was accidental or an intentional act of disregard for life. His request came from the understanding that Garcia’s legal status was irrelevant to the actions that led to this tragic event.
In the summer of 2015, Steinle walked her dog along a pier when a bullet fired from a gun Garcia found ricocheted off the pavement and struck her in the back. The accident, filled with misleading facts, has become one of the main cases used to propel anti-immigrant hatred as well as to create “solutions” to “problems” allegedly created by undocumented immigrants. President Donald Trump railed against the verdict on Twitter in calling for his big border wall. Meanwhile, his supporters burned with rage over San Francisco’s “Sanctuary City” status because Garcia had a (non-violent) rap sheet.
The current outcry over the verdict in the case is one that vilifies and seeks further criminalization of oppressed communities. Politicians like Trump have always used this as a tool to elevate their profile and push for unjust policies. This isn’t anything new. We’ve been here before. Back in 1993, the Steven Woods case in San Clemente was used to ignite the fire for Proposition 187 here in California, a measure that aimed to create a state-run citizenship check system to strip undocumented immigrants of access to services like non-emergency health care and public education.
The Woods case involved a group of teens hanging out at the beach in an area mostly populated by whites. During a fight between white and Latino youth, a paint roller pierced Woods’ skull and killed him a month later. What should have been treated as freak accident turned into a “gang attack.” This case, just like Steinle’s, was used to fuel anti-immigrant propaganda with Woods’ mother, Kathy, endorsing efforts by the late Barbara Coe’s Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR). Where they differed was with the verdicts. Thanks to a plea deal, prosecutors won convictions against several Latino youth involved in the fight.
The irresponsible polarization whipped up with cases like Woods and Steinle serves only to create more anti-immigrant policies. Kathy Woods even resurfaced during a Trump campaign rally in Phoenix to tell her son’s story. It’s taxing on immigrant communities for their legal status to become the defining point of their humanity. As an undocumented queer person of color, I can say firsthand that the trauma caused by the constant dehumanization through the media has a devastating impact on most of our community. Our fears of ever getting entangled in the criminal justice system or to face any authorities don’t come from believing we are criminals but rather from knowing that we are not.
But here we are, again. We know that we deserve better than the negativity levied on us by others who project their hateful xenophobia.