The Lopez-Sanchez Case and the Ghost of Willie Horton

You had to feel this one coming from the moment it transpired that the alleged killer of a young woman on a San Franciso pier (by what appears to have been a bullet intended for someone else) had been deported from the United States on five occasions: Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez could be on his way to become as familiar a figure in Republican attack ads as Willie Horton was in 1988.

Horton, you probably recall, was the convicted murderer who escaped during a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and subsequently committed rape and armed robbery. Even though the furlough program in question was actually repealed during Gov. Mike Dukakis’ second term, George H.W. Bush and his operatives (some featuring fearful images of Horton) made his crimes the symbol of the usual charges that the Democratic candidate was “weak on crime.”

Paul Waldman notes today that Lopez-Sanchez is producing the same kind of excitement in GOP circles as Horton did back in 1988:

[C]onservative talk radio and Fox News are practically vibrating with delight over this story. When I checked in to the network’s web site this morning, it was the subject not only of the main screaming headline, but five other written stories and four videos, with more coming all the time.

While most GOP presidential candidates have not made this an issue just yet, Donald Trump already has, and he could simply be the least cautious.

The tricky thing about using this killing against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is that the federal government had apparently done everything within its power to get rid of Lopez-Sanchez, but was unaware of his prescence in the U.S., apparently because of an application (or misapplication) of San Francisco’s 1980s-era “sanctuary city” policy, which generally denies automatic cooperation with federal immigration authorities in case the person in question is a refugee from an unjust country (which was often the case in the 1980s). And in fact, the one thing that has been clear about the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration laws has been that deporting people with criminal records has become an unquestioned priority. Yet sanctuary policies–not this kind of application, obviously, but the general principle–is pretty popular not only among Latinos but in many Catholic Church circles.

But it’s easy for conservatives to conflate “liberal” San Francisco with “liberal” Obama, and simply deny that the administration enforcement policies are effective, particularly in “sanctuary cities.” And so you get the feeling the GOP candidates are feeling their way around this one before joining the conservative media attack.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.