Sanctuary cities 101: Why they matter and how Philly came to be one - Generocity Philly

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Dec. 7, 2017 8:00 am

Sanctuary cities 101: Why they matter and how Philly came to be one

And a detailed timeline of the three-year battle to keep it that way.

City Hall.

(Photo by C. Smyth for Visit Philadelphia)

This story was originally published in the November 2017 issue of One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper. It appears here through a partnership between Generocity and One Step Away.


Cities around the country have been fighting to retain their “sanctuary city” status despite recent efforts from the federal government to penalize them for doing so.

The City of Philadelphia — with 12.7 percent of its residents born outside the United States — has been a central voice in this sanctuary movement.

But what are we really talking about when we use this term?

What is a sanctuary city?

While there is no standard legal definition for “sanctuary city,” all the cities that have been given this label refuse to comply with certain federal requests to detain individuals or turn individuals in to federal authorities based on their immigration status.

This doesn’t mean that they are totally non-cooperative with the federal government’s customs enforcement efforts. According to a statement by Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA), the city “works with our federal partners on anti-terrorism and drug trafficking,” and it does not “stop ICE from arresting Philadelphians whom they believe are undocumented.”

However, sanctuary cities believe that local police should not be required to do the work of federal agencies, or share information that could be harmful to residents of their cities.

What is ICE?

ICE stands for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which operates as a part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE officials are responsible for detention and deportation of individuals that they find in violation of immigration law. Immigration statutes are federal laws, and therefor ICE — a federal agency — is meant to enforce them.

Why do cities’ policies matter?

While ICE has the funding and the federal mandate to arrest and detain individuals for crimes related to immigration, most people are first detained by local authorities. When someone is brought into custody and ICE wants to interrogate them or pursue further action, they may issue a “detainer” asking the local authorities to hold the person in custody longer.

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While many jurisdictions comply with these detainers, sanctuary cities have challenged them, and have found a legal basis to do so: The Immigration Legal Resource Center reports that because a detainer is not a legal warrant, federal courts in both Pennsylvania and Oregon have determined that holding someone in custody with an ICE detainer alone is unlawful arrest.

Why provide sanctuary?

According to Philly’s OIA, the city’s sanctuary policies uphold the American value of treating all people equally and fairly: “Blaming an entire group of people for our country’s problems and violating their right to due process isn’t constitutional and it isn’t American. Philadelphia treats immigrants as we would any other resident under our criminal justice system.”

Opponents of sanctuary cities have focused their arguments around public safety, drawing attention to cases where undocumented immigrants have committed violent crimes.

However, it’s not clear that an aggressive approach to enforcing immigration law actually makes anyone safer. Supporters of sanctuary cities argue that these policies build trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities — trust that is crucial for reporting, solving, and ultimately reducing violent crimes. As OIA points out, crime in Philadelphia is the lowest it has been in 40 years, and it has continued to decline since sanctuary policies were enacted.

In addition to the moral and practical arguments, Philadelphia has a legal justification for its status: It will not turn over a detainee to ICE unless officers have a warrant. The city argues that holding anyone, regardless of immigrant status without a warrant is unlawful. This stance has been upheld in federal court.

What’s the legal status of sanctuary cities now?

  • April 16, 2014 — Philadelphia became a sanctuary city. Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order which 1.) prevented local police from holding someone in custody longer than they otherwise would, solely because of their non-citizen status, and 2.) limited the amount of information shared with the Department of Homeland Security about individuals released from custody, unless they were violent felons or the federal government had issued a warrant. While this order was briefly rescinded during Nutter’s last two weeks in office, Mayor Jim Kenney reinstated it on the day of his inauguration, January 4, 2016, reaffirming Philadelphia’s sanctuary status.
  • June 27, 2016 — U.S. Senator Pat Toomey introduced a bill in the Senate to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. Citing public safety concerns, Toomey named his bill “Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act.” In response, a spokesperson for Kenney stated, “If immigrants don’t report crimes or cooperate in investigations because they’re afraid of being deported, we are far less safe.” The bill stalled in the Senate.
  • Oct. 17, 2016 — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Bill 1885, an anti-sanctuary bill with 136 votes for and 55 against. Organizers at the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia spoke out against this bill, calling attention to the inherent racial profiling in its requirement that police report the immigration of status anytime there is “reasonable cause to believe” a person could be undocumented. The bill stalled in the Senate.
  • Jan. 25, 2017 — In his first week in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order cutting federal funding to sanctuary cities. On the same day, Pennsylvania Senate Bill 10, which would cut all state grant funding to cities that do not comply with federal immigration law was first considered in the Senate.
  • Feb. 7, 2017 — Pennsylvania Senate Bill 10 passed in the State Senate. It was sent to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where it has not yet been voted on.
  • April 3, 2017 — Pennsylvania House Bill 28 was introduced, again seeking to cut funding for sanctuary cities and make police non-disclosure policies illegal. It has yet to come to a vote.
  • April 25, 2017 — California Federal Judge William Orrick blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities. He wrote: “Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration-enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves.”
  • July 21, 2017 — Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he called on sanctuary cities to cooperate with federal authorities on issues of immigration. Kenney responded, arguing that sanctuary policies keep Philadelphia safer: “If victims and witnesses of crimes don’t report those crimes to the police because they fear deportation, that allows the real bad guys to stay on the streets.”
  • Aug. 30, 2017 — The City of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against Sessions and the Department of Justice. In order to receive a $1.67 million federal grant, Sessions had required that Philadelphia and other sanctuary cities allow ICE agents to question immigrants held in any detention facility, and that they be willing to provide notice two days before releasing an undocumented person from custody. The city argued that these requirements “are contrary to law, unconstitutional, and arbitrary and capricious.”
  • Sept. 5, 2017 — Sessions announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy of the Obama administration that provided protection from deportation for about 800,000 individuals who had immigrated to the U.S. as minors. Sessions announced the suspension of new applications and gave Congress a six-month window to act to replace it.
  • Sept. 29, 2017 — ICE announced that it had detained 498 people over four days in 10 sanctuary cities in “Operation Safe City.” Over 100 people were arrested in Philadelphia, more than in any other city.
  • Oct. 11, 2017 — The federal government issued a warning to sanctuary cities, requiring them to demonstrate their compliance with federal immigration law by Oct. 27.
  • Nov. 15, 2017 — A federal judge ruled in favor of Philadelphia in its lawsuit fighting Sessions’ August attempt to block distribution of law enforcement funds for the city. Kenney expressed anger at the need for the lawsuit in the first place: “This is not a time for jubilation.”

Read more about sanctuary cities in the November issue of One Step Away.

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