Concept Corner: Is Philadelphia a Sanctuary City?

By Adam Gulick

Before I get into whether or not Philadelphia is a sanctuary city, I think I should point out what exactly a sanctuary city is. A sanctuary city is a municipal jurisdiction (city, town, etc.) that limits their cooperation with federal enforcement of immigration law. Counties and states can be sanctuary counties and states if they also limit their cooperation with the federal government in enforcing immigration law. California and New Jersey are examples of sanctuary states.

The argument for a municipality to become a sanctuary city is that it’s a way to reduce the fear of deportation and family breakups. This way, immigrants will be more willing to report crimes, come forward as witnesses to crimes, use city services and enroll their kids in school. 

A city’s status as a sanctuary city can either be set by law (de jure) or by practice (de facto). If a person is detained, arrested or questioned in relation to a crime, police can’t question someone about their immigration status; city employees also can’t ask about immigration status. And if someone is found to be undocumented, they cannot be kept beyond their release date if they’ve been arrested for a local crime. The designation of a city as a “sanctuary city” does not have a precise legal definition. Studies show that a city designating itself as a sanctuary city has no effect on crime, and crime rates may even be lower in sanctuary cities; they also tend to have stronger economies. It should be noted that the 10th Amendment prohibits state and local governments from enforcing federal law. 

Given this criteria, Philadelphia does qualify as a sanctuary city. The city won a lawsuit in federal court it filed against the Department of Justice over limiting its cooperation with ICE without punishment from the federal government. However, there have been over two dozen cases of cops probation officers and one of Mayor Kenney’s aides quietly providing tips to ICE about undocumented immigrants who committed crimes. And other forms of information sharing still occurs, such as a person’s fingerprints after a person’s been booked after being arrested. If a person comes up in a federal database that they’re undocumented, ICE can send a request for local police to detain that person for an extra 48 hours so they have time to come pick up the person and begin deportation proceedings. This shows that even sanctuary cities are not completely safe for immigrants. 

In the past three years, the Probation and Parole Department has notified ICE about potential undocumented immigrants that have led to 84 arrests in Philly. Drugs, assault and DUIs were the most common crimes that led to people being reported to ICE. Since then, the Kenney Administration has had the department tighten up its reporting requirements and asking about people’s immigration status, even though the department works with the First Judicial District, which is not obliged to follow the city’s sanctuary city policy. And the city did end its use of PARS last year, meaning that a key data-sharing agreement that existed between the city and ICE will no longer be honored. 

The Trump Administration’s immigration policies have pushed municipalities farther away from their federal counterparts, given the administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and draconian enforcement measures. ICE can still come in and enforce federal immigration laws without local cooperation, even without the Trump Administration’s actions. It’s important to remember that President Obama was known as the “Deporter in Chief”, and his rhetoric wasn’t nearly as anti-immigrant as Trump’s has been. It’s also important to remember that when a person is arrested, certain information gathered during the immigration process, like fingerprints, have to be sent to federal databases, no matter if a city is a sanctuary city or not. So the federal government can still find out if a person is undocumented. Also, state governments and the federal government can cut funding to cities, counties and police and sheriff’s departments who don’t cooperate with ICE. Sanctuary states can also see cuts in federal funding. 

So Philadelphia is indeed a sanctuary city, but that doesn’t mean that immigrants are safe from the threat of deportation. Even though the city can cooperate with the federal government as little as possible, the federal government still has the power to enforce federal law in the city, and certain information about people who are arrested is still required to be shared with the federal government. This shows that immigrants still face the threat of deportation on a daily basis, even though the city has done a lot to ensure that it won’t help ICE. 

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