Sanctuary City Organizing in Philadelphia

By Joshua Reaves

Since the election of Donald Trump, Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” has been elevated to a national conversation. Philly has joined the chorus of many cities across the country by becoming one of these cities protesting the power of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and it has sparred with the Department of Justice (DOJ) over these policies. [1]This seems like a cause for celebration: Cities protesting the repressive immigration policies of the far right seems like a natural victory for the left. However, Philadelphia’s branch of ICE is also among the most aggressive in the country; there’s obviously a difference between the policy of sanctuary cities and the actual enforcement of immigration laws.

The sanctuary city policies of Philadelphia do little to actually provide for undocumented immigrants. Instead, they focus on the city’s relationship between federal immigration enforcement officials and local police officers. Philadelphia does not comply with many federal requests either to detain immigrants on the basis of their immigration status or to share information about a Philly resident’s immigration status with ICE. Ideally, this means that Philadelphia does not share any information with ICE – there is no relationship between Philly and immigration enforcement.[2]

In reality, the situation is more complex. ICE has an office within Philadelphia, located in Chinatown. On the surface, city policies block communications between the city and ICE, but since ICE has a continued presence within the city, this is not actually the case. Philadelphia’s police union issued open support for Donald Trump and his policies around immigration and Pennsylvania police officers routinely speak with ICE despite being in sanctuary cities and counties.[3]

Beyond the actions of Philadelphia’s police in supporting ICE, ICE itself has an aggressive presence in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia field office of ICE, one of 23 in the country, is still the most aggressive in the country.[4] This is remarkable in its brutality: Pennsylvania and the surrounding states of Delaware and West Virginia that Philadelphia’s ICE police possess fewer undocumented immigrants than many other states in the country. Philadelphia’s ICE branch is disproportionately targeting immigrants within its jurisdiction, in part as a result of Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policies.

ICE still operates within Philadelphia. But without much assistance from local law enforcement, they have had to change the way they operate. . In other jurisdictions, ICE and local police will collaborate to target specific individuals or groups wanted by ICE for deportation. Lacking that collaboration, ICE agents instead will sweep whole neighborhoods in search of potential targets and pad their arrest rate with undocumented immigrants. News media is quick to celebrate this tactic, as The Philadelphia Inquirer did recently when one such sweep arrested one wanted sex offender out of 45 people arrested. ICE sweeps like this rip people from their homes arbitrarily, and Philadelphia’s current policies with ICE allow them to succeed with this strategy. ICE’s policies increasingly target any and all undocumented immigrants within the US: a policy of non-colloboration may frustrate ICE, but it does nothing to stop them.

The evidence is clear: by allowing ICE a presence in Philadelphia, the city government has given them free reign to terrorize immigrant communities. Philadelphia deserves better than half-hearted defense; even if all of Philadelphia’s police officers followed the law and stopped collaborating with ICE, ICE would still have the most active field office in the country here. True solidarity with undocumented immigrants would call for the end of all collaboration with ICE and the removal of ICE’s field office from Philadelphia.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-threatens-to-subpoena-records-in-escalating-battle-with-sanctuary-jurisdictions/2018/01/24/984d0fee-0113-11e8-bb03-722769454f82_story.html

[2] https://generocity.org/philly/2017/12/07/sanctuary-cities-101-philadelphia-timeline-immigration/

[3] https://www.inquirer.com/news/inq/ices-philadelphia-office-has-ramped-up-arrests-undocumented-immigrants-20180412.html

[4]Ibid.

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