Activism: Philadelphia’s Wavering Sanctuary City Status

Full of culture and immigrants from around the world, Philadelphia is one of many jurisdictions that serves as a refuge for both documented and undocumented immigrants. In 2017, the United States and much of the world are facing issues in and around immigration based on — but not limited to — concerns of national security and government funding.

Mario, a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant, came to Philadelphia from Mexico in the beginning of 2007. For his protection and privacy reasons, he requested that only his first name be used in the telling of his story.

In order to travel to the U.S. from Mexico, Mario said he had to walk for four nights, sleeping under bushes and small trees in the desert during the day while carrying the weight of his food and water in a large, military-style backpack. He recounted how he and his companions escaped border control several times throughout their journey.

“To be here you have to be brave,” he said. “You have to sacrifice your family, friends and love. I have missed out on the happiest moments of my friends and family…why are we not with the people we love the most? Many times we lose those moments forever, as is my case. With that, we suffer in silence.”

Mario is one of the estimated 50,000 undocumented immigrants reported to be residing in Philadelphia, in accordance with the definition of “unauthorized immigrants” provided by the research released on Feb. 15, 2017 from the Pew Research Center. He is able to continue living and working in Philadelphia due to the city’s recent protective laws for undocumented immigrants.

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Information from Pew Research Center immigration statistics, found here.

The term “sanctuary city” was first applied to Philadelphia in 2014 when former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order giving the city sanctuary status, which allowed undocumented immigrants to use government services without fear of deportation. This was in response to former President Barack Obama’s Secure Communities program and the power it gave to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Nutter altered his own executive order in December 2015 by saying the city would begin to release information to ICE regarding someone released from custody if that person is said to be involved in terrorism, espionage or other violent crimes.

This change lasted for less than two weeks as Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order on Jan. 4, 2016, his first day in office, reinstating Philadelphia to Nutter’s original vision of a sanctuary city.

Mario explained that giving up his life in Mexico is worth it in order to gain comfort and stability, but mostly to provide a promising future for his family and for himself.

He has worked as a busser at popular Center City restaurants for almost 11 years. As a university graduate in Mexico, Mario has had to readjust his career and lifestyle based on the opportunities available to him in the United States.

According to Mario, it is very easy for undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia to find jobs because business owners understand the value of the their work. In addition, while one job will often not allow them to work more than 40 hours a week, there are not many requirements against having more than one job and working close to 80 hours a week. Mario also mentions that the city is easy to navigate with public transportation or bikes.

“Personally, I feel like this is now my country,” Mario said. “For me, this country is an opportunity and I am very grateful for that opportunity. So much so that I see it as my second country and I do not regret contributing to its economy.”

At the start of his presidency in January 2017, one of the first issues President Donald Trump began to tackle was immigration. Since then, the United States federal government has been taking on a more active role to control immigrants within the United States and to provide more strict ruling on who is entering the country.

On Jan. 27, 2017 Trump issued Executive Order 13769, Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. This order lowered the number of refugees to be admitted to the U.S. in 2017 to 50,000, suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)  for 120 days and suspended entry for countries who did not meet adjunction standards under new U.S. immigration law including Iran, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.

Following this executive order, numerous protests and legal challenges occurred throughout the nation. A nationwide temporary restraining order issued,  Washington v. Trump, was upheld in the United States Court for Appeals in the Ninth Circuit on Feb. 3, 2017.

But in Philadelphia on Jan. 28, 2017, hundreds gathered at the Philadelphia International Airport to protest this executive order with criticism that this was a Muslim ban. At this location alone, two Syrian families were held and sent back to their native countries after arriving at the airport. Philadelphians, lawyers and government leaders alike–both Republicans and Democrats–gathered at the airport to protest and aid these actions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advocates for immigrants in the United States and leads many of the legal fights against Trump. The nonprofit and nonpartisan organization is dedicated to protecting and defending individual rights and personal freedoms.

Through collaboration of the ACLU’s attorneys, advocates and volunteers, the organization focuses on rights and freedoms such as equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech, right to privacy, reproductive freedom and the rights afforded to all in the U.S. by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is not only fighting in the courts but striving to educate the community on important legal matters that surround and affect them. On April 13, 2017 the ACLU-PA held an event at Field House Philly to break down pressing immigration enforcement issues such as Executive Order 13769, ICE raids and sanctuary cities.

Molly Tack-Hooper (pictured speaking below), staff attorney for the ACLU-PA, explained to a room full of curious attendees what Philadelphia being a sanctuary city means. She began by informing everyone that the ACLU has decided to start calling sanctuary cities “freedom cities.”

“One of the problems with the ‘sanctuary’ city label is this idea of sanctuary seems to suggest to some people an area where you are truly safe, and there is nowhere in the country where you are safe from deportation,” she said. “There is no really consistent definition of a sanctuary city, which makes it really hard to talk about and advocate around them. Basically this term is usually applied to jurisdictions that have in some way chosen to preserve local resources for local priorities, not use local resources to enforce federal immigration law or in some other way made sure that their services are going to be available for non-citizens.”

When asked why it is important for cities to enact these sanctuary policies, she explained there are many reasons, even for cities and beyond the desire to protect the basic rights of immigrants.

“One is that the federal government is not going to pay you for the work you’re doing, and we’ve seen in litigation that ICE will totally throw its local partners under the bus as soon as the lawsuit is filed,” Hooper said. “So, we’ve even seen government officials who are not especially inclined to be pro-immigrant, nonetheless push back on cooperating with the federal government out of essentially fiscal concerns…there are also law enforcement officers who think that when the police are viewed as an arm of immigration, this undermines trust in the police.”

An example cited by Hooper of a lack of trust in police could be undocumented witnesses to crimes, or even witnesses that just think they might be profiled as undocumented, afraid to come forward and report what they saw. This makes it more difficult for law enforcement to solve crimes and brings up the question of public safety.

Kenney has spoken out multiple times to the people of Philadelphia about his views on the city’s immigration policies. Actively fighting for Philly to stay a sanctuary city, Kenney has denounced many of Trump’s motions to lessen immigration into the United States, as well as his motions to cut off funding from the cities that provide refuge for the undocumented immigrant community.

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The Office of the Mayor and the Office of Immigrant Affairs include a statement on its website that explains its position on the federal government’s threat to defund entire cities over the policy dispute:

“Defunding entire cities is not the right way to resolve what is a policy dispute. There are those who disagree with the sanctuary city policy, but we should all be able to agree that attempting to defund entire municipalities is not the way to settle a policy disagreement. And that’s what this is: a policy disagreement, not a legal one.”

When asked for a comment about this statement, Kenney disclosed his administration’s current plan of action.

You can quote me on what we’re doing,” Kenny said, “and that is making sure our citizens are informed about our policies regarding protecting everyone’s Fourth Amendment rights through our fact sheets and action guides, and ensuring that Philadelphia remains a welcoming and inclusive city.”

Trump, however, has been very active with creating immigration policy that tightens borders and removes undocumented, and at times documented, immigrants within the U.S.

After his first executive order on immigration was blocked in courts and the harsh backlash engulfed the White House, Trump and his team revised the order and rolled out a second immigration reform attempt, Executive Order 13780, on March 6, 2017.

Set to go into action on March 16, 2017 and supplant the initial executive order, viewers quickly analyzed the orders to uncover the differences between the two. Major discrepancies between the first and second orders include that Iraq was removed from the unaccepted immigrant list, a 120 day ban was put in effect for Syrian refugees to enter the country after March 16, existing visas were to remain active and circumstances where a persons may normally be unaccepted may be allowed entry into the U.S. on the basis the Department of Homeland Security sees the foreign national void of threat to the national security and their entry is in national interest.

Executive Order 13678, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, was signed on Jan. 25, 2017 and states in section nine that states and political subdivisions of a state must comply with 8 U.S.C 1373.

Section (a) of the order notes the potential of defunding of these cities if they do not follow the executive order’s notions:

“In furtherance of this policy, the Attorney General and the Secretary, in their discretion and to the extent consistent with law, shall ensure that jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1372 (sanctuary jurisdictions) are not eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary. The Secretary has the authority to designate, in his discretion and to the extent consistent with law, a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction. The Attorney General shall take appropriate enforcement action against any entity that violates 8 U.S.C. 1373, or which has in effect a statute, policy, or practice that prevents or hinders the enforcement of Federal law.”

Tack-Hooper pointed out there is a grey area when deciding whether it is legal for the federal government to withhold funding from a city for not complying with requests regarding immigration.

“There are limits on what conditions the federal government can attach to funding,” Tack-Hooper said. “So it’s not clear, at all, that the federal government can say, ‘If you don’t imprison this person without a judicial warrant, we’re going to strip away all of your funding.’ It’s a complicated doctrine, but there will absolutely be lawsuits if that is the way that the federal government tries to go about coercing local jurisdictions to do this…they can ask, they cannot order.”

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 was one of the largest reorganizations of the Department of Homeland Security and created the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now known as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.)

ICE focuses on protecting the U.S. from cross-border crime and immigration that may be considered a threat to national security. Through the enforcement of 400 federal statutes it focuses on immigrant enforcement, preventing terrorism and combating the illegal movement of goods and people.

When asked how Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city affects its efforts, an ICE official clarified the agency does not recognize “sanctuary city” as a legal term and simply continues to enforce governmental immigration laws.

“Sanctuary city is not an ICE term,” an ICE official, speaking for the agency, said. “It’s a term that has been coined by external organizations and ICE has no official definition. As such, ICE does not designate, or name counties or cities to a sanctuary list. ICE is focused on identifying, arresting and removing public safety threats, such as criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws.”

Documented and undocumented immigrants alike in Philadelphia do not necessarily disagree with all aspects of ICE. Mario does not believe that criminal immigrants should be included in the protection the city can provide.

“I agree with the deportations of criminals or people with very serious crimes,” Mario conceded. “But this country is wrong because there is no effective agreement between the different countries. If you deport a criminal or delinquent, they will be free in their country of origin, when this should not be so…they arrive free in their countries of origin and on many occasions they return to the U.S.”

From his experiences, Mario feels that the majority of undocumented immigrants contribute to the economy’s growth and that their deportation will not solve any problems in the U.S. In his opinion, the best solution would be to create laws that regulate immigration and make it easier for people to obtain work permits.

The state of immigration in the U.S. has led to opposing views on how the country should function in regard to controlling its borders and regulations. Tensions are high between the federal government and more local jurisdictions, such as cities and states, due to ever-changing laws, interpretations of laws and disagreements on where and with whom political authority lies. As of now, Philadelphia currently exists as a “sanctuary city.” Many organizations as well as Mayor Kenney and his administration are working to keep it this way.

-Text, images, video and infographic by Kristine Fenstermacher and Shannon Hurley.

1 Comment

  1. First of all they are illegal immigrants. They avoided the border patrols because they knew they were coming in illegally. Secondly they stole someone’s future. Someone here legally that needed a job to turn their life around or someone who has been waiting in line legally to come here. They need to leave and apply and get in line like everyone else did.

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