By Jeff Gammage and Claudia Irizarry-Aponte
Mayor Kenney won't renew a controversial city contract that allows federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to access a key law-enforcement database, known as PARS, and use that information against undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants in Philadelphia.
"I cannot in good conscience allow the agreement to continue," the mayor said.
The decision, announced Friday, follows months of consultation with community groups, lawyers, and immigrant advocates, and weeks of tumultuous protests by anti-ICE demonstrators, who on Wednesday took over and held a City Hall stairway.
ICE officials criticized the city's action as "needlessly compromising public safety," and Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman called it "an irresponsible decision that results in the city harboring criminal aliens."
"Sanctuary city policies make American communities like Philadelphia less safe by putting the rights of criminal aliens over the safety and security of American citizens," she said in a statement. "Despite the misguided action taken by Philadelphia today, DHS will continue to work to remove illegal aliens and uphold public safety."
Kenney made his announcement at City Hall, in a ceremonial room that quickly filled with raucous cheering by pro-immigrant groups that have insisted the PARS agreement must end.
Blanca Pacheco came to City Hall surrounded by children, all of whom, she said, now know that raising their voices can create change. "They're part of the work," said the assistant director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
Kenney said the loud, public demands of Occupy ICE demonstrators -- still encamped outside City Hall as he spoke -- played little role in his thinking. Crucial to him was the city's legal standing, affirmed after a federal court victory last month, and providing basic, humane treatment of people who came here from other lands.
"All of us have ancestors who were once immigrants," the mayor said, choking up. "All of us."
PARS is an acronym for a real-time computer database of arrests, operated by the city and shared via contract with ICE, the federal agency responsible for finding and deporting people in the country without documentation.
Kenney said he had grown concerned that ICE was using the database "in inappropriate ways," including to conduct investigations of undocumented immigrants who had not broken any other laws. That sows fear and distrust in immigrant communities, he said, with the effect of discouraging crime victims and witnesses from coming forward.
Discussions with ICE officials did not allay those concerns, but confirmed them, Kenney said.
According to the Kenney administration:
-- At a July 18 meeting, ICE officials conceded that the agency's use of PARS can result in immigration enforcement actions against city residents who have not been accused or convicted of a crime.
-- ICE claimed it was impractical to adopt procedures that would prevent agents from arresting law-abiding residents for civil immigration violations when the agency acted on information found in PARS.
-- Each day, ICE probes PARS to find people who were born outside the United States, then targets them for further investigation, even though the database does not list their immigration status.
-- The agency produced no information to allay city officials' concerns about the profiling of residents by race, ethnicity, or national origin. In a letter to the city, ICE officials denied any profiling.
Three city entities rely on PARS: the District Attorney's Office, the court system, and the Police Department, which is responsible to the mayor. In the past, consensus among the three allowed the agreement with ICE to continue. Now, both District Attorney Larry Krasner and the mayor have withdrawn their consent, and the court system, officials say, has abstained.
Though PARS does not collect information on immigration status, advocates contend the database is dangerous because it notes country of origin and Social Security numbers -- enough for ICE agents to undertake an investigation.
"Data and speed is the perfect combo for ICE to use Philly resources to hunt down immigrants," Juntos spokesman Miguel Andrade tweeted earlier this month.
Kenney has been outspoken in support of immigrants, including filing a federal "sanctuary city" lawsuit against the Trump administration over the right to limit police cooperation with ICE. Last month, a federal judge ruled for Philadelphia, saying the city's position was based on policies that were reasonable, rational, and equitable.
The PARS matter has simmered since the weather turned warm.
This month, as many as 175 demonstrators massed outside the Center City office of ICE, calling for the agency to be abolished, the family detention center in Berks County to be closed, and the PARS agreement to end. Forcibly removed from those environs, an Occupy ICE encampment quickly relocated to the east side of City Hall.
"PARS is over," activist Deborah Rose shouted through a megaphone as the mayor spoke inside on Friday. "It's done."
The 33-year-old West Philadelphia protester led a dozen others into the street for a victory lap.
Others felt the enthusiasm. "It's exciting that this movement has really pushed [the mayor] to recognize the issue and address it," said Michelle Ziogas, 27.
ICE was told of the PARS cancellation on Thursday, in an emailed letter from City Solicitor Marcel Pratt. The contract expires Aug. 31.
He wrote that the decision was consistent with the administration's "Welcoming City" policies, "which reflect the principle that our city is safer, healthier, and more inviting" when residents need not be in fear about their immigration status.