Philadelphia's Outgoing Mayor May End 'Sanctuary City' Policy

by | November 13, 2015 AT 2:50 PM

By Michael Matza

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison indicated Thursday that the city was ready to roll back a 2014 executive order that has barred city police and prison officials from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Immigrant-rights groups, which learned of the proposed changes during a private meeting at City Hall led by Gillison, lambasted the decision and immediately took their concerns to the office of Mayor-elect Jim Kenney. Afterward, Kenney's spokeswoman said Kenney agreed with their concerns. Gillison unveiled the policy, which would allow local-federal cooperation if a suspect is accused of murder, rape, robbery, domestic violence, illegal possession of a firearm, or involvement in terrorism, during a meeting with 30 to 40 advocates from Juntos, the New Sanctuary Movement, One Love, and other groups.

Eighteen months ago, amid cheers from immigrant-rights groups, Mayor Nutter signed an order ending the city's compliance with federal requests to detain immigrants who otherwise would be released pending trial.

The requests -- called "ICE holds" -- were instituted under the federal Secure Communities program to enhance federal agents' ability to apprehend dangerous criminals.

But "as a result of the overly aggressive use of these detainers," Nutter said at the signing, "some immigrants will not report crimes to the police, don't want to be witnesses, and suffer accordingly."

Advocates hailed the order as "one of the most progressive anti-deportation policies" in the nation.

Now those same advocates are angry and disappointed that Nutter appears ready to take back his promises, said Erika Almiron, director of Juntos, a South Philadelphia group that serves Latino immigrants.

"This will create further distrust and confusion," she said. "What immigrants will hear is that the city is working with ICE again."

In an interview after the meeting, Gillison said Nutter had been in talks about the issue with President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. As a result, Nutter asked Gillison to revisit the matter and see whether changes were warranted after Secure Communities was superseded by the federal Priority Enforcement Program.

"We have various ideas of how the order could be modified," said Gillison. "I'm trying to put in writing what is common sense. If a person is suspected of being a terrorist, and they happen to be in our custody, are you telling me that we don't want to tell the feds?"

When some of the advocates went to Kenney's office, he wasn't available, but his spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, met with about eight people from the various groups.

In an interview after that meeting, Hitt said Kenney's camp has not seen a draft of the order, but if it was as the advocates described, Kenney would overturn it.

"Jim is committed to keeping the current status of Philadelphia as a sanctuary city," she said. "He doesn't plan on increasing cooperation with ICE."

Such policy differences, she added, would not hamper an otherwise "cooperative" transfer of power Jan. 4.

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