Setting the record straight on sanctuary cities

The City of Philadelphia put together this set of frequently asked questions on sanctuary cities.

What is a sanctuary city?

There is no singular, legal definition of what constitutes a sanctuary city, so the term means different things to different people.

In Philadelphia, we cooperate fully with all law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies, to support criminal and terrorism investigations and apprehend those accused of crimes. We also do not stop Immigration and Custom Enforcement from arresting anyone in Philadelphia, if ICE believes they are undocumented. Additionally, if ICE presents a warrant to the City for an inmate in City custody, the City will cooperate with ICE by allowing ICE to take that person into ICE custody.

The only place where the City does not cooperate is when it comes to what are known as “detainer requests.” Detainer requests are requests made by ICE to local jurisdictions, such as our prisons, to hold someone without a warrant because ICE suspects that the person may be undocumented. These requests are not mandatory or legally binding — they are merely requests. The City is not breaking any law by not complying with these requests.

Philadelphia does not comply with detainer requests because holding someone in jail without a legal warrant is unconstitutional and puts us at risk for serious financial liability. In fact, a federal court in Lehigh County ruled that local jurisdictions could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits for holding individuals based solely on ICE detainer requests.

Additionally, in order to strengthen trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, Philadelphia police officers do not ask about anyone’s immigration status. We’ve found this policy keeps our officers safe and helps them solve crimes because immigrants are willing to come forward to report crimes when they are victims and act as witnesses.

Why is Philadelphia a sanctuary city?

Adopting sanctuary policies has kept crime low and our city safe. Philadelphia is at the lowest crime rate we’ve had in 40 years, partly because of all that our police department has done to strengthen police-community relations. If we are forced to reverse this policy, immigrants will become less likely to report crimes and it is very hard for our officers to solve crimes without witnesses.

Additionally, there’s little evidence that immigrants make communities any less safe — in fact, the opposite is true. In areas where immigration has increased, crime either remains stable, or in areas where immigration is high, serious crimes are in fact lower than other areas.

Philadelphia is not the only city or county to adopt and implement sanctuary policies — at least 18 rural and suburban counties and municipalities in Pennsylvania have adopted similar policies.

This includes rural counties like Westmoreland, Lycoming and Pike and cities like York and Erie (among many others). They all have similar policies because of the significant financial burden, operational challenges, potential liability and legal complications related to cooperation. Lehigh County was successfully sued and paid nearly $100,000 after ICE incorrectly identified a man and the county held him at ICE’s request.

What about the undocumented individuals who commit crimes?

An undocumented individual who commits a crime is not afforded special rights simply because we are a sanctuary city. Anyone who commits a crime will be pursued and prosecuted by the City, no matter what their immigration status. Sanctuary city laws do not allow dangerous criminals to evade ICE officials and reoffend. ICE has the power to keep dangerous undocumented individuals from being released, all it needs to do is obtain a warrant — the same requirement made of every other law enforcement agency in the country — and the City of Philadelphia will honor that warrant.

Is the city’s funding from the state and federal government at risk of being cut due to the sanctuary city status?

So far, Philadelphia faces challenges to our sanctuary city status from the federal government, via a presidential executive order and from the state General Assembly via Senate Bill 10. In both instances, it is very unclear what funding would ultimately be at risk.

As explained above, the debate we are having over sanctuary cities is a policy disagreement, not a question of whether the city of Philadelphia is following the law. And we are setting a dangerous precedent for both parties if we allow funding to be cut off to municipalities because we don’t agree with one another’s beliefs.

What can I do to support our sanctuary city status?

You can contact state legislators and Gov. Wolf to express your concerns about SB10. Philadelphia could be pushed to either violate the Constitution or lose significant funding if this bill is passed by the House and signed by the governor. So, please call the governor (717–787–2500) and state House members and let them know that the way to resolve policy disagreements is not to attempt to defund municipalities. You can find your state legislators’ number at legis.state.pa.us ••