Of sanctions and sanctuaries

PA Rep. Martina White (in pink), re-elected last week, is leading the anti-sanctuary city fight.

PA Rep. Martina White (in pink), re-elected last week, is leading the anti-sanctuary city fight.

Way back in the early 2000s, a TV ad for Dr. Scholl’s massaging gel insoles – stay with me here – depicted a series of (mostly) men at a party extolling the relaxing virtue of the insoles by asking other partygoers,“You gellin’?”

One of the revelers, a smiling, clean-cut white guy, answered the question with, “I’m gellin’ like a felon.” It was a startling (and unfortunate) word choice that created such an uproar, the ad was soon recut and “felon” was replaced by “Magellan” in the rhyme scheme.

I am reminded of that ad every time I hear people refer to the undocumented immigrants targeted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) as “felons.” Since DHS claims that PEP targets only dangerous and violent criminals, folks often argue that Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” – requiring a judicial warrant before local law enforcement will execute an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold – jeopardizes public safety by protecting the felons gellin’ on our streets.

That’s the tenor, anyway, of HB 1885 – the bill authored by Rep. Martina White (R-170) of Northeast Philadelphia that sought to impose sanctions on “sanctuary cities” that do not comply with PEP, and further facilitated reporting of suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE.

The bill stalled out before its final vote but is coming back up for a vote in what’s left of the session after the elections.

Though White’s been a leading voice on the issue, she wasn’t the only anti-sanctuary-city state legislator hoping to be re-elected on Nov. 8. Rep. Kevin Boyle sent out pre-election flyers hyping his own anti-sanctuary-city bona fides.

But here’s the thing: There is no consensus that if PEP were in place in Philadelphia (or any other municipality) it would actually do what it advertises – that is, prioritize dangerous criminals, or even those convicted on felony charges, for deportation. In actuality, according to many immigration advocates and lawyers, the program mostly targets undocumented immigrants with no criminal offenses on their record.

“The Priority Enforcement Program has been billed as a way for the federal government to work with state and local law enforcement to take custody of individuals who pose a danger to public safety prior to their release into the communities,” said Matthew L. Kolken, a trial lawyer and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “In practice, however, there is little evidence that ICE is limiting its resources to individuals with serious convictions. In fact, the Obama administration's definition of ‘criminal alien’ includes people with traffic tickets.”

Looking at the statistics compiled by Syracuse University’s non-partisan Trac Immigration Project bolsters Kolken’s assertion. Late in 2015, Kolken blogged Trac Immigration numbers: “According to ICE detainer-by-detainer records released to Trac, during April 2015, only about one-third (32 percent) of individuals on whom detainers were placed (nationwide) had been convicted of a crime. And only 19 percent had a felony conviction. Fully two-thirds had no criminal conviction of any type.”

I took a look at the Trac numbers for U.S. deportation proceedings in fiscal 2017 (through October) for Pennsylvania. During that time, the commonwealth had charged a total of 137 people with immigration violations. Forty of those were for entry to the United States without inspection; 61 were for other immigration charges, which include overstaying visas or being out of status for a variety of reasons. In the same period, Pennsylvania had charged a total of 16 people with criminal violations: six of those were for aggravated felonies; 10 were on other criminal charges. (The total for fiscal 2017 overall is a dramatic reduction from the 2016 total of 4,727.)

None of this is really news to those who have been engaged with immigration concerns. When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was in Philadelphia on May 3 for closed-door meetings with Mayor Jim Kenney and city immigration advocates, he heard plenty of unfettered criticism about PEP’s priorities.

“His framing was, ‘these are security threats,’ (but) he left questions unanswered,” said Erika Almirón, the executive director of Juntos, the South Philadelphia-based Latinx immigrant organization.

Peter Pedemonti, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement, who was also at the meeting, said that Johnson was “visibly agitated” by the advocates’ refusal to budge on the city requirement that ICE holds have judicial warrants to back them up.

Despite its PEP talk, DHS cannot deny it prioritizes deportation of undocumented immigrants without any criminal background whatsoever.

When questioned by advocates about the DHS home raids initiated in January that resulted in expedited deportations of mothers and children who had recently fled violence in Central America in hopes of securing asylee status in the United States, Johnson defended the priority even without any attendant security threat.

One of the problems in addressing concerns about PEP and about “Operation Border Guardian” (as the January home raids were designated) is that, according to Pedemonti, Johnson “doesn’t think deportation is a punishment.”

Neither, it seems do White, Boyle or any of the other 136 Republican and Democratic PA House members whose vote sent the bill through for a Senate vote in November. 

HB 1885 doesn’t make a distinction between undocumented immigrants with decades of residence in a U.S. community, thriving businesses, citizen family members and no criminal background, and those who are actually committing crimes, because PEP doesn’t make that distinction. And until legislation is predicated on a less flawed federal policy, neither HB 1885 nor any other anti-sanctuary city bill will be a genuine public safety measure. Neither will it have the moral authority its author thinks – and would like us to believe – it does.