Philadelphia is a Sanctuary City. The Kenney Administration Needs to Ensure it Stays That Way.

Photo by 7beachbum | CC BY 2.0

by Anika Prakash

Ahead of November 3, Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration need to put stronger measures in place to guarantee that ICE will stay away from Philadelphia, no matter who is elected to any office. As a “sanctuary city,” Philadelphia has minimal cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in order to protect undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes, but it also has a duty to protect its undocumented population — estimated to be around 50,000 as of 2017 — as a whole. 

Although the Kenney administration has done a lot to maintain this status and keep ICE out of Philadelphia, to truly be considered a “sanctuary,” the city needs to ensure continued protection of undocumented immigrants from injustice at the hands of both police and legal systems. Law enforcement agencies like ICE are inherently problematic; however, until they are abolished, the burden lies upon cities themselves to keep their undocumented immigrants safe. There is no guarantee that the city’s resistance to ICE through sanctuary policies will last, and a lot of it depends on the outcome of the upcoming election. Beyond the carceral aspect of this issue, Philadelphia needs to implement policies seeking to uplift undocumented immigrants, not just shield them. 


Philadelphia’s classification as a sanctuary city occurred in 2014 under former mayor Michael Nutter, and although it was briefly rescinded for two weeks at the end of his term, Kenney reinstated it upon his inauguration in 2016. Since then, the city has been under attack from both state and federal legislators — including Donald Trump — who want to enact laws that would withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities in order to force them to turn over every undocumented immigrant to ICE. As this legal assault persists in Congress and in the courts, ICE continues to conduct operations on the ground that single out these cities, touting each and every arrest they make in order to “prove” a point. Despite this, Philadelphia has done a lot to resist its presence.

One of the most notable changes Philadelphia made came in 2018, when the city ended a major data-sharing contract with ICE that had given it access to the city’s arrest database. ICE then used this information — specifically searching for Hispanic names — to try to identify and arrest undocumented immigrants. Being undocumented is classified as a civil violation, not a criminal offense. As such, if the police arrests someone who happens to be undocumented, they can only be held and charged for the crime they were arrested for, not for being undocumented. Although sanctuary policies meant that the police would not directly input the arrestee’s immigration status into a federal database, ICE was able to use the general arrest database as a loophole to single out undocumented immigrants. The termination of this practice, combined with the city’s refusal to detain undocumented immigrants for ICE without a warrant, put a target on Philadelphia’s back that still remains.

ICE Strikes Back

In addition to continuing its attack against sanctuary cities, ICE has also sought to promote its rhetoric, especially in Pennsylvania. In early October, ICE began putting up billboards spotlighting undocumented immigrants who had previously committed crimes in order to turn more people against the apparent “dangers” of sanctuary cities like Philadelphia. This campaign falsely portrays undocumented immigrants as disproportionately “dangerous,” when the reality of the situation is that undocumented immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than any other documented immigrant or American citizen. As such, this strategy was highly condemned not only by Philadelphia officials, but by former officials from the Department of Homeland Security as well. 

Around the same time, ICE also began planning a new operation to perform raids in sanctuary cities. In response, Mayor Kenney released a statement saying that Philadelphia would “continue welcoming, celebrating, and fighting for the rights of our undocumented immigrants and their families.” Although the attack against sanctuary cities led to over 170 arrests — a number flaunted by ICE in its Philadelphia press conference — none of the arrests occurred in Philadelphia itself. 

Previous Failures

Although Kenney and his administration are vocally against ICE, the city does not have a perfect record when it comes to protecting its undocumented immigrants. In 2018, an investigation by ProPublica and The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that numerous public employees, including “police, probation officers, and even one of Kenney’s top deputies” had wrongfully reached out to ICE about undocumented immigrants who had been charged with a crime, despite the city’s sanctuary policies.

Although the city did try to clarify sanctuary policies to ensure this would not happen again, it still seems as though not all public employees are on the same page. Many argue that the Philadelphia Police Department still wrongfully targets immigrants — documented or otherwise — such as when prominent activist Nancy Nguyen was arrested on bogus charges after attending a protest outside the home of Tony Pham, the head of ICE. 

Moving Forward

While Kenney has been outspoken about keeping ICE out of Philadelphia, his administration needs to do more to ensure this actually occurs. The city can start by taking steps to truly eliminate all cooperation between the PPD and ICE and by enacting harsher repercussions for public employees who break these sanctuary policies. It should also further develop the project it began in 2019 to ensure that undocumented immigrants have access to legal counsel and representation since the vast majority of those facing deportation are otherwise unrepresented. At the beginning of the pandemic, budget cuts endangered this program, but they have since had funding restored

Furthermore, the hardships that undocumented immigrants endure do not start and end with ICE; the aforementioned program is the only public project that exists for Philadelphia to help undocumented immigrants, and the city needs to do more to help in other ways as well. For example, although many people have struggled financially due to the pandemic, undocumented immigrants are in an especially dire situation as they are unable to receive coronavirus relief through either direct payments or unemployment benefits. In fact, non-citizens are unable to access most public assistance in general. Although the city did enact a few programs to distribute free food and fund nonprofits working to help immigrants, many people were not aware of, and thus not aided by, these measures. The Kenney administration said it could not do much else to assist undocumented immigrants financially.

Although it is clear that Philadelphia is working to keep its sanctuary city title by resisting ICE and attempting to assist undocumented immigrants, these efforts have not always completely succeeded in practice. It is overwhelmingly clear that the Philadelphia Police Department needs a radical overhaul for countless reasons other than this one, especially in light of the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. As part of the transition away from carceral systems, undocumented immigrants need to be assured protection from ICE as well since they have all too often been betrayed by collaboration between the PPD and ICE. 

The city also needs to recognize that to really be a sanctuary, its efforts cannot just end with keeping ICE out; the Kenney administration also has to put in work to uplift undocumented immigrants, especially during this difficult time. This could mean going to court to fight the federal government’s exclusionary policies which prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing any funding from the $2.2 trillion pandemic stimulus effort, just as the city went to court repeatedly to push back against ICE. While the goal is ultimately to abolish law enforcement systems rooted in injustice such as ICE, the city has a duty to protect its people from these forces for as long as they exist. As we work towards criminal justice reform on multiple fronts, it is important to remember the situation of undocumented immigrants, whose mere presence in the United States is deemed illegal.

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