On January 25, a day before his first visit to Philadelphia, President Trump signed an executive order threatening to revoke federal grants to cities such as Philadelphia which continue to maintain their status as “sanctuary cities.” In a press conference the same day, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (a Democrat) repeated his pledge to keep Philadelphia a sanctuary city. Kenney’s sentiments echo those of mayors of other cities like New York, Los Angeles and Boston, who also responded defiantly to the Trump order.
Sanctuary Cities: What is at stake?
The term “sanctuary city” has no precise legal definition. Rather, it is a loose term that is usually used to describe a city which limits the extent to which local law enforcement cooperates with Immigrations and Customs Enforcment (ICE). Philadelphia’s designation as a sanctuary city stems from three orders signed by former mayor Michael Nutter. The first mandates that the city provide equal services to immigrants and other non-English-speaking residents. The second, signed in 2009, is an order barring city employees from inquiring about the immigration status of residents. The third, signed in 2014, is an order barring local law enforcement from complying with “ICE holds.” It is this latter policy that is the topic of debate. An “ICE hold,” also called an “immigration detainer,” is created when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) becomes aware that a foreign national has been detained by local law enforcement. DHS or ICE then requests that the local law enforcement notify ICE when this person is to be released and hand them over to ICE.
Many US cities now refuse to comply with ICE holds and, up to this point, there has been no way of forcing these cities to comply. The reasons for the refusal to comply with ICE holds are many. For one, there has been substantial social pressure from immigrant-rights organizations in many cities, putting pressure on politicians to make cities safer for all citizens, regardless of immigration status. Secondly, it is the opinion of many in law enforcement that sanctuary city status makes police work easier, as ICE holds create a climate in which many residents are afraid to call or even speak to the police for fear of ending up in an ICE detention facility.
In the current political climate, in which Trump’s rise to power was fueled by his talent for tapping into America’s deep vein of xenophobia and paranoia, the essential issues at stake are brought into even sharper focus. Will we let Trumpism divide our cities, communities, country, and the world with racism and fear? Will we let the working class be divided by racism? Or will we stand strong and defend the ideals of equality, freedom, and solidarity?
Of course, cities like Philadelphia will have a hard time staying united behind their sanctuary-city status if the federal government is able to withhold substantial funding. Trump’s threat of withdrawing federal funding is meant to make us turn on each other and divide us. Fortunately, the predominant point of view at the moment is that Trump’s threat is an empty one. Lawyers for Mayor Kenney have advised him that the only funding that Trump can constitutionally withhold would be funding for anti-terrorism activities. It is highly unlikely that the Republicans will want to be seen taking anti-terrorism funding away from American cities. However, Trump seems determined to push the limits of the Constitution, or to bypass it entirely, and he has surrounded himself, as he has his whole life, with lackeys and appeasers that seem content to follow him into the abyss of “post-truth,” extra-legal authoritarianism without batting an eye. So it remains to be seen whether Trump tries to withdraw other funding from cities like Philadelphia, and what the public reaction may be.
Though Mayor Nutter was the mayor who originally created Philly’s sanctuary status, he notoriously, and mysteriously, reversed course just two weeks before the end of his term as Mayor, directing law enforcement to comply with ICE holds. This was a mysterious move because everyone knew that incoming mayor Jim Kenney was committed to Philly’s sanctuary status. However, when Nutter was appointed to a Homeland Security advisory council less than a month later, many became suspicious that his eleventh-hour reversal was a cynical career move to curry favor with DHS. Such a display of opportunism serves as a reminder not to put too much faith in our local Democratic establishment. The only way to assure that Philadelphia remains a sanctuary city is to build and maintain strong social movements that advocate for these issues.