Sanctuary cities are illegal? Martina White vs. reality

State Representative Martina White believes that Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy is illegal. In short, it is not.

White, a Northeast Philly Republican, is sponsoring an anti-sanctuary cities bill. It would make self-declared “sanctuary” municipalities liable for damages if an undocumented person commits a crime there.  “All I can tell you is the federal law needs to be upheld. Okay?” White told Billy Penn when asked if she was prepared for legal challenges to her bill, if passed. “The fact that the City of Philadelphia is a sanctuary city, disobeying actively the federal law when it comes to illegal immigration and illegal immigrants is wrong. And it needs to be addressed.”

We spoke with White yesterday, after video surfaced of her tense run-in with immigration activists Monday. As Al Dia reported, members from four groups met with White in her office in Harrisburg. One activist told Al Dia that they were invited. White told Metro that the meeting was an “ambush.”

Discussion devolved into argument. White yelled at the activists, demanding that they leave her office. Part of this exchange was captured on audio and video. A rep for White tells Billy Penn she had no knowledge that she was being recorded. If this is true, that could mean their conversation was recorded illegally — Pennsylvania is a two-party consent state, which means discussions can’t be taped unless everyone agrees.

Right now, there are people breaking the law by being here in our state illegally. You know that? You know that, right?” White can be heard saying. Activists took issue with “racist rhetoric” and asked White to stop using the term “these people.” White, in turn, raised her voice and demanded that they leave her office.

Asked how she would describe the bill, White said, “I would just say that my bill, House Bill 1885, is really designed to uphold federal law. It’s designed to make sure if a municipality in Pennsylvania declares themselves a sanctuary city and does not allow their law enforcement to uphold federal immigration law, then they will have to incur any of the damages that are caused by an illegal immigrant to a victim here in a sanctuary city,” she said.

“It’s really designed to protect citizens who [are] here legally… here to build a better life for them and their families,” she continued. “That’s about as simple as it gets.”

White said that perhaps 100 constituents in her district, which encompasses Somerton and Parkwood, contacted her about Philly’s sanctuary city status, worried that the policy posed a danger to public safety.

“The concerns had come right when our current mayor had declared Philadelphia a sanctuary city. A lot of the people calling in, they were shocked. They were upset at the thought of our mayor declaring our city a place where basically fugitives and people who could be criminals could be protected under the law, or this rule if you will, because it’s really just his decision that he made to not uphold federal law,” said White.

But does the sanctuary city status really break federal law?

City Solicitor Sozi Tulante issued a statement to Billy Penn in response to White’s claim that says, essentially, no: “[T]he city’s Sanctuary City policy fully conforms with federal law.”

He’s right. Here’s some background.

Philadelphia became a “sanctuary city” in 2014 under then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s executive order, a policy he rescinded just before he left office. Kenney reversed this, signing an executive order of his own on his first day in office, declaring that Philadelphia police and prisons were not to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to detain immigrants who haven’t committed a violent criminal offense.

Kenney’s executive order isn’t breaking federal law. The city policy to not allow ICE holds does go against Department of Homeland Security regulations. But in 2014, the federal circuit court— on a case out of Allentown— ruled that localities aren’t required to do so

The conversation around sanctuary cities is confusing, primarily because there’s no legal definition and people apply it in varying contexts. For a more in-depth breakdown on sanctuary policies, check out this PolitiFact PA explainer. Some highlights: That local police departments would investigate and arrest undocumented residents solely for having an unlawful immigration status is a misconception. The bulk of local police departments do not do this, as it’s not a civil offense. Research shows that police often prefer not to enforce immigration status; doing so could injure efforts to establish trust in immigrant neighborhoods, which could discourage witnesses from coming forward and make streets harder to police. Anyone on U.S. soil, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, has access to the constitutional right to due process and protection against unreasonable search and seizure, advocates argue. So, a request to detain someone without a charge — called an ICE hold — can get a local police department sued.

“The federal law is not optional,” White said. Again, Kenney’s executive order isn’t actually violating federal law, and White doesn’t appear to grasp this.

HB 1885 is unclear on ICE holds. Its focus is on penalizing jurisdictions that restrict information-sharing and that allow undocumented residents to benefit from public assistance that they are ineligible for, but that’s not what Kenney’s executive order dictates. But, there is a stipulation in her bill that would require municipalities to cooperate with federal agencies.

Biometric data from bookings is shared automatically with ICE at the same time as the FBI. When asked if she had heard complaints that Pennsylvanian cities had been withholding information even with this practice in place, White had this to say: “We have seen this across the country in various states or municipalities where law enforcement officers are confused,” she said. “I think [Republican State Rep.] Doyle Heffley had provided a good example of an illegal alien who had a bunch of fraudulent welfare cards of some kind in the vehicle, but didn’t even know what to do because there’s such a contradiction between what are they supposed to do.”

Molly Tack-Hooper, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told Billy Penn, “It certainly seems like [White’s Bill] would invite racial profiling and could be challenged in court on that basis.”

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