Left: State Rep. Martina White Right: Mayor Jim Kenney

Correction appended

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney blasted a bill moving through the legislature that would impact the city’s “sanctuary city” status today, calling it a political “dog-whistle” and saying he questioned a state representative’s understanding of the law.

A bill introduced by Northeast Philadelphia Republican Rep. Martina White passed through the state House’s Committee on State Government Tuesday. It takes aim at Kenney’s sanctuary city policy which dictates that the city won’t comply with hold requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, unless the person was charged with a violent crime.

White’s bill would do two things:

  1. It would hold the city liable for damages from criminal activity by an undocumented immigrant. (The bill’s language uses the phrase “unauthorized aliens.”)
  2. It would essentially make Philadelphia’s policy illegal under state law by explicitly prohibiting any restrictions on law enforcement officials from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with the feds.

Most critically, if the bill passes and the city doesn’t comply, the bill would allow the state to withhold any state funds to the city until it comes into compliance with the bill.

In a statement released this morning, Kenney slammed White’s bill, saying: “I sincerely hope that the Republican Party wrote this legislation to help Donald Trump win Pennsylvania because if Representative White actually wrote this bill with the intention of reducing crime then I have serious concerns about her understanding of the law, government and policing.”

Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy has been controversial. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has asked Kenney — and other mayors nationwide with similar policies — to reconsider how they work with federal immigration officials. But Kenney has largely balked at the request, saying the city shouldn’t be in the business of reporting undocumented immigrants to the feds just because they were stopped or otherwise discovered by police for a minor offense.

White said Wednesday morning she hadn’t seen Kenney’s statement, would would return an inquiry from Billy Penn once she read it. But White has been a stark opponent of the policy.

“All I can tell you is the federal law needs to be upheld. Okay?” White told Billy Penn in April 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.”

But at the time, White misrepresented the law — in short, it isn’t actually illegal. 

Starting in 2014, former Mayor Michael Nutter designated Philadelphia as a sanctuary city, but then reversed course on that just before he left office. On Kenney’s first day in office, he reinstated Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city via an executive order. The city’s policy does violate regulations put in place by the Department of Homeland Security, but the courts have ruled that municipalities aren’t bound by those regulations like they are federal law.

Kenney said the bill stripping the city’s of its sanctuary city policy would make it harder for the city to solve and prevent crime by discouraging undocumented immigrants from reporting crime to the police and eroding “the trust between police and the communities they serve.”

“Furthermore, and perhaps most hypocritically, this legislation would hurt the very people Rep. White claims to be protecting,” the mayor continued. “If the City failed to comply with this incredibly dangerous law, we would lose funding for thousands of our most vulnerable children. If Rep. White wants to help those children, she needs to spend less time helping the Republican Party dog-whistle and more time working on school funding so that our children can actually have a safe, stable learning environment.”

Here’s the text of the bill:

[scribd url=”https://www.scribd.com/document/324795534/Sanctuary-cities-bill”]

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.