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Philly’s sanctuary city status vs. Harrisburg and DC: A controversy, explained

There’s been a lot of movement this week.

It’s not just President Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office that has wreaked havoc in Philadelphia’s immigrant community.

Now, the state’s piling on as the legislature is moving toward passing at least one bill addressing Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” — a loosely defined phrase that means the city has vowed to protect undocumented immigrants in its custody by refusing to comply with certain detainer requests from the feds.

Trump promised along the campaign trail that he would end sanctuary jurisdictions (there are more than 200 in the country) by stripping federal funding from cities that refuse to comply with detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Meanwhile, the state’s moving on a bill that would also make sanctuary cities ineligible for state grants and would require the city to comply with ICE detainer requests.

That state bill is more worrisome for Mayor Jim Kenney, who said, “The Senate bill is far more dangerous than Trump’s meanderings.”

Kenney and most city leaders have steadfastly supported keeping that sanctuary city status in the face of threats from GOP-controlled Washington and Harrisburg.  But even Council President Darrell Clarke, who continues to support the city’s sanctuary status, sparked concern last week when he said the city may need to explore its policy options as it considers a scenario where the city could be stripped of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding.

There’s been a lot of movement in this within the last week. Here are some of your sanctuary city questions answered:

Remind me of what our sanctuary city status does…?

Mayor Michael Nutter made Philadelphia a sanctuary city in 2014, meaning that if there was an undocumented immigrant in custody of local law enforcement and ICE put in a detainer request on that person, the city wouldn’t hold them unless they were convicted of committing a violent crime. Nutter briefly ended the status at the end of his term, and on his first day in office last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order reinstating it and re-establishing Philadelphia as a sanctuary city. We rejoined other major cities like New York, Chicago and Boston.

Proponents of the measure say it fosters better community relations with police and prevents crime by encouraging undocumented immigrants to come to police with reports of crime and otherwise. Kenney’s administration has also referred to the city as a “Fourth Amendment city,” asserting that following these types of detainer requests would be unconstitutional. Opponents say the strategy violates federal law and puts residents in danger by allowing undocumented immigrants in custody to be released.

What’s up in Harrisburg though?

The state Senate, fresh off listening to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address, went to work Tuesday and passed Senate Bill 10, a bill drafted by Allegheny County Republican Guy Reschenthaler that requires sanctuary jurisdictions comply with ICE detainer requests. If they don’t, the jurisdictions will then be rendered ineligible for certain state grants totaling about $1.3 billion. The bill also makes sanctuary cities liable for damages if any undocumented person commits a crime.

The bill passed 37-12 in the state Senate Tuesday. Three Democrats — Lisa Boscola (Lehigh), John Yudichak (Carbon) and Andrew Dinniman (Chester) — sided with Republicans and voted in favor of the bill while Philadelphia Democrat Sen. Christine Tartaglione didn’t cast a vote. The rest of the chamber voted along party lines.

So now it goes to the House?

Yes. Meanwhile, the House has its own related sanctuary cities bill that it already passed once last session but died before it could make it to the governor’s desk. That bill, drafted by Northeast Philadelphia Republican Martina White, would also strip the city of certain funds and would make it liable for damages incurred if an undocumented person commits a crime.

White has said she plans to re-introduce that bill. It’s likely GOP leaders from both the House and the Senate will discuss both bills and pick which one they want to move with, making amendments on the other to satisfy both chambers of the government. Both bills could pass the Senate and the House.

That means there’s a good chance Wolf, a Democrat, will be staring at a controversial sanctuary cities bill on his desk this session.

Will Wolf veto the bill?

Wolf has not been afraid to use his veto pen since taking office now more than two years ago. But his administration has been careful to not say that he plans to veto this one. With both White and Reschenthaler’s bills, the administration has said only that Wolf will carefully review any bill, but that he does have “concerns” about it.

So it’s unclear. But as a fellow reporter pointed out Tuesday, three Democrats in the Senate breaking ranks and voting with Republicans doesn’t exactly bode well for the chances that Wolf may veto.

I heard something about a veto-proof majority. Is that a thing?

After the November election, the GOP secured what’s called a “veto-proof majority” in the state Senate by grabbing two-thirds of the seats in the chamber. But that’s largely symbolic, because the GOP does not hold the same advantage in the House, where Republicans hold a 122-81 edge.

In order to override a veto from the governor, two-thirds of both chambers must vote to override. That means that while the Senate could easily override a Wolf veto, the House would need about a dozen Democrats to break ranks and vote with Republicans. It’s possible, just tough to do.

But the veto-proof majority does ratchet up the pressure on Wolf, ensuring that a veto would only prolong the political battle over immigration in Harrisburg. (Relevant: He’s up for reelection next year.) Sparks will surely fly if Republicans use this as their attempt to override Wolf.

Alright. So what’s up with Trump and the feds?

Just take Harrisburg and enlarge it to federal bureaucracy level while adding a Republican president taking hard stances against immigration. That’s Washington!

If you follow this issue, you know Trump’s anti-sanctuary cities. Vehemently. So is his cabinet, and so is the Republican party in Congress. Even former President Obama’s administration wasn’t so thrilled about how Philadelphia was handling undocumented immigrants.

So far, Trump has signed an executive order that he says allows the federal government to strip funds from sanctuary jurisdictions. Like some of his other executive orders (including the travel ban that’s likely already headed to the Supreme Court), we’re in cloudy legal territory here and it’s unclear whether or not administrations can just unilaterally cancel federal funding streams to certain places. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that grants to sanctuary cities will be suspended on a “case-by-case” basis. 

“If we are specifically giving grants for cooperation on the removal of illegal aliens and the department or city is no longer doing that, it seems irresponsible to me to continue giving them the money,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said.

Now it’s a waiting game to see what that means.

Didn’t Pat Toomey have a bill too?

Yes. So many bills. Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is maybe not the most popular man in Philadelphia right now, last session pushed his own sanctuary cities bill that he says goes beyond an executive order. It would strip millions of dollars worth of federal funding from sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia — the most populous city Toomey represents. Last summer, Democrats blocked his attempts to move on the legislation. But you can be sure that battle isn’t over yet.

Seems like the city’s immigration policy is under attack. How’s the city responding?

It is. Mayor Kenney has spent a good part of his last year in office defending Philadelphia’s policies and slamming other politicians who have threatened it, ranging from White, a state representative, to Toomey to Trump.

What about Darrell Clarke?

City Council President Darrell Clarke caught some flak last week when the Inquirer reported that he suggested Philadelphia should rethink its status as a sanctuary city because “the simple reality is we cannot lose federal and state funding.” He’s called for City Council to hold a hearing on what the financial impact could be on the city should Trump’s vow to strip federal funding play out.

“There has been some discussion about some compromises during the Obama administration,” Clarke said, according to the Inquirer. “We’re looking into that. It’s an ongoing saga.”

Then, his office issued a lengthy statement clarifying his position on Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status, writing that “sensational headlines distorting remarks I made yesterday about potential devastating funding losses to the City of Philadelphia misstate my position.” (For what it’s worth, the Inquirer’s headline was “As Kenney defends sanctuary city policy, Clarke calls for flexibility.”) The statement said Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities is “unconstitutional,” but “unconstitutionality and unfairness have not kept untold numbers of people who have every right to be in America from being turned away at airports.”

Clarke also mentioned “reasonable compromise” in the statement and wrote that Council wasn’t in the room last year when Kenney denied an Obama administration request to join the Priority Enforcement Program, a federal program that was eliminated by the Trump administration.

The statement continued: “If there is still room for reasonable compromise with the federal government that preserves our ability to protect residents, including undocumented immigrants, and preserves critical funding for local policing and programs that help low-income people, then that to me is worth exploring.”

What’d Kenney say back?

Kenney’s administration said “the Council President has never once raised these issues with the Mayor” and that it does not believe “that the majority of Council President’s colleagues share his view.”

“Over the past two weeks,” the administration wrote in a statement provided by spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, “we’ve seen federal actions that threaten the rights and well-being of one group after another, and we’re fighting against those just as we fill challenge those to come.”

Did anyone take Clarke’s side?

Well, maybe a little too much. White — remember her? — released a statement after Clarke’s comments were publicized. In it, she “urged Mayor Jim Kenney to follow the advice of City Council President Darrell Clarke and abandon his hard line position on sanctuary cities that protect the most violent criminals in the United States illegally.”

While Clarke certainly called for flexibility here, there was no point when the Council President asked Kenney to entirely abandon his position on Philadelphia’s sanctuary status. And Clarke swiftly reminded White of that, writing a letter to her dated three days later. In it, Clarke urged the representative to hold back and not re-introduce her own sanctuary cities bill in Harrisburg. Here’s his full letter:

What’s next?

At this point, Harrisburg is moving more quickly than Washington and could pose a larger threat to Philadelphia’s sanctuary status than Trump (at this point). If you want to weigh in on this issue, you should call your state representative whose contact information you can find here.

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