“Here we are, and here we stay,” reads a sign in Spanish at the march to defend DACA. Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

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In a 93-page ruling released last week, a U.S. district judge sided with Philadelphia in its fight to retain its sanctuary city status.

Philly doesn’t officially label itself a “sanctuary city.” The term, which has no precise legal definition, generally refers to jurisdictions that put rules around or limits on cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Per the Office of Immigrant Affairs, which believes the phrase has become too politically loaded, Philadelphia prefers to be known as a “Welcoming City.”

Whatever words are used to describe the city’s policies surrounding immigrants, they are such that the Kenney Administration has been legally duking it out with the Trump Administration over this since August of last year.

However, Philly’s sanctuary city efforts stretch even further back. Here’s how we got to this point.

July 16, 2010: Nutter makes a move

Philadelphia’s first step towards living up to the sanctuary city label comes four years prior to the phrase being introduced. When renewing Philadelphia’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System agreement with ICE, then-mayor Michael Nutter states that city officials will no longer provide identifying information of victims, witnesses or those accused of crimes.

This decision does not, however, keep other forms of personal data protected from the organizations that relied on PARS: the PPD, the DA’s Office and the courts.

April 16, 2014: Pressure on Obama

In response to the Obama Administration’s increasingly unpopular handling of the Secure Communities Deportation Program (a program that essentially served as an all-access arrestee fingerprint record collection for the FBI and ICE), Nutter signs an executive order that formally refused detainer requests and notice of release (unless the convicted individual was charged with a first or second degree felony, or had a judicial warrant out for them). The order also prohibited local police from detaining an arrestee for longer than they should simply due to citizenship status.

Following Philly’s lead, cities continue to rebel until the Obama Administration is pressured to end the Secure Communities Deportation Program in November of that year.

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July 7, 2015: Outreach to Mexico

To establish good ties with Mexico and to display Philadelphia’s commitment to being a sanctuary city, Nutter visits the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

Nov. 13, 2015: Nutter backtracks

Six weeks before the end of his term, Nutter drops a major proposal that threatened to alter the city’s “sanctuary” status, though the details of this amendment were unclear. The underlying cause and motive behind Nutter’s backtracking was hazy, but reports prior to the announcement indicate that the former mayor had been talking matters of immigration and security with President Obama and the DHS.

Immigration-rights groups, such as Juntos and the New Sanctuary Movement, and faith leaders in the city incite a campaign to protest the potential reversal that could put undocumented immigrants at risk.

Three days after word of Nutter’s proposal gets out (and in the midst of the notoriously anti-immigration stance of Trump’s presidential campaign), Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney vows to restore Philadelphia’s position as a sanctuary city.

Dec. 22, 2015: A lame-duck retraction

Eight days before leaving office, Nutter announces that the city would retract its original decision of non-cooperation, allowing ICE to receive information regarding individuals convicted of “especially dangerous and violent” crimes (or individuals suspected of committing said crimes). These include: terrorism, espionage, gang involvement, rape, murder, robbery and illegal gun ownership.


Jan. 4, 2016: Kenney expands the policy

Newly-instated Kenney does good on his promise and re-establishes the city’s “sanctuary” status with an executive order that mirrors the one Nutter originally signed two years prior. To display further commitment to protecting the rights of all Philadelphians, Kenney creates the office and position of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

Feb. 24, 2016: Wrist slap from Obama  

The Obama Administration chastises cities — Philadelphia included — with “sanctuary” policies by placing ICE cooperation restraints on them. United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch confirms that the Bureau of Prisons, regardless of the wishes of state or city officials, will be able to put individuals finishing their sentences in immigration custody if federal deportation requests are made.

June 27, 2016: Toomey makes noise 

Sen. Pat Toomey proposes the “Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act” bill, which would defund municipalities that labeled themselves as “sanctuary cities,” and would require that local law enforcement officers comply with the DHS and ICE. It did allow people “wrongfully detained” to sue federal law enforcement departments.

A few weeks later, the act fails, due to not having enough procedural yeas or nays to meet the 60-vote threshold.

Oct. 17, 2016: Pa. House wants to clamp down 

An “anti-sanctuary” bill passes 136-55 in the Pa. House of Representatives. The law allows police to report or determine the immigration status of an arrestee, further limits local autonomy in dealing with immigrant affairs and allows any municipal employee or public servant to report or inquire the immigration status of any individual.

Jan. 25, 2017: Pa. Senate makes moves; Trump signs a crackdown

State Senate Bill 10 is introduced by Republican Senator Guy Reschenthaler, which aimed to prevent counties in the Commonwealth from referring to themselves as sanctuary cities or adopting policies that align with the concept of “sanctuary.”

This proposal is made on the same day President Trump signs an executive order that cracks down on immigration, particularly from countries deemed to be “shitholes” (this is the executive order that spawned the Muslim Ban). Within the executive order — Section 2C, to be precise — is a promise to cut federal funds to jurisdictions that fail to observe the Immigration and Nationality Act (aka “sanctuary cities”).

Feb. 7, 2017: Anti-sanctuary bill advances in Pa. Senate

Senate Bill 10 passes in the Pa. Senate. If the bill goes on to pass in the House of Representatives, jurisdictions in the Commonwealth that designate themselves as sanctuary cities run the risk of losing a total of $1.3 billion in state grants. In response, the ACLU of Pa. urges for no-votes, fearing that the bill would embolden local law enforcement to illegally detain individuals.

April 3, 2017: White jumps in

Yet another “anti-sanctuary” bill is proposed in the state legislature. This one was introduced by Pa. Rep. Martina A. White, who currently serves Philadelphia county. All three of the aforementioned acts specified amending Titles 42 and 53.

July 21, 2017: Sessions scolds Philadelphia

During a visit to Philadelphia, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers a lengthy speech in which, among other things, he expressed disdain for the city’s “pro-sanctuary” stance, invoking the “harm” such policies are “doing to residents.”


Aug. 30, 2017: Philly sues the DOJ  

Philadelphia sues Sessions and the Department of Justice for placing “unconstitutional immigration restrictions” on a federal grant totaling $1.67 million. In order to receive the grant, sanctuary cities would have to give federal law enforcement automatic access to prisons and detention facilities and provide two-days notice before an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from jail. Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco were among nine sanctuary cities that sued over this matter.

Sep. 28, 2017: ICE goes on an arrest spree

During a four-day detainment-bender, ICE goes on an arrest frenzy and imprisons approximately 498 people. 107 of these individuals were apprehended in Philadelphia, more than in any other city.

Nov. 15, 2017: Philly wins a stay 

In a 128-page injunction, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson blocks the DOJ’s attempt to withhold funds from Byrne JAG grants if sanctuary cities don’t back down, continue to refuse to cooperate with ICE and remain in violation of federal law. Judge Baylson concluded that the conditions imposed breached the policies delineated by “the Spending Clause, the Tenth Amendment and the principles of federalism.”

Feb. 14, 2018: Toomey tries again

Almost two years later, Toomey resurrects his Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act proposal.

April 30, 2018: Philly’s trial begins

The official trial begins in the city’s suit against the DOJ. Baylson is hearing the case, and the city is represented by firm Hogan Lovells. First Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy and Kenney are among the local officials who voice their concerns about cashing out of sanctuary city status, making it, above all else, an issue of security. With fear of deportation, they reason, comes less reported crime. Philadelphia will, however, submit to providing an arrestee’s personal data to the DHS if a judicial warrant is requested, they say.

May 31, 2018: Other cities show support

New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are among the U.S. cities who file a legal brief to showcase support for Philadelphia’s “sanctuary” policies in the midst of the trial.

June 6, 2018: Philly gets a big win 

Baylson rules for Philadelphia, finding definitively that the Department of Justice cannot cut off funding from grants the city is eligible for, noting that such restraints are “unconstitutional, arbitrary and capricious.” Mayor Kenney celebrates.

“This is an important moment for all Philadelphians, especially our immigrant community,” Kenney says in a statement. “It prevents a White House run by a bully from bullying Philadelphia into changing its policies.”