Billy Penn in Harrisburg

Punishment for ‘sanctuary cities’ moves forward in PA legislature

A bill that passed the Senate last year was overhauled in House committee.

An immigration protest at the Church of the Advocate

An immigration protest at the Church of the Advocate

Facebook / Church of the Advocate
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HARRISBURG — A bill that targets Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania municipalities that refuse to detain undocumented immigrants without criminal warrants moved out of a state House committee Wednesday.

The bill to punish co-called “sanctuary cities” was passed by the Pa. Senate last year, and this approval sets it up for a House floor vote. However, what came out of the Judiciary Committee bears only a passing resemblance to the bill that entered it.

Originally, the bill by Allegheny County Republican Sen. Guy Reschenthaler proposed withholding all state grants from any sanctuary city, referred to in the legislation as a “municipality of refuge” that “permits, requires or requests” a person’s release in spite of a detainer request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Reschenthaler is running for Congress in the 14th District.)

Those detainers are written requests from ICE, as opposed to criminal warrants issued by a judge, and many municipalities in Pennsylvania currently refuse to enforce them, including Philadelphia.

In the House, an amendment from Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Lower Paxton) tossed Reschenthaler’s proposed grant-withholding punishment. Instead, the amended bill uses lawsuits as the threatening stick: If municipalities don’t comply with detainer requests and provide requested info to ICE, an “individual adversely affected” by the policies can sue.

The amended bill also preempts municipalities from passing local policies that contradict that mandate. Specifically, cities would not be allowed to prohibit law enforcement from:

  • Supplying “any information requested” by ICE or other federal agencies related to immigration status
  • Assisting or cooperating with ICE officers while enforcing immigration laws
  • Permitting ICE or other federal officers to enter a county correctional institution

See you in court?

Paradoxically, it’s actually the threat of lawsuits that have led many conservative communities in Pennsylvania not to comply with ICE detainer requests.

In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that states and municipalities are not required to comply and could be sued for wrongfully imprisoning people. The case went to trial after a man born in New Jersey was held in Lehigh County’s prison for three days because of an ICE detainer.

A recent federal ruling in favor of Philadelphia’s detainer policy backed this up.

“The City’s position is completely justified under controlling court precedent,” Eastern District Judge Michael Baylson wrote in June. “If the City were to detain persons entitled to release based on immigration detainers, it would be exposing itself to many lawsuits and potentially substantial damages for violation of civil rights.”

The amended House bill does provide some support for municipalities if they’re sued for complying with its requirements. The state Attorney General’s office would be directed to defend municipalities sued for “good faith compliance” of detainer or information requests. The commonwealth, as opposed to the locality, would have to pay the bill for any settlements or judgments.

Bipartisan support — again

In its original form, SB 10 passed the Senate last year 37-12. Republicans were joined by Democrats Lisa Boscola, Andy Dinniman, and John Yudichak.

The amended bill passed Wednesday 19-5 with support from all Republicans present, including Philadelphia immigration hardliner Martina White.

“We’re trying to hold sanctuary cities accountable,” White said after the vote. She added that the amended bill shifts “some of the responsibilities” from municipalities to the state should a lawsuit arise. “Ideally the bill is going to help protect law-abiding citizens from those who are here illegally who are committing crimes in the community.”

Those in favor of stricter immigration enforcement, including Philadelphia’s own U.S. attorney, have pointed to the case of Juan Ramon Vasquez, an undocumented immigrant who was released from a city jail in 2014 in spite of an ICE detainer request and later raped a child. Vasquez’s case, however, is an extreme outlier, data obtained by Philly Mag showed.

Several Democrats also voted Wednesday to advance the bill. Rep. Tina Davis, who represents a part of Bucks County outside of Philly, said her yea vote indicated a willingness to have the bill debated on the House floor, although she doubted it would move forward.

Indeed, with just a handful of voting days left this session, the bill’s chances of getting to Gov. Tom Wolf seem slim. Because of Wednesday’s changes, the bill would have to return to the Senate after passing the House for a concurrence vote.

It’s also not clear if senators would support the changed bill. Aaron Bonnaure, chief of staff to Reschenthaler, said Wednesday afternoon the Republican “hasn’t had a chance to review the changes in detail, but he is thankful the chairman and committee members took up the issue of stopping sanctuary cities today.”