Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Immigrants make up about 7 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. Per the American Immigration Council, of those estimated 837,159 people, over half are naturalized citizens of the United States. An approximate 22 percent of Pennsylvania’s immigrant population was undocumented, as of 2014.

In Philadelphia, foreign-born people make up an even larger portion of the population: 15 percent, per a Pew survey from June 2018.

Philadelphia and 16 other counties in Pa. are categorized as “sanctuary jurisdictions” by the Center for Immigration Studies — which means that they have adopted policies of not cooperating with federal immigration enforcement.

Ultimately, the federal government has the power to broadly regulate the admission, deportation, asylum, and naturalization of non-citizens

Currently, the three most prominent local and statewide debates spawned from the national immigration conversation revolve around the controversial “sanctuary jurisdiction” categorization, the ethics of family detention centers and the level of control and influence ICE has over municipal jurisdiction and law enforcement.

The biggest debates

  1. Sanctuary city status. For the past eight years or so, the City of Philadelphia has been fighting to maintain its sanctuary city status — or rather, its more politically correct rendering of the label: “welcoming city.” While the mayor, our district attorney and some Philly councilmembers have been championing compassion toward immigrants and have found ways to outmaneuver the federal government through limited — but impactful — avenues (the PARS decision, for example), local authorities only have a sliver of control over the situation.
  2. Family detention. Pennsylvania’s Berks County Family Detention Center is one of three in the United States currently being used to detain immigrants with children whom the federal government thinks should be deported. Immigrant advocates and some elected officials believe it can be cleared out with an emergency removal order mandated by Governor Tom Wolf. Wolf denies that’s an option available to him.
  3. ICE activity. Despite the city’s efforts to be “welcoming,” the Philadelphia region ICE office has been found to be one of the nation’s most aggressive, making more sweeping arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions than anywhere else in the United States.

How national policy can address immigration

Though no amendment in the Constitution delegates all authority over immigration to the federal government, national policy can address almost everything about the issue, mainly due to the Plenary Power Doctrine and the Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U.S. 275 (1875) decision.

This means that the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government — which includes politicians with objectively incendiary, staunch anti-immigrant and pro-isolationism and pro-nationalist viewpoints — have a say on matters such as:

However, thanks to the concept of checks and balances, ambitious decisions proposed by the Trump Administration have remained in limbo, juggled across the partisan divide.

State and local governments have legally duked it out with the federal government, complicating implementation of national policy. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has, in numerous occasions, sued the Trump Administration over issues of immigration.

How state policy can address immigration

States play a supporting role in immigration policy, enacting laws that can determine refugee resettlement, in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, access to health care, employee screenings and expenditures.

State Rep. Martina White of Philadelphia has been attempting to force sanctuary jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE for almost three years now, proposing that the municipalities be liable for damages as a result of criminal activity by undocumented immigrants (or, in her words, “unauthorized aliens”). A bill introduced by Sen. Guy Reschenthaler last year titled the “Municipal Sanctuary and Federal Enforcement Act,” calls for similar consequences for sanctuary jurisdictions.

In contrast to those efforts, Rep. Chris Rabb’s HB 1604 would limit local law enforcement cooperation with immigration enforcement agencies and Rep. Angel Cruz’s House Resolution 491 condemns the Trump Administration’s DACA decision. Running for Pennsylvania’s new 5th district seat is Mary Gay Scanlon, who has been vocal about her support for immigration justice.

How city policy can address immigration

The Office of Immigrant Affairs in Philadelphia states that it exists to promote the well-being of Philadelphia’s immigrant communities.

The office provides a plethora of resources that aim to facilitate the successful inclusion of immigrants into daily life, such as language access plans, monthly legal clinics, after-school programs for youth and citizenship-test preparation. The city has also adopted policies of not cooperating with ICE, and has sued the Department of Justice for placing “unconstitutional immigration restrictions”.

Nevertheless, the successful termination and non-renewal of the city’s PARS agreement with ICE has not dissuaded federal immigration officers from going on arrest sprees. Moreover, the city’s very public and fervid stance on being “welcoming” has not put a stop to city officials providing tips to ICE about undocumented immigrants.

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