The No-Bullshit Guide to Sanctuary Cities

What they are and why everyone from wanna-be presidents to Mayor Nutter is talking about them.

Immigration has been a long-debated issue in American politics, especially in the past decade. However, upon Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for President and calling Mexican immigrants “drug dealers” and “rapists,” the already controversial topic has grown even more contentious.

Most immigration policy is the province of the federal government. But not all. Take sanctuary cities. Loosely defined, these are cities that have decided not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, or to cooperate at least a little less than the feds would like.

Philadelphia is a sanctuary city. Or at least, it has been one.

The status of sanctuary cities has become a point of debate in the presidential contest, particularly on the GOP side. Louisiana Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal said that mayors of such cities should “absolutely” be arrested.

Now, six weeks before he leaves office, Mayor Michael Nutter is thinking about rolling back Philly’s status as a sanctuary city. But what exactly does the term mean, and what are the details? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a sanctuary city, exactly?

Like most things in politics, it’s complicated. There’s no legal definition of a sanctuary city, and different people define them in different ways. Many, like Peter Pedemonti, the director of New Sanctuary Movement, say that Philadelphia is currently a sanctuary city because it’s “welcoming to immigrants” and because it “refuses to cooperate with [the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)].” However, others have more specific definitions, such as Erika Almiron, the executive director of Juntos, a pro-immigrant human rights group based in Philadelphia, who says that a true sanctuary city is one where “a city that would be disentangled from immigration in its entirety,” or, basically, where ICE does not have any contact with local police departments and does not receive any arrest records from U.S. cities, which it currently does, even from cities regarded by many as sanctuary cities.

It’s important to note that under Almiron’s definition, not only would Philadelphia not be considered a sanctuary city, but not a single city in the entire nation would. However, most people’s definition of a sanctuary city is considerably closer to Pedemonti’s than Almiron’s. For instance, Kenney has referred to Philadelphia as a sanctuary city in the not-so-distant-past. In other words, the question of “Is Philadelphia a sanctuary city?” is not hotly debated. In fact, in many ways it’s irrelevant because it’s really just a label, and not an official status. Understanding the policies is what’s most important.

Which policies do you mean?

When people refer to Philadelphia as a sanctuary city, they typically cite three executive orders signed by Mayor Nutter, according to Pedemonti.

  1. One that mandates the city of Philadelphia provide adequate access to city services for immigrants and other people in the city with limited proficiency in speaking English.
  2. A prohibition against city employees asking any resident about their immigration status. This comes as a result of an executive order signed by Mayor Nutter in 2009.
  3. Most importantly, and controversially, is an executive order approved by Nutter in April of last year, which severely limited the cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents. The moment this order was signed is largely regarded as the point where Philadelphia, for all intents and purposes, was officially regarded as a sanctuary city. In addition, many pro-immigrant groups regard this this policy as one of the most progressive in the country, making Philadelphia a leader in the pro-immigration community. Before this executive order was passed, ICE would routinely ask city police to hold onto undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be released while awaiting trial. Undocumented immigrants would then be kept in police custody until ICE came to pick them up, at which point they could potentially face deportation. When Pedemonti talks about “refusing to cooperate with ICE,” this policy is what he’s referring to — the policy of Philadelphia refusing to detain undocumented immigrants and hand them over to ICE, except in cases where an immigrant is convicted of certain violent crimes and ICE has a warrant.

How much have deportations decreased since Philadelphia became a sanctuary city?

Attempts to contact the Philadelphia Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for these numbers went unanswered. Almiron says ICE does not make those numbers available to the public.

Why do cities become sanctuary cities?

There’s a few reasons. The first is to improve relations between the community and the police. If an undocumented immigrant is a witness to a crime, they can, in a sanctuary city, call the police to report the crime without fear of deportation. A second reason is to encourage immigration to cities, which can be good for urban economies. A study conducted by a Partnership for a New American Economy concluded that immigrants start 28 percent of all small businesses, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. In addition, the USDA reports that “about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized,” and that “[a]ny potential immigration reform could have significant impacts on the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry.”

Second, the deportation of a wage earner can create serious economic problems for immigrant families.

Stats and economics aside, there’s also the disheartening concept of family members being ripped apart from each other.

What are opponents saying?

The anti-sanctuary movement’s argument mostly rests on the fact that there have been instances in which undocumented immigrants have killed people or committed serious crimes in the past. This is true. However, most of the evidence is shaky and anecdotal, and doesn’t shed light on whether undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes in the past, like the ones mentioned in Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli‘s anti-sanctuary cities op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, are representative of the entire undocumented population as a whole.

There’s no doubt that there have been instances in which undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes would have previously been arrested or deported if it weren’t for sanctuary city policies. The question is whether or not this problem is outweighed by the economic and societal benefits sanctuary cities create.

What, exactly, is Nutter talking about doing now?

It’s not entirely clear. Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief-of-staff, recently told pro-immigrant groups in a private meeting that Nutter is thinking about partly reversing his 2014 executive order. A spokesman for Nutter said that under the proposed new order (which has not been released publicly), local law enforcement officials would be allowed to cooperate with ICE if a suspect had previously been convicted of murder, rape, robbery, domestic violence, illegal possession of a firearm, or involvement in terrorism. But in comments Gillison made to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he made it seem like the city is considering cooperating with ICE if suspects have merely been charged with certain crimes, too. “I’m trying to put in writing what is common sense,” said Gillison. “If a person is suspected of being a terrorist, and they happen to be in our custody, are you telling me that we don’t want to tell the feds?”

Immigrants’ rights advocates strongly oppose rolling back the 2014 executive order and held a rally at City Hall to condemn such changes. They say that Nutter’s proposal is vague, confusing and will prevent immigrants from reporting crimes to police. It all may be for naught, though. A spokeswoman for Kenney said his team had not seen a draft of the new policy, but “if it was as the advocates described, Kenney would overturn it,” according to the Inquirer.

Do undocumented immigrants pay taxes or not?

Contrary to popular belief, yes, many of them do. Many undocumented immigrants will get ITIN numbers and file taxes. One reason many of them do this, according to Pedemonti, is because “if there’s ever a chance to normalize their status, they can prove they’ve been paying their taxes.” In addition, many undocumented immigrants will create a fake social security number so they can work, and as a result, they’ll pay payroll taxes, including Social Security, which they’ll never be able to collect. “[Undocumented immigrants] are paying an estimated $15 billion a year into Social Security with no intention of ever collecting benefits,” Social Security Administration Chief Actuary Stephen Goss told CNN back in November of last year.

In addition, a study conducted by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy revealed that undocumented immigrants pay roughly $11.8 billion in state and local taxes every year nationwide, $150 million of which comes from undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania.

Would they pay more if they were documented?

Yes. According to the same study from the ITEP, if undocumented immigrants were granted the ability to work in the country legally, their tax share would increase from $11.8 billion to more than $14 billion. Pennsylvania’s share would increase from $150 million to more than $201 million.

Why don’t immigrants just come the legal way? Why is that so hard?

Let’s say you’re a low-income worker with a family who’s looking to emigrate to the United States for a better life. In order to do so legally, there are a lot of barriers you have to get through. Right off the bat, an application for a visa costs more than $100, which is  prohibitive to many people in poverty. You’ll also have to pay “like another $80 or $100” in documentation costs, according to Pedemonti. But the real kicker is that in order to become a fully naturalized citizen, “you need to have a certain amount of money in your bank account to be accepted. If you don’t, you will automatically be denied a visa. So if you’re a poor farmer or somebody that doesn’t have money, there’s no line to get into,” explains Pedemonti. In addition to needing evidence of financial security, immigrants must also own property in many scenarios.

Does evidence exist that proves that undocumented immigrants are exceptionally dangerous people?

No. In fact, there is evidence of the contrary. For instance, a report conducted by the American Immigration Council reveals that while the number of undocumented immigrants rose from 3.5 million to 11.2 million from 1990 to 2013, violent crime fell 48 percent and property crime fell 41 percent. In addition, a University of Massachusetts study released last year concluded that “[f]oreign-born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course.”

What would happen if Philadelphia lost its sanctuary city status?

“The police would have to go back to honoring the detainers and passing people back over to ICE,” says Pedemonti. “So we’d see a lot of families who would lose family members again to deportation, we’d see the deportation numbers go up, and we’d see a big drop in trust between police and ICE. … Not to mention we’d be liable for lawsuit.”