Philadelphia Needs Immigrants (Even Illegal Ones)

City Council and the Mayor tangle over supporting federal crackdown on illegal immigration

I was right there in spirit with City Council when it voted in its final pre-summer session to give the finger to the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The department’s “Secure Communities” program—which gets local police departments to hand over arrest records to the feds who use the information to identify deportation targets—might make sense in Texas, Arizona or some other place where illegal immigration has become a major problem. But it’s a bad fit for Philadelphia, a city that sorely needs the growth, vitality and sheer population boost that immigration provides (even, yes, when it’s illegal).

Secure Communities was billed as a way for the feds to more easily identify and deport serious criminals. “They told us they were going to get Mexican drug cartels and terrorists off the street,” says Councilman Jim Kenney. But it hasn’t worked out that way at all in Philadelphia. Since the program’s inception in late 2008, 583 suspects arrested here have been transferred into ICE custody for deportation. Of those, 348 were never convicted of a crime, and 480 had no prior criminal history or only minor non-violent misdemeanor convictions.

Kenney’s concern is twofold. First, he worries illegal immigrants will be more hesitant to report criminal activity to the police so long as ICE is peeking at the arrest records. Second, he thinks this does damage to Philadelphia’s reputation internationally, making it less likely that immigrants—including legal ones—will choose to settle in the city. “I don’t want us to be known as the city that deports,” Kenney says.

And so he got City Council to unanimously pass a resolution calling on Mayor Nutter, the court system and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey not to renew the city agreement with ICE that enables Secure Communities. The agreement is set to expire August 31st.

It doesn’t look like Council’s view will win out. Everett Gillison, Nutter’s deputy mayor for public safety, is reviewing the program now, but he says “barring some change in our understanding or some new information, we will renew.” Last time around, the Nutter administration changed the terms of the agreement and some internal systems, which has stripped the names of victims and witnesses from the information transmitted to ICE. That’s a real improvement. But I expect the subtleties of the arrangement are lost on an illegal immigrant who witnessed a crime and has heard that Philly police share data with ICE.

Kenney thinks Nutter should follow the lead of Massachusetts, Illinois and the state of New York, all of which have declined to renew their Secure Communities agreements. The problem with this approach is that the federal government—after some hemming and hawing—now insists that participation is mandatory. Plus, all the information ICE gleans from the arrest reports has long been shared as a matter of course with the FBI (which, duh, is a federal entity). So it’s not clear what good it actually does Nutter to trash the renewal papers (and maybe irritate Washington while he’s at it). “This is the law. It is the federal law. We don’t do things for show,” Gillison says, when asked about the practicality of saying no to the feds.

I think the Nutter administration deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one. It has been, on the whole, friendly to immigrant communities, and it’s certainly clear to me that administration officials fully understand that immigration is an important piece of the Mayor’s goal of increasing the city’s population. “If you look at our entire body of work in the area of immigration, I think people would be hard-pressed to say we are hostile to it,” says Gillison.