Interview: Should Philly Welcome or Deport Undocumented Immigrants?

Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement says deporting is harmful.

Nicole Kligerman is a community organizer for the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a coalition of faith-based organizations that welcome and work with immigrants to the community—including undocumented immigrants. This week, it appeared the coalition was nearing a long-standing goal when the Inquirer reported Mayor Nutter will soon order an end to the city’s practice of reporting its arrests of undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, and holding those individuals for federal deportation. (Arrestees charged with severe crimes of violence would still be reported to immigration authorities.)

Kligerman talked to Philly Mag about why the old policy is harmful and the opacity of City Hall on immigration issues.

So there was a story in (Thursday’s) paper about how Mayor Nutter will be issuing an order that basically greatly curtails the city’s cooperation with immigration authorities. What is your objection to the city’s current arrangement?

So what’s happening right now in Philadelphia is Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which is the deportation wing of the Federal government — has direct access to all Philadelphia police databases and information. Currently, ICE issues a not-mandatory hold request to local law enforcement to hold non-citizens who would otherwise be released. And [local law enforcement] hold them and then transfer them to federal custody for deportation.

So our campaign focuses on ending those non-mandatory requests — and Mayor Nutter does have the discretion to do so. This is a national trend, there are 17 localities throughout the country that have ended [this cooperation]. We believe it is time for Philadelphia to follow the national trend and actually welcome our immigrant community members.

Do you have a sense of how many people have been deported from Philadelphia as a result of this arrangement?

Well unfortunately the city of Philadelphia has turned down our repeated Freedom of Information requests and “Right to Know” requests to get those exact details. We anecdotally know the number to be in the hundreds. That is information that we are looking to get from the mayor’s office at the March 3rd hearing on ICE holds, in City Council.

I’m probably guessing a number of the people would argue that the people we’re talking about, that they are here illegally anyway. Make the case to someone who’s maybe a skeptic: Why shouldn’t undocumented immigrants be deported, particularly when it seems they have run afoul of the law?

Yeah, absolutely, that’s a great question, Philadelphia grew for the first time in 60 years in large part because of our immigrant communities. This is in the City of Brotherly Love, immigration is in the fabric of our system. Mayor Nutter has stated that we are a welcoming city, which is in large part to attract the businesses that immigrants bring. Now, there are many mixed-status families — that is to say children who are citizens with parents who are non-citizens — and the deportation process is deeply traumatizing to families and communities.

This process is not reimbursed from the federal government to the city of Philadelphia, so our tax dollars are subsidizing deportation and the deportation of our workers and our business owners and friends and community members, while at the same time cutting essential services. So we’d like that money that is currently being spent on deportation to be put back into the essential services that all Philadelphians need.

When police and ICE are working together to deport people out of Philadelphia, it also greatly increases mistrust of the police, there’s so many people who have gone to police asking for help and have ended up deported. The police’s role is to protect and serve — and when they are actually acting to deport non-citizens out of Philadelphia it makes the city more dangerous for all of us, they’re not doing their jobs to protect and serve, their doing ICE’s jobs to deport.

Since the folks who have the holds on them have been arrested, should Philadelphians then be concerned that maybe we’re harboring criminals that are missed when we don’t have to?

Deportation is a civil action, it’s not one of the criminal justice system. When police and ICE are working together it’s actually obstructing the criminal justice’s due process to convict and detain people with criminal convictions. If someone commits a crime, they go to jail, they serve their time, they’re rehabilitated and should be released and not undergo this double punishment of being further deported. Ending ICE hold policy will in no way change the criminal justice system as it is — however flawed — as it’s currently working to give out criminal sentences.

There had been objections to this arrangement with ICE for several years now, since it all began, why do you think the mayor is only acting now?

You know, I applaud his move to listen to community members and to curtail the policy, although we do think it should go further, [but] we have not been invited to talk to him. I’m not sure why he has changed his mind; we would love the opportunity to be engaged in a meaningful way in the process of creating new immigration policy. It’s interesting to see in the Inquirer article, that he has been apparently working on a new proposal since the summer, and we take it as a victory of years of organizing by immigrants and their allies to actually create policy that honor everybody’s justice and dignity in Philadelphia, regardless of their immigration status.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.