This Anti-Immigration Bill Has Stalled In Harrisburg — And It Should Stay Stalled

Vourvoulias: It's up to us to ensure that Martina White's poisonous proposal never comes to a vote.


A poster from an all-night vigil celebrating Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status, which took place October 21st through October 22nd at the northeast corner of City Hall. | Photo by Peter Pedemonti

Philly Republican state Rep. Martina White’s controversial HB 1885 bill, which would penalize and make liable municipalities with sanctuary city protections in place for undocumented residents, did not come to a vote yesterday, the last voting day of Pennsylvania’s legislative year.

That’s good news. Under HB 1885’s aegis, police would be required to determine and report the immigration status of every arrest when there is “reasonable cause to believe” that person is undocumented — something which would codify and institutionalize racial profiling, especially of Latinxs.

Human rights and immigrants’ advocates, as well as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, have long maintained that the bill would compromise public safety and weaken community policing by making it less likely for undocumented residents to report crimes perpetrated against them, or which they’ve witnessed, for fear that it might lead to detention.

“[It] denies municipalities’ autonomy to make agreements that protect victims and witnesses from being probed about immigration status,” Peter Pedemonti, director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, wrote in a statement released October 20th. “[And] requires that any municipal employee not be denied the ability to inquire and report the immigration status of any individual. This would make every municipal building, including our schools, traffic courts and health clinics, sites where immigrants can be harassed by any employee without protection from their towns and cities.”

In fact, Pedemonti likened it to Arizona’s notorious SB1070 — the “show me your papers” law that has, in its majority, been deemed unconstitutional since its passage.

HB 1885 appeared to be on a fast-track to approval. On Monday, October 17th, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 136-55. By Wednesday, it had passed out of a Senate committee and seemed slated for a full vote this week. That didn’t happen, but Pedemonti stopped short of calling it a victory.

“We are not 100 percent out of the woods,” he said last night. “The House has two more days of session in mid-November after the election. These days are typically for ceremonies and picking leadership, not voting. We also expect that after the election, the momentum will fade for this bill. However, we are not fully done until the session formally ends.”

The timing is perhaps not incidental. On and off the record, those most involved with immigration issues say that White’s bill has, from the start, sought to capitalize on the xenophobia and racist fears that Donald Trump has stoked during his presidential campaign.

In fact, some 200 faith leaders across the state — including Rev. Lorie Hershey of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, Rev. Joe Leonard of West Kensington Ministry, and Rabbi George Stern of the Germantown Jewish Centre, among many other Philadelphia clergy —  signed an open letter to legislators on October 24th stating:

“We believe that HB 1885 will create a more hostile environment for all immigrants and persons of color, which would lead to further discrimination and increased racial profiling, regardless of immigration or citizenship status. As we continue to raise consciousness about how our criminal justice system needs reform to stop targeting low-income communities of color, it bears noting that the Latino population is often unjustly profiled. TRUST policies or  ‘sanctuary’ resolutions  in which local police do not collaborate with ICE, do not prohibit immigrants from being prosecuted if they have committed a crime, as some have alleged. All individuals who commit crimes are charged and prosecuted just as in all jurisdictions.”

For his part, Father John Olenick, C.Ss.R, pastor of Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Philadelphia and also a signatory of the open letter, urged legislators “to stand up for justice and not to be easily swayed by false prophets who preach a false gospel of fear and hate.”

Despite the bill’s impasse, last night at a debate between White and her Democratic challenger, Matt Darragh, White continued with the dog-whistle politics she has employed since first introducing it.

“We don’t want criminals walking around amongst our citizenry,” she said.

HB 1885 would, in White’s words from last night, “protect communities like ours from criminal illegal immigrants.” Beyond the deliberate use of offensive terminology, what has become clear from the advertisement White has run during her re-election bid is just how limited her definition of “communities like ours” really is — not a single person of color is in evidence in her ad despite her Northeast Philly district’s growing diversity.

White continues to feed fears by mischaracterizing HB 1885 as legislation necessary to ensure that criminal actions be prosecuted when, in fact, the “sanctuary” protections in place do not prevent prosecution of undocumented immigrants who commit a criminal act in the city.

But then, like the presidential campaign for Trump (who, Darragh pointed out, White has said she agrees with on “law and order” issues), White’s bill is predicated on a false gospel that seeks to codify bigotry and injustice, and to separate the city into “us” versus a fearsome and malignant “other.”

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves,” the Bible says. “You will know them by their fruits.”

HB1885 is White’s fruit.

And it is poison.

It is up to all us to ensure it never again reaches the floor of our legislature for a vote.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.