PHILADELPHIA — The city of Philadelphia insists it’s not a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, but a Justice Department report says otherwise — and now the city that just hosted the Democratic National Convention is in danger of losing millions of dollars in federal funding for breaking the law.
The Justice inspector general said the number of sanctuary cities has exploded over the past 10 years, and the overall level of police cooperation with federal immigration authorities has deteriorated.
In some situations, the federal government is paying for illegal immigrants to be kept in local prisons or jails, but then the locals refuse to turn over the detainees when agents come to deport them, the inspector general detailed in the report, made public Thursday.
Investigators looked at 10 top jurisdictions and found that each of them had laws or ordinances that blocked cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, contradicting the clear terms of federal law.
Perhaps most stunning of all was New Orleans, where the Justice Department this year pushed police to adopt a policy limiting cooperation with ICE. The Justice Department’s own watchdog said that policy likely violates federal law.
“The findings are pretty clear — these are sanctuaries and they are violating federal law,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “They should change their policies before more people get killed, and if they don’t, they should be debarred from DOJ grants.”
Sanctuary cities try to protect illegal immigrants from being deported by letting local authorities decline to share information with ICE. Defenders say the policies protect immigrants from an overzealous federal deportation force and add to public safety because immigrants don’t have to fear local police.
But Homeland Security Department officials say there is danger in releasing criminals back into communities rather than turning them over to be deported. In some high-profile cases, those released have gone on to commit horrific crimes, including murder.
Republicans have long argued that federal law requires localities to cooperate or lose money.
The Justice Department balked. But that changed this year when, at the prodding of Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican and chairman of a key spending committee, the inspector general said sanctuary policies do violate the law and that those communities can be stripped of federal grants.
The report released Thursday delved into 10 jurisdictions known for their sanctuary policies: the states of Connecticut and California, Clark County in Nevada, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, Miami-Dade County in Florida, Cook County in Illinois, Orleans Parish in Louisiana, and the cities of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
“Based on our discussions with ICE officials about the impact these laws and policies were having on their ability to interact with local officials, as well as the information we have reviewed to date, we believe these policies and others like them may be causing local officials to believe and apply the policies in a manner that prohibits or restricts cooperation with ICE in all respects,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in his report. “That, of course, would be inconsistent with and prohibited by Section 1373.”
Mr. Horowitz said a number of jurisdictions have similar “savings” provisions that allow local officials to refuse to cooperate unless “required” by federal law. But Mr. Horowitz said those still likely violate federal law, which prohibits localities from adopting any policies that limit cooperation.
“Horowitz believes these are sanctuary policies,” Ms. Vaughan said.
Michael Nutter tried to end the city’s sanctuary policy as he left the mayor’s office last year. His successor, Mayor Jim Kenney, reinstated the policy as soon as he took office.
Mr. Nutter’s spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, insisted this month that the city wasn’t in danger of losing federal money by running afoul of federal law.
“Nor is it correct to say we are doing anything to shield from the federal government violent criminals or suspected terrorists. That is simply false,” she said.
She didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday after the report was released.
Chicago’s mayor’s office, meanwhile, hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment this month on its chances of losing federal money.
The Justice Department brushed aside questions about why it pressured New Orleans to adopt a sanctuary policy that Mr. Horowitz said “would be inconsistent” with federal law.
The legality of sanctuary cities was a major issue at the Republican National Convention last week. Parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants pleaded for stiffer enforcement. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump put a fine point on the issue in his July 21 speech, in one of the more emotional points of his address, demanding to know “where was the sanctuary” for those children.
“Oh, it’s so sad to even be talking about it because we can solve this problem so quickly,” he said. “Where was the sanctuary for all of the other Americans who have been so brutally murdered and who have suffered so, so horribly?”
Democrats have avoided the issue at their national convention this week, instead focusing on young illegal immigrants who are valued members of their communities — an immigrant Dreamer who has become an activist for legalization and an illegal immigrant who appeared with her U.S. citizen daughter, worrying that they might be separated by deportation.