Kenney rejects U.S. request to reverse 'sanctuary city' status

APTOPIX Congress Homeland Security
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson came to Philadelphia on Tuesday with a big ask: Persuade Mayor Kenney to flip the script on Philadelphia's status as a "sanctuary city."

He didn't succeed.

Kenney, after meeting Johnson in City Hall, said in a statement that he "stressed the need for federal immigration reform," and reiterated his commitment to keeping Philadelphia a place where immigrants are not unduly targeted by law enforcement.

"The mayor did not decide to change any policy as a result of his discussion with Secretary Johnson," Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said.

In January, as one of Kenney's first acts in office, he barred almost all cooperation between city law enforcement and federal immigration agents, which had been the city's policy until an eleventh-hour reversal by Kenney's predecessor, Michael Nutter.

By returning Philadelphia to sanctuary city status, Kenney refused to join the Department of Homeland Security's Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. PEP calls for local officials to notify ICE when immigrants in custody are about to be released.

Johnson said that the issue is a matter of public safety, and that ICE targets only dangerous and violent people. Critics contend PEP can lead to overly aggressive enforcement against people for minor infractions.

Taking questions from reporters Tuesday, Johnson said: "The mayor and I had a good dialogue. ... It was the first time I met him. ... Building this type of bridge cannot be accomplished in one meeting, and we're going to keep at it."

The trip wasn't a total loss for Johnson.

He met with immigration activists; spoke with Muslim, Arab, and interfaith groups about a DHS program to counter violent extremism; and reviewed with staff security plans for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

The session with the activists, however, went about as well as his meeting with the mayor.

Meeting behind closed doors in City Hall, the advocates pushed back against PEP, and raised concerns about alleged deficiencies at the Berks County Residential Center, an ICE-supervised facility where immigrant parents and children are incarcerated while their applications for asylum are pending.

The advocates peppered Johnson with questions about an institutional rape that occurred at the facility last year, and complaints about medical care at the facility.

"This was a meeting about accountability, and to hear that Johnson had not heard of the convicted rapist who raped a woman in front of a child at Berks was alarming," said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a Latino support group with offices in South Philadelphia and Norristown.

"Our sanctuary city policy reduces deportations, keeping families together and helping Philly grow and thrive," said Peter Pedemonti of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. "Any change ... will erase all the positive steps we've taken."

Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, who also attended the meeting, said Johnson had not proven his case that ICE doesn't have "enough tools to get bad guys off the street."

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.