Bensalem seeks ICE immigration partnership amid opposition

Immigration Arrests
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation in 2017.

Activists are opposing Bensalem officials’ plan to have township police officers assist federal authorities in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants.

At issue is the Bucks County township’s potential participation in a program known by the legislative clause that brought it to life — 287(g). That’s a partnership initiative between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, and state or local police agencies that agree to help enforce federal immigration laws within their jurisdictions.

If approved, Bensalem would be the first Pennsylvania police agency to join with ICE.

Members of Buxmont Inclusive and Progressive, a year-old grassroots advocacy group, had planned to speak out, along with representatives of the Bucks County NAACP, Make the Road Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a justice organization, at Monday night’s Bensalem Township Council meeting. The meeting has been postponed, due to weather conditions.

Township Public Safety Director Fred Harran said law-abiding undocumented immigrants have nothing to fear. Officers would not be checking the immigration statuses of people who work at local businesses or with whom they come into routine contact. The ICE partnership would come into play only when a crime is committed for which an officer would make an arrest, Harran said.

For instance, he said, a motorist who was pulled over for an expired inspection or broken headlight would not be questioned about immigration status. But a driver stopped and arrested for drunken driving, if undocumented, would be turned over to ICE, and from there possibly deported.

“Here’s the trick not to get deported: If you’re in this country undocumented, obey the law,” he said. “Don’t commit a crime, and you’re not going to have a problem in Bensalem Township.”

Why, he asked, would he not use any tool at his disposal to remove criminals from the community?

“My job is to prevent a victim tomorrow, and if I can do that by keeping a criminal off the street today, I’m going to do it,” Harran said. “I don’t know why anybody would be upset with what we’re doing here, once they understand.”

Efforts to reach Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo were unsuccessful.

Activists said a partnership with federal authorities would have unintended and harmful consequences.

“It creates a culture of fear, it destroys the police-community relationship. It also opens us to lawsuits,” said Laura Rose, a leader of Buxmont Inclusive. “We don’t want 287(g) to get a toehold in Bucks County.”

The program largely went dormant under President Barack Obama, but has been revived since President Trump was elected.

ICE now has agreements with 60 law-enforcement agencies in 18 states, and has trained and certified more than 1,822 officers, according to the agency. The tally includes 18 local agencies in Texas, five in North Carolina, and four each in New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Arizona.

An ICE spokesperson said the agency does not identify local police departments that may be seeking a partnership until a formal memorandum of agreement has been signed. An earlier application from Bensalem was turned down during the Obama administration.

Bensalem, bordered by Philadelphia to the west and south, is home to 60,354 people. The population is 75 percent white, 11 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino and 7 percent black, census figures show.

Nearly 11,000 are foreign-born, more than one out of five residents.

Money magazine named Bensalem one of the nation’s 50 best places to live in 2014, citing gorgeous state parks, gambling at Parx Casino & Racetrack, and concerts at the TD Bank Amphitheater, now the Penn Community Bank Amphitheater.

Nationally, moves to make local police work in concert with ICE have been hugely contentious. While some jurisdictions have been eager to aid the federal government, saying it helps remove criminals, others want no part.

The latter group includes Philadelphia.

City officials went to court — and won a preliminary injunction in November — to block the Trump administration’s effort to withhold grant money from “sanctuary cities.”

The administration aimed to withhold $1.5 million from Philadelphia unless the city agreed to more actively help federal agents arrest and hold people who had entered the country illegally. City officials argued that local police are not part of federal immigration forces, and more, that they’re trained to treat everyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system the same.

Broadly defined, a sanctuary city limits cooperation with federal authorities who enforce immigration law. Leaders of those cities seek to ease fears of deportation among undocumented residents, believing members of immigrant communities will then be more willing to report crime.

Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions argue that sanctuary city policies allow dangerous criminals to be released into local neighborhoods. They want more help from police agencies, not less.

ICE officials say the 287(g) program strengthens public safety and helps build consistency in immigration enforcement across the country.

After a memorandum of agreement is signed, local officers undergo a four-week basic training program, and then a once-every-two-years refresher course, at the ICE Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center ICE Academy in South Carolina.

The program took root in 1996, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act added Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act. That allowed the director of ICE to forge partnerships with state and local agencies. In 2009 ICE revised the program to make the arrest and detention of criminal aliens a priority.

“Our state and local law-enforcement partners have become a force multiplier,” ICE officials say on the agency website, “allowing ICE to actively engage more officers/agents into ongoing enforcement operations nationwide.”

Opponents say many people in Bensalem and Bucks County are upset, certain that a police-ICE partnership will be divisive.

“It’s very disturbing, because we have a large immigrant community of many nationalities,” said Theresa Conejo, a local activist. “We pride ourselves on that.”