Crowd protests Bensalem ICE-police alliance

Lifelong Bensalem resident and concerned citizen Theresa Conejo speaks with protesters before Monday night’s Bensalem council meeting. The protesters opposed the township’s plan to have its police officers help federal ICE agents enforce immigration laws.

About 25 people staged a drum-banging, sign-waving protest outside the Bensalem Township Council meeting on Monday night, demanding that the town abandon plans to have police help enforce federal immigration laws.

Scores more opponents went straight inside, creating a crowd that filled the council chambers and overflowed to take up much of the outer lobby

Demonstrators said a proposed alliance between local police and federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents would lead to racial profiling, and divide officers and the community.

“It affects the way the police look at us,” said Alejandra Santamaria, 18.

Opposition that has been brewing for weeks burst into the open Monday. When council members and the audience recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the meeting, one person in the lobby shouted out the last words — “for all!”

In Bensalem, a Bucks County community of 60,354 that borders Northeast Philadelphia, township leaders say they are moving toward an agreement to make people safer. They say officers will be able to identify and arrest dangerous criminals without infringing on individual rights or bothering law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

Many people disagreed on Monday.

“What happened to love thy neighbor?” said Mikhel Harrison, 23, of Philadelphia.   “When they come for our neighbors, we’re going to stand up and fight back.”

Bensalem leaders say the partnership would come into play only in cases for which an officer would normally make an arrest, not for minor infractions.

It’s unclear how quickly the township and federal government could reach an accord, formalized through a signed memorandum of agreement. If approved, Bensalem would be the first Pennsylvania police agency to partner with ICE under a program known by its legislative clause — 287(g). And it would bring an often-controversial initiative to a diverse township

Bensalem is about 75 percent white, 11 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino, and 7 percent black, census figures show. One out of every five residents is foreign-born. The township is home to a Buddhist temple and a gambling casino, to the Neshaminy Mall and the Nicholas Biddle estate, Andalusia.

Mayor Joe DiGirolamo and township public safety director Fred Harran say officers would not barge into local businesses or restaurants to check workers’ statuses, which is what ICE agents did this month when they raided almost 100 7-Eleven stores across the country, including four elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

On Monday night, Harran told the crowd that he had heard people were worried that Bensalem police could take action that could break up their families.

“That’s not the case,” he said.

The measure is merely a tool, he said, to keep people from becoming victims of crime.

He shared stories of two “sanctuary cities” — “one next to us and one an hour and 15 minutes away” — which he said had released two drug dealers back into the community. They were arrested for dealing heroin in Bensalem, sent to prison, and will be deported when their sentence is complete. That means two fewer criminals dealing drugs in the township, he said.

He pledged that “we are going to work harder than we’ve ever worked before” to ensure solid community-police relations.

“I don’t like what’s going on,” said Theresa Conejo, a leader in the Bensalem protest.

Many jurisdictions want no part of such agreements, including the sanctuary city next door. In November, Philadelphia officials won a preliminary court injunction to block the Trump administration’s effort to withhold grant money from sanctuary cities. The administration has said it intends to appeal.

Mistakes have cost taxpayers money. In 2014, Salt Lake County, Utah, paid $75,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a college student who was kept in jail by an ICE detainer for 46 days after he posted bail. An Oregon woman won $30,100 in a similar case in 2015. Allentown and Lehigh County authorities were among those paying a $145,000 settlement to Ernesto Galarza after a 2008 incident in which the U.S. citizen was held behind bars for three days while ICE investigated his immigration status.

ICE officials say alliances with state and local police strengthen public safety and make immigration enforcement more consistent.

More local police agencies have signed on with ICE during the last year, as what was a dormant program has been revived by President Trump, amid his administration’s tougher stance toward immigration and immigrants. ICE now has agreements in 18 states with 60 law-enforcement agencies including sheriffs’ offices, corrections departments and detention centers, and has trained and certified more than 1,822 officers.