Local 'sanctuary' cities? Turns out more than Philly might meet the definition

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Mayor Kenney isn't worried about President-elect Donald Trump's threat to cut funding for "sanctuary cities."

Suggest to John McBlain that Delaware County is a sanctuary jurisdiction and he will make a quick correction.

"It is not," the county councilman said, "and never has been."

The fatigue in his voice is understandable.

A few months ago, McBlain discovered a conservative think tank had listed Delaware County as one of 300 jurisdictions refusing to fully cooperate with immigration officials. The study sparked startling headlines such as Map Reveals Vast Network of 'Sanctuaries' for Dangerous Illegal Aliens.

Except Delaware County is in good standing with the U.S. department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), McBlain insisted. As proof he presented letter from an ICE official stating as much.

So why the confusion?

Consider it a byproduct of a larger uncertainty over what makes a "sanctuary city," an ill-defined term that nonetheless carries great weight.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to "end the sanctuary cities" by stripping them of federal funding. How he defines the term could mean the difference between a handful or hundreds of jurisdictions being in the hotseat.

According to the group that labeled Delaware County a sanctuary jurisdiction, the Center for Immigration Studies, Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties also qualify. In New Jersey, only Middlesex, Ocean and Union counties are included.

The reality is not as black and white as the map makes it seem.

"There's a lack of clarity about what exactly sanctuary city is, and what a city or county does to become a sanctuary city," said Hadi Sedigh, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties. "And, on the flip side of that, what they have to do to not be a sanctuary city anymore."

The term sanctuary city is often used to describe any jurisdiction that does not honor ICE detainers, which the agency issues when it wants to detain or deport someone being held by another law enforcement agency.

Since 2014, local jurisdictions weighing how to respond to detainers have an added hurdle: a federal court ruling that found them to be merely requests, not warrants.

The ruling stemmed from a suit filed by Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen held on an ICE detainer by Lehigh County despite posting bail and telling officials he was born in New Jersey. The Third Circuit Appeals Court found the county liable.

"If ICE makes a mistake, the jail is liable for that mistake," said Sara Rose, an attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which represented Galarza.

Officials in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties all said their jails will not hold an inmate based solely on a detainer request. Several cited the Galarza ruling as the reason.

Beyond that, the particular policies vary.

In Montgomery County, where officials used to hold a person on a detainer request for up to 48 hours, the rule is now four hours, the approximate time it takes for a person to be processed out of the facility, according to Nicole Forzato, a senior assistant county solicitor. In cases where a person has a set release date, the jail will notify ICE 48 hours in advance.

Forzato said ICE has asked the jail to hold the person longer on a few cases but that the jail "stood by the four-hour window" on all but one, when an additional two-hour hold was granted.

"We look at the totality of all the circumstances and try to make an assessment, do a balancing act to comply with all the relevant laws," she said.

Forzato declined to say if the county is rethinking the policy in light Trump's threat to pull funding from sanctuary cities.

In Bucks County, Public Information Officer Chris Edwards said the solicitor's office is monitoring discussions on the federal level closely. He said the county's policy is to notify ICE if someone with a detainer is being released from custody but not to hold that person past his or her release.

"I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen," Edwards said. "January 20 has to get here to see what kind of changes are going to get made."

In Chester County, spokeswoman Becky Brain said the county prior to the Galarza ruling would hold inmates on a detainer but no longer does. She said the county does notify ICE the day an inmate with a detainer is being released, giving agents the opportuntiy to take the person into custody before he or she is released or the close of business, whichever comes first.

In Philadelphia, which bars almost all cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials, Mayor Kenney has doubled down on the policy, which he says facilitates trust between local police and immigrants who might otherwise fear coming forward to report crimes. As for Trump's threat to pull funding, Kenney has said he thinks the Constitution's protection against unlawful search and seizure is on his side.

Federal immigration advocates have taken a similar proactive stance, threatening court action should Trump pull federal funding from any jurisdiction because of its policy on cooperating with ICE.

McBlain said he has little concern of that happening in Delaware County, but he nonetheless would like to see the county removed from the master list kept by the Center for Immigration Studies. He said he has reached out several times to the report's author and explained the county's policy, which allows the jail to notify ICE officials if an inmate with a detainer is being released.

Yet the map was last updated in mid-December, and Delaware County was still listed.

tnadolny@phillynews.com

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@TriciaNadolny