Kenney must explain sanctuary policy

There are various types of sanctuary cities in America and Mayor Kenney has never defined exactly what kind we are. Under what circumstances will Philadelphia police ignore a detainer issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement?

As conservative forces in Washington and Harrisburg sharpen their animus toward sanctuary cities and define the ways in which they will be punished, some civic debate and soul-searching in Philadelphia may be in order.

It was all well, good, and cost-free for Mayor Kenney to engage in the rhetoric of defiance and admirably advocate on behalf of undocumented workers. But, his rhetoric puts us on a collision course with a state legislature and federal government that are strikingly unsympathetic to them.

The state Senate recently passed a bill that would withhold money from sanctuary cities and make them responsible for compensating victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. In the case of a murder or infliction of a lifetime disability, millions of dollars could be at stake.

There are various types of sanctuary cities in America and Kenney has never defined exactly what kind we are. Under what circumstances will Philadelphia police ignore a detainer issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)? Clarion County won’t honor an ICE detainer unless a judge asserts the undocumented person is also charged with a crime. Is that the kind of sanctuary city we are? What is our threshold for honoring a detainer?

While Kenney has boldly asserted the general policy, he has neither defined it nor invited public debate to affirm it. City Council adopted a resolution of support, but the few seconds set aside for a voice vote hardly qualify as a sincere sorting of the issues in what may be the most significant, potentially impactful declarations of values a city can make.

Council President Darrell Clarke, while not overtly opposing this status, has advised that we seriously evaluate it in light of our tenuous fiscal position and how cuts from Washington and Harrisburg  might impact us.

The need for that discussion is upon us.

Philadelphia, along with other sanctuary cities, is already on notice from the U.S. Department of Justice that we must provide proof of full compliance with the federal law requiring cooperation with ICE. If we do not convincingly assert our compliance, we may lose all federal funds that support our Police Department.

If these were the cash-rich days of Mayor Frank Rizzo, we might be able to absorb targeted cuts from the state or federal government. In those days, our schools did not urgently need $3 billion to repair infrastructure. The city pension fund wasn’t short $5.7 billion. Things have changed and money is far more dear than it was.

While a federal judge has temporarily blocked any retribution against sanctuary cities, this is an opportunity to consider our position.

We have drifted into the crosshairs of the state and federal government for a policy that is poorly defined, untested, and might not enjoy popular support.

Leadership requires that the mayor address, in substance and detail, his policy of refusing to cooperate with ICE, the reasoning for it, and his plan to compensate for the funding that will likely be withheld. He needs to answer if we are prepared to be held liable for the impact of crimes committed by undocumented workers.

If our status as a sanctuary city is the decision of one man, there is an obligation upon that person to be conspicuously inclusive in reaching a conclusion. This is where the mayor has failed.

It may well be that shielding undocumented immigrants from the federal government is the wise and compassionate choice. It may also be that Philadelphians are prepared to financially sacrifice for that choice. But, these things are far from established and the mayor would do well to make certain he has the support of citizens before he locks us into “harm’s way.”

Jay McCalla was a deputy managing director of Philadelphia during the administrations of Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street. jay.a.mccalla@gmail.com