"Mucho, mucho terror," was how Mexican immigrant Gerardo Torres, 40, of North Philadelphia, described his experience with the Philadelphia Police Department and federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Torres, who came to Philadelphia in 1988 and resides in North Philly, works with New Sanctuary Movement, an immigrants' advocacy group that will be speaking out against ICE detainer holds at a City Council hearing tomorrow.
Four years ago, his son was deported after an encounter with police, causing "the destruction of my family," as Torres put it in Spanish and Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement translated.
"My son was working in Center City on Market Street. My son has a good heart and he lent money to a friend who was American. When he asked for that money in return, that person went to the police and said my son had threatened him with a firearm," Torres said in translation.
"My son was arrested because of that false accusation, and he was passed over immediately to immigration for deportation proceedings," Torres said.
Many advocacy groups are planning to testify at the hearing about the impact of ICE holds on immigrant communities, and will ask City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter to change the city's policy.
Currently, if Philadelphia police make an arrest, individuals with questionable citizenship status will be referred to ICE. If ICE issues a detainer request, police will hold that individual until ICE can review their case. In some cases, this leads to deportation.
"The combining of these two agencies in certain ways have resulted in a lot of people being picked up and entered into deportation proceedings," said Erika Almiron, executive director of Vamos Juntos.
Legal advocates say the practice is problematic constitutionally and can lead to racial profiling.
"ICE routinely issues these detainers for the purpose of investigating whether someone has violated any immigration laws," said Molly Tack-Hooper, an ACLU Pennsylvania attorney, who is submitting testimony to the hearing. "The US Constitution guarantees the right to not be imprisoned without probable cause or process. ICE asks cities to hold people in jail when they usually would be released."
Temple Law School professor Peter Spiro said that the ICE/police collaboration has several large flaws.
"In theory, it’s a good program. The idea is that aliens who are here in violation of the immigration laws, who engage in criminal activity ... should be a priority for deportation. It sort of conjures up images of real bad guys," Spiro said. "In practice, it's gone badly awry because basically any criminal offense will trigger the detainer. So you have a lot of people that aren’t really bad guys, immigrants who are here legally or otherwise who have been here for a long time, who have American citizen families, who are embedded in the community, if they have a scrape with a law -- they end up getting put in the deportation pipeline."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled that ICE detainers are technically just requests, and not mandatory.
Advocates say that the city should choose to opt out of the program.
"An actual start to build trust would be, 'We will not honor ICE holds,'" Almiron said.
Cities such as Chicago, Newark and Washington D.C. have reportedly taken that step.
A Philadelphia Inquirer story last month claimed that Mayor Michael Nutter has drafted an executive order to end ICE holds for people under arrest unless they committed a violent felony.
Kligerman claimed that a draft of that order was delivered to ICE today.
The city declined to comment on those rumors in advance of tomorrow's hearing.
"We will have testimony at the council hearing regarding how we have and will handle detainer requests from ICE," said Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, in an email.
Supporters of a change in the policy say ending ICE cooperation would not just improve stability for immigrant populations, but for the city as a whole.
"It will be a smart move for Philadelphia to opt out of this," Spiro said. "It’s a smart move now for major municipalities to look immigrant-friendly."
“The identification and removal of criminal offenders is ICE’s highest priority. Over the past three and half years, ICE has been dedicated to implementing smart, effective reforms to the immigration system that allow it to focus its resources on priority individuals. ICE has implemented clear priorities that focus on convicted criminals and other public safety threats, on those who repeatedly violate our immigration laws," said ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas in an email.
“The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”