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Pennsylvania sanctuary cities face uncertainty over state funding

The SAFE Act would require sanctuary cities to comply with federal authorities or risk losing grant money.

Immigrants rights activists protest outside City Hall in 2015.Charles Mostoller

Pennsylvania’s sanctuary cities protecting undocumented immigrants are facing new threats after a bill passed the state Senate that would deny state-funded grants to municipalities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officers.

Called the Municipal Sanctuary and Federal Enforcement (SAFE) Act, municipalities along with townships and counties would be prohibited from any rule, order or policy preventing the enforcement of state or federal laws relating to immigration. State funds will be accessible only if the municipalities that act as sanctuary cities, like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, offer proof that they're in compliance with SAFE.

Sponsored by Republican state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler of Allegheny, SAFE Act passed the Senate 37-12 on Tuesday, mostly along party lines. It now heads to the Assembly for approval.

Republicans in the Senate hold a 34-16 majority over Democrats.

More than $1.3 billion could be on the line for those cities, which includes $638 million for Philadelphia. Pittsburgh, which could lose $9 million, has not formally declared itself a sanctuary city but has adopted policies that are consistent with the designation.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are at least 20 sanctuary cities and counties across Pennsylvania that could lose state money.

In 2014, former Philly Mayor Michael Nutterissued an executive order stating that the city’s law enforcement would no longer work with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

Immigration and Customs relieson local law enforcement agenciesto implement federal immigration laws. One such way is through detainers, or holds, which requests local agencies to hold an individual suspected of violating immigration laws for up to 48 hours after the suspect would normally be released. That amount of time allows immigration authorities to dispatch an agent to take the person into custody for possible deportation.

Sanctuary cities and counties throughout the state differ in how they interact with ICE —Lehigh County, for example, requires a "judicially issued detainer, warrant or order." By comparison,MontourCounty has a blanket policy that doesn't honor ICE detainers.

A spokesman with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's office said it is monitoring the progress of the bill.

"We have concerns about this bill, including whether states may legally require that municipalities assist with the enforcement of federal law, as the federal government must enforce its own immigration policy," spokesman J.J. Abbott said.

Last year, another spokesman with the governor's office said Wolf had concerns about the "legal and financial burdens [a sanctuary city bill] would place on local governments," but planned to review it before making a decision.

This attempt at the state level to target sanctuary cities comes in tandem with President Donald Trump's executive order calling for the same.

Outside of grants overseen by Cabinet department heads appointed by Trump, the executive office doesn't hold much power over taxpayer dollars.​So some lawmakers are taking that fight local, introducing bills in Texas, Idaho, Arkansas and elsewhere.

But compelling law enforcement agencies to comply with ICE isn't the answer,Laura Rótolo, an immigration lawyer with the ACLU of Massachusetts, told Metro in a recent interview.

"Police chiefs have said across the country that they can't win the trust of the community if they're seen as ICE agents," Rótolo said. "It's better for community policing to draw a clear line — not talking about immigration status at the local level and not turning people over to ICE. If you know your police are going to turn you over, you won't call for help, you won't collaborate in fighting crimes."

 

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