Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and ICE Acting Director Tony Pham came to Philadelphia on Friday to tout the arrests of 170 immigrants in sanctuary cities nationwide during a one-week operation this month, and to criticize the Kenney administration and others for their “reckless” policies.

“We will not be deterred by any jurisdiction that refuses to cooperate with ICE,” Wolf said at ICE headquarters in Center City. “Sanctuary city policies are a threat to the homeland, and put the safety of the American people in jeopardy.” Local officials, he said, don’t cooperate with ICE in order to “score cheap political points.”

Wolf and Pham discussed the arrests of “at-large aliens” who they said were released by state or local law enforcement agencies that did not honor ICE immigration detainers. They never cited Mayor Jim Kenney by name, but heaped scorn upon “local officials” here and elsewhere who they accused of releasing violent criminals into the community.

“Do your job,” Wolf admonished, saying sanctuary cities need to fully cooperate with ICE.

The two officials announced results from Operation Rise, which began in California and then was turned toward immigrants with criminal convictions or charges in Philadelphia, Denver, New York, Seattle, Baltimore, and Washington.

About 84% of those arrested during the weeklong effort — including 26 in the three-state Philadelphia area of responsibility — have criminal convictions or charges for offenses including child sexual abuse, rape, aggravated assault, and reentering the country after deportation, they said.

The 170 arrests are a small number. By comparison, in a typical month in 2019, ICE arrested more than 300 people in the Philadelphia jurisdiction alone, according to a WHYY report.

Philadelphia, a city spokesperson said, fully complies with federal law and with ICE, providing the agency goes before a judge and obtains a federal arrest warrant. “We want to make clear that Philadelphia will not go beyond federal law, even though Trump’s administration tries to force welcoming cities like ours to do so,” the spokesperson said.

Mayor Kenney said that ICE raids "sow fear in Philadelphia’s great immigrant community. Immigrants are not a threat to this country. Donald Trump and his administration pose a greater danger to our country than our immigrant communities that are striving to make a better life for themselves and their families. Philadelphia is a welcoming city, and we will protect our undocumented immigrant communities and keep fighting for their rights.”

Pham and Wolf visited eight days after a prominent Philadelphia Asian American activist was arrested for allegedly having littered and trespassed during a protest at Pham’s Virginia home several weeks ago, and a little more than two weeks after ICE officials said they intended to increase enforcement here and in two other sanctuary cities ahead of the presidential election.

Being a sanctuary city means different things in different jurisdictions, but in Philadelphia, the crux is this: Local police do not help federal immigration authorities in rounding up, arresting, and removing migrants. In 2018, the city won a major court ruling that the Justice Department could not use federal grant funds to coerce it to do so.

Tony Pham, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks about "Operation Rise," a series of targeted raids in sanctuary cities, during a news conference Friday in Philadelphia.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Tony Pham, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks about "Operation Rise," a series of targeted raids in sanctuary cities, during a news conference Friday in Philadelphia.

City police are supposed to arrest people who they believe have committed crimes, regardless of immigration status, and a judge decides whether and when those people should be released. If ICE wants the city to keep a suspect in custody, it needs to present a signed judicial warrant, not an ICE-issued detainer, and then that person will be held.

In the past year, Philadelphia’s jails have received 44 ICE detainers and arrest warrants, but only 11 of the warrants have been signed by a judge, a city spokesperson said.

ICE insists that its detainers alone should be valid. The city says it could be sued — as other governments have been — for keeping someone in jail beyond the release date set by a judge.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials condemn sanctuary cities' lack of cooperation with federal authorities, and accuse advocacy groups, citizens, and local officials of sharing misleading information about the agency’s mission, such that bystanders and ICE officers are placed in danger.

“Sanctuary jurisdictions are playing politics with your safety,” Wolf said, addressing the community at large, and promising more scrutiny and arrests in places like Philadelphia.

In late September, Philadelphia’s large immigrant advocacy community spun into action, sharing information and restarting resistance training, following reports that the Trump administration intended to launch pre-Election Day raids here and in two other sanctuary cities.

Simona Flores-Lund, director ICE's Philadelphia field office, speaks about "Operation Rise."
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Simona Flores-Lund, director ICE's Philadelphia field office, speaks about "Operation Rise."

“ICE needs your local leadership to cooperate with us so we can protect you,” Pham said on Friday.

Pham came to this country as a child refugee after the Vietnam War — a narrative that activists say is served up as cover for ICE abuses.

On Oct. 8 in Philadelphia, Nancy Nguyen, 38, cofounder and executive director of VietLead, was arrested on misdemeanor charges for the Sept. 8 protest outside Pham’s house near Richmond. Released after nearly 24 hours in police custody, she called her arrest an attempt to criminalize nonviolent protest and to silence and intimidate not only her but Asian Americans and immigrants in general.

In response to a question on Friday, Pham said he believes in the First Amendment right to protest, and that decisions to pursue the misdemeanors against Nguyen were made by police and prosecutors in Virginia.

“These individuals are cowards,” Wolf said, also citing other demonstrations against the agency and its officials. “There’s a right time to protest DHS actions if you choose to … but once you cross that line, you’re cowards, and you need to be held accountable.”

Nguyen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.