ICE officials have launched a billboard campaign in Pennsylvania that they say will educate the public about the dangers of sanctuary policies in places like Philadelphia.

It comes about three weeks after Amnesty International USA erected billboards in American cities, including one near the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Center City, to demand freedom for immigrants being held in family detention centers.

The Trump and Kenney administrations have warred over sanctuary policies, in particular the validity of agency-issued requests, known as detainers, to hold immigrants in police custody.

“These billboards are clearly intended to fuel anti-immigrant fervor one month before the election,” said city spokesperson Mike Dunn. “It’s no surprise: The White House, over the past four years, has attempted to create fear in our immigrant communities. The frequent threats of deportation raids by ICE do nothing but make our communities less safe by driving people into the shadows and away from people working to keep them safe.”

An ICE news release quoted the top agency official, Tony Pham: “Too often sanctuary policies limiting cooperation with ICE result in significant public safety concerns. ICE will continue to enforce immigration laws set forth by Congress."

Being a “sanctuary city” means different things in different jurisdictions, but in Philadelphia, it comes down to this: Local police officers do not help ICE in rounding up, arresting, and removing migrants. In 2018, the city won a major federal court ruling that said the Trump administration could not withhold grants in an effort to force Philadelphia to do so.

City police officers 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 must present a signed judicial warrant, not merely an ICE-issued detainer.

ICE insistence that the unsigned detainers alone should be valid is the focus of its billboards.

On Friday, ICE said its billboards would help the public understand the risks of “non-cooperation policies” by featuring foreign nationals who it says were arrested by police in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, then released when ICE detainers were not honored.

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

The billboards are located on Route 1 north of Old Lincoln Highway in Bucks County; the Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge at Wood Avenue in Bristol Township; the Walt Whitman Bridge; Route 130 just south of the Airport Circle in Pennsauken; on Christopher Columbus Boulevard; and the Pennsylvania Turnpike east of Buck Road.

An Amnesty International USA billboard is seen along 12th Street, north of the Vine Expressway in Philadelphia, PA.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
An Amnesty International USA billboard is seen along 12th Street, north of the Vine Expressway in Philadelphia, PA.

ICE says it’s safer for everyone if it takes custody of people inside jails. 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.

An agency statement said that “when law enforcement agencies fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders onto the streets, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and carry out its mission.”

City spokesperson Dunn said, “The City of Philadelphia has always cooperated with ICE when that agency goes before a judge and obtains a federal arrest warrant. This is not burdensome and ICE has, in fact, obtained such warrants on several occasions. In other words, we fully comply with federal law. The reality is that the White House has tried to coerce cities like Philadelphia into going beyond federal law.”

In mid-September, billboards urging ICE to stop detaining immigrant families fleeing dangerous homelands and to free those already being held during the worst pandemic in a century went up in Philadelphia and other American cities.

Amnesty International USA erected the signs as part of a campaign urging federal immigration authorities to use their discretion and release both parents and children — an action they’ve long declined to take — and to end a crackdown on immigrants seeking asylum.