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‘Immigrant communities are welcome here’: Philly stands strong on sanctuary as Gov. Abbott sends buses from Texas

The city's stand has been not only supported but demanded by Philadelphia’s robust network of immigrant-rights groups, who push for action as they take on the day-to-day job of supporting newcomers.

People embracing after the bus arrived at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia; the bus was sent by Gov. Abbott in Texas on Nov. 21.
People embracing after the bus arrived at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia; the bus was sent by Gov. Abbott in Texas on Nov. 21.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

So far five unscheduled buses carrying more than 200 immigrants from Texas have pulled up in Philadelphia, targeted by Gov. Greg Abbott because it’s a sanctuary city.

The biggest surprise to activists here? That it took him so long.

Because Philadelphia is not just a sanctuary city. It stands among the strongest and toughest sanctuary cities.

The Kenney administration fought and won a major lawsuit over President Donald Trump’s effort to make local police enforce federal immigration laws, kicked ICE out of a database it believed the agency was using to find undocumented people, and barred city employees from asking residents about their immigration status.

That stance has not only been supported but demanded by Philadelphia’s robust network of immigrant-rights groups, who push for official action even as they take on the hard, day-to-day job of supporting newcomers. At one point in 2019 more undocumented families had taken refuge in sanctuary churches in Philadelphia than in any city in the country, assisted by advocates in putting themselves beyond the reach of ICE to block their deportations.

“It is a clear and consistent message from the city of Philadelphia that immigrant communities are welcome here,” said Peter Pedemonti, codirector of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which worked round-the-clock to help families in church sanctuary. “The city has stood strong on this.”

Being a “sanctuary city” means different things in different places, but in Philadelphia, a major aspect is that local police officers do not help ICE round up, arrest, and remove undocumented immigrants.

City officials say that’s the job of the federal government. And that crime victims and witnesses won’t come forward if they fear deportation.

Now Philadelphia finds itself under new pressure, added to a list with three other cities that Abbott designated as drop-off points for his Texas busing campaign. Since spring he’s sent about 13,300 immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico line to New York, Chicago, and Washington, saying the state’s overwhelmed border communities need relief.

Immigration advocates call it a cheap political stunt that seeks only to harm and disrupt, but the impact has been real.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency and New York City Mayor Eric Adams a state of emergency to help handle the influx of thousands of people. Philadelphia city and immigrant leaders are considering asking for state and federal aid with more buses expected to arrive from Del Rio, Texas.

Almost all of those arriving in Philadelphia on buses are seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States for those facing persecution in their homelands.

It’s important for people to understand that those coming here have been scrutinized and vetted by border authorities before being allowed to move on, said Juan Giarrizzo, executive director of Gente de Venezuela in Philadelphia.

He fights to counter the conservative narrative that immigration equates to criminality, that it’s a detriment and not a benefit to American society. In fact, major cities like Philadelphia depend on immigrants to grow businesses and jobs.

Many who have come here have fled danger to seek freedom and opportunity. “If we had to uproot our lives and our families to create a better future,” said Laila Sadat, the city deputy communications director, “we would hope that others would treat us with dignity and respect.”

The concept of sanctuary is as old as the Bible, with the “six cities of refuge” described in the Old Testament. It ran through ancient Greece and Rome, and became widely known through Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, in which Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda from the gallows and spirits her into safety in the cathedral.

Today about 200 cities, counties, and states are sanctuary jurisdictions, though many do not use the term. Philadelphia, for instance, officially describes itself as a “Welcoming City,” where newcomers seeking a better life are treated the same as everyone else.

Almost all sanctuary cities are Democratic enclaves, deplored by Republicans who insist the lack of cooperation with federal authorities endangers law-abiding Americans.

“Mayor Jim Kenney,” Abbott said in announcing Philadelphia as a destination last month, “has long celebrated and fought for sanctuary city status.”

He’s right about that.

Only hours after taking office in January 2016, Kenney restored a policy that barred almost all cooperation between city law enforcement and federal immigration agents.

A year later, his administration sued then-President Trump, a case that turned on a relatively small amount of money — about $1.5 million in federal grants to a city with a $4.4 billion budget — but a big principle: whether Trump could withhold funding if the city did not make its police officers help ICE arrest undocumented people.

A key issue was the city’s refusal to honor ICE detainers, which are agency-issued requests to hold people in custody until agents can arrest them. Trump’s representatives argued that Philadelphia was releasing dangerous “criminal aliens” who should have been turned over to ICE agents.

Philadelphia officials said they honor detainers that come accompanied by signed judicial warrants, but otherwise had no authority to keep anyone in custody beyond the release date set by the court.

Nearly a year of litigation and a four-day trial resulted in U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson ruling for Philadelphia in June 2018, saying that city policies were reasonable, rational, and equitable.

The next month — amid loud demands by Juntos and other immigrant-rights groups — Kenney announced he would not renew a controversial city contract that lets ICE agents access the PARS computer system.

The real-time database collected no data on immigration status but did note country of origin. Each day, the Kenney administration said, ICE probed PARS to find and investigate people who were born outside the United States.

For immigrant groups, the city’s action marked a turning point.

“Ending agreements with ICE, when I first started at Juntos, people thought it was an impossibility,” said Erika Almirón, who led the Latino-rights group during its PARS campaign, and is now senior organizer at Mijente.

Those years of immigrant-led battles to solidify Philadelphia’s sanctuary standing play an important role now, as the city welcomes bus passengers, because it strengthened relationships among the members of immigrant-aid groups.

They came to know and trust one another, even as they found themselves competing for grants and funding, said Lucy Rabbaa, director of social services at HIAS Pennsylvania.

Those ties enabled 20 representatives of different organizations to connect in an urgent Zoom meeting as word spread that a bus — what would be the first, on Nov. 16 — was headed here from Texas. They set plans to have volunteers on site, and to provide goods like blankets and hygiene kits to passengers.

“If we hadn’t done this work in the past, collaborating, organizing,” Rabbaa said, “we would probably not be able to pull this off in a short amount of time.”