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Philly immigrants and allies brace for Trump administration’s promised ICE raids on ‘sanctuary cities’

Juntos was moving to restart its “community resistance” training, which alerts residents to their rights

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at which he refused to condemn white supremacy.
President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at which he refused to condemn white supremacy.Read moreJulio Cortez / AP

Philadelphia’s large pro-immigrant community spun into action on Wednesday, sharing information and restarting resistance training following reports that the Trump administration intends to launch pre-Election-Day raids here and in other “sanctuary cities.”

“Our goal is not to cause panic, but our communities have a right to know and be prepared,” said Erika Guadalupe Nunez, executive director of Juntos, the South Philadelphia-based Latino advocacy group. “The recent news, it’s a concentrated effort to highlight the ‘law-and-order’ efforts of the Trump administration … We’re not going to allow these fear-mongering tactics to go unchallenged.”

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night that ICE officials planned to increase enforcement in three sanctuary cities prior to the election. The campaign is likely to begin in California this week before expanding to Philadelphia and Denver, and would focus on arresting undocumented immigrants who have criminal records beyond their immigration violations.

Calls from community members started coming into Juntos shortly after the news broke. On Wednesday the group was moving to restart its “community resistance” training, which alerts residents to their rights and explains how they should respond if ICE comes to their homes.

Advocates advise: If ICE officers knock on the door, don’t open it. If the agents say they have a warrant, ask them to slide it under the door. Should you be stopped by officers outside, do not answer questions or sign any papers. Say only that you wish to speak to a lawyer.

» READ MORE: Amnesty International billboards in Philly and other cities demand freedom for immigrant families in ICE custody

ICE officials in Philadelphia and Washington, both sanctuary cities, declined to comment on any pending enforcement operations. In sanctuary jurisdictions, the agency said in a statement, “ICE is forced to arrest at-large criminal aliens out in the communities instead of under the safe confines of a jail.”

It condemned those places' lack of cooperation with federal immigration authorities and accused advocacy groups, citizens and local officials of sharing misleading information about the agency’s mission, such that “innocent bystanders, targeted aliens and ICE officers are placed in danger.”

Mayor Jim Kenney said ICE had not notified the city of any plans to step up enforcement but said that even if the agency were to do so, it would not change the city’s approach to its undocumented population.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that President Trump has attempted to create fear in our undocumented-immigrant communities," he said. "The frequent threats of deportation raids by Trump and his administration do nothing but make our communities less safe by driving people into the shadows and away from people working to keep them safe.”

New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an advocacy organization that includes more than 30 member churches, on Wednesday was checking with community members to make sure people know their rights, and to encourage everyone to connect with friends, organizations and congregations for mutual support. And for residents to make sure they have a trustworthy lawyer.

“We’re telling people not to panic. We need to remember we’ve seen this before,” said NSM co-director Peter Pedemonti.

It was striking, he said, to see the Post story appear the same night that President Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacy during the presidential debate.

“If anyone didn’t believe these policies are based in white supremacist ideology, seeing those two side by side just makes it so clear,” Pedemonti said. “It’s a clear campaign tactic, to spread a wave of fear and panic across the country. He’s using this to stir up his base.”

Trump and his administration have routinely sharply condemned sanctuary jurisdictions, and the new effort would come amid broader attacks by the president on Democratic mayors like Kenney — over the city’s rising rates of homicides and shootings, and over the racial-justice protests that have occurred here and elsewhere.

And two of the U.S. officials who spoke to the Post described the planned ICE blitz as more of a political messaging campaign than a significant new operation.

» READ MORE: After two years in Philly church sanctuary, an undocumented immigrant family departs — but not to freedom

Trump has reoriented his reelection campaign in recent weeks to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate, a phrase used by Richard Nixon and George Wallace to signal a need for a forceful response to perceived crime and violence.

Being a sanctuary city means different things in different jurisdictions, but in Philadelphia it comes down to this: While city police and ICE will work together on certain criminal investigations, local officers do not help federal immigration authorities in rounding up, arresting and removing migrants. Furthermore, in 2018 the city won a major lawsuit saying the Justice Department could not use federal grant funds to coerce it 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 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 spokesman for the city said.

ICE insists that unsigned 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.

» READ MORE: After lawsuit and quick naturalizations, 2,200 Philly-area immigrants can vote in November

Immigration advocates here said Wednesday that they know the administration’s announcements of ICE raids can ultimately fall short of their billing, but they still must be proactive.

In 2017, Philadelphia was hit when federal authorities came knocking on doors in 10 sanctuary cities, taking away nearly 500 undocumented immigrants during a nationwide four-day sweep. The city saw the largest number of arrests, with 107 people caught in raids.

In July 2019, however, few reports of arrests emerged from Trump’s promised deportation raids in major American cities. ICE agents were to carry out arrests in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco, targeting at least 2,000 migrants who had received final deportation orders. Ultimately, 35 people were detained.

The advance notice of these types of operations, while generating news that makes the administration appear tough on undocumented migrants, also gives advocacy organizations time to prepare.

“We have to take everything seriously,” Juntos director Nunez said. “We want to make sure our people have information, and know their rights and their power. That’s the best defense no matter what.”