City officials haven't made a decision on renewing Philadelphia's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which expires Aug. 31 — but seven years ago the contract drew strong opposition in City Council.
In 2011, Council unanimously passed a resolution introduced by then-Councilman Jim Kenney and Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez urging the city not to share with ICE the arrest information found in the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS) database.
"The fear of deportation has created a significant barrier between the Police Department and immigrant communities, and hampered the district attorney's ability to prosecute and convict criminals," the 2011 resolution said.
These days, Kenney is mayor — and Occupy ICE protesters camped out at City Hall are demanding an end to the contract.
"We simply will occupy this space until Mayor Kenney ends the disgusting PARS agreement that puts communities in danger," the Liberation Project, one of the groups organizing the protest at City Hall, said in a Facebook post last week. "If he truly believed in making Philadelphia a sanctuary city, he would end all systems that facilitate the operations of ICE."
City communications director Deana Gamble said in a statement Monday that the resolution shows that the mayor's "larger sentiments about federal policies and procedures towards immigrants" have not changed.
But she said Kenney is concerned about "numerous and ongoing threats by the Trump administration to defund cities that don't adhere to ICE's demands" and the city's successful lawsuit against the Justice Department relating to Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funding, the primary provider of federal criminal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions.
A federal judge last week ruled for Philadelphia in its highly contentious "sanctuary city" case against the Trump administration, saying the city's refusal to help enforce immigration laws is based on policies that are reasonable, rational, and equitable.
"We have stated repeatedly in the past week that because the litigation is not over, we are careful in our interactions with ICE, particularly because the decision has had national implications, including for other welcoming cities," Gamble said.
PARS is a database of arrests operated by the city and shared, via contract, with ICE. Anyone who has had contact with law enforcement automatically enters the PARS system, including perpetrators, victims, and witnesses to crimes. Although ICE has been "blinded" from viewing information of victims and witnesses to crimes, the contract has led to widespread fear of law enforcement among immigrants and has become central to the Occupy ICE movement.
The database provides a tracking system for the city courts, the Police Department, and the District Attorney's Office.
On Wednesday, the District Attorney's Office reiterated its opposition to the city's PARS contract with ICE. In a statement, District Attorney Larry Krasner vowed to vote against providing additional access to arrest information with the federal agency and urged the city and the First Judicial District to do the same. "Quite frankly, cooperating with ICE at this time makes our city less safe because it makes undocumented individuals fearful of coming forward to report crimes or testify in criminal cases," Krasner said. "That's simply unacceptable." Krasner's support for ending the contract was a main issue in his campaign for district attorney last year.
Experts say it creates a public safety issue. A crime victim, for example, may be less likely to contact law enforcement for fear of being racially profiled.
Erika Almiron, executive director of the South Philadelphia-based Latino human-rights group Juntos, has been critical of the agreement. "We've always known that PARS has been used as a way to balloon deportations, and especially right now, given how immigrants are extremely under attack, we have to separate ICE from our city as much as possible," she said Tuesday. Almiron met Monday with Kenney to discuss PARS.
The movement to end ICE access to PARS goes back almost a decade. In 2010, pro-immigration groups led by the New Sanctuary Movement demonstrated at City Hall and at the District Attorney's Office seeking an end to the agreement. The previous summer, the Nutter administration had said it intended to end the contract, but extended it for a year under a compromise that would prevent ICE from viewing information from witnesses and victims. Under current guidelines, ICE does not have access to that information.
At a news conference Friday, Kenney said he was "not necessarily happy" with the PARS agreement. He said his administration likely would not renew the contract if ICE was found to be "misusing" the database by targeting "noncriminal" undocumented immigrants.
On Thursday, Gamble said that the administration had not made a decision on renewing the contract, and that the city "continues to monitor how ICE uses the information accessed through PARS."
Gamble noted that PARS no longer allows ICE access to information on victims or witnesses, nor does it contain information on an individual's immigration status. She added that ICE could gather much of the same information from public records even if the city decides not to renew its access to PARS.
The 2011 resolution outlined the program's logistical failures. According to ICE data cited in the text, between October 2008 and April 2011, 348 of the 583 Philadelphia suspects transferred from Philadelphia police to ICE custody were never convicted of a crime.
An investigation by ProPublica and the Inquirer and Daily News earlier this year found that Philadelphia's ICE office, which includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware, is the nation's most aggressive. The analysis showed that 64 percent of the immigrants arrested by Philadelphia's ICE field office had no criminal convictions, more than any of its 23 regional counterparts.
According to that same investigation, as of March 1, there were 11,643 cases pending in Pennsylvania's immigration courts — a 62 percent increase over the end of fiscal 2016.