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In contentious back-and-forth, Philly officials say ICE ‘likely’ violates data-sharing agreement

The arrangement is a sticking point for immigration rights activists.

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks to the media about the Occupy ICE protests on Friday, July 6, 2018.
Mayor Jim Kenney speaks to the media about the Occupy ICE protests on Friday, July 6, 2018.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Top members of Mayor Kenney's administration believe federal immigration officials are likely violating a data-sharing arrangement, a stance revealed this week in a contentious back-and-forth between city officials and local leadership of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last Thursday, City Solicitor Marcel S. Pratt requested that local ICE officials meet with administration leadership to discuss how the agency is using the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS), a city-operated database of arrests and bail information that is shared with ICE via a contract that ends Aug. 31. The arrangement is a sticking point for immigration rights activists, who fear ICE has breached the contract by using its access to target noncriminal undocumented immigrants, including victims of or witnesses to crimes.

City spokesperson Deana Gamble said senior administration officials met Wednesday with ICE, saying only that "the meeting was very productive, and there may be some follow-up exchanges." ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment.

But before that meeting, ICE field office director Simona L. Flores sent a letter Monday in which she said that ICE was not in breach of its contract and that the city has failed to provide any examples of such conduct.

"The suggestion that ICE is specifically going after known victims and witnesses to crimes, and utilizing PARS for that purpose, is entirely baseless," she wrote. Flores added that ICE was not engaging in "racial profiling" by ascertaining arrestees' immigration status based on race or ethnicity data relayed via PARS.

However, she also wrote that ICE "lawfully uses" information about an arrestee's country of birth "as part of its investigatory efforts." She also indicated that ICE would not be in violation of the PARS contract if it arrested a law-abiding undocumented immigrant it encountered in the process of pursuing a person who was arrested or charged with a crime.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Pratt shot back, writing that ICE's use of the database "likely violates the spirit of the PARS contract, which contemplates that ICE's access to PARS would not have implications for Philadelphia residents" who "pose no threat to public safety."

"It is clear from your response," Pratt wrote, "that ICE's use of information in PARS regarding individuals arrested in the city likely results in enforcement operations that have adverse immigration consequences for otherwise law-abiding persons that ICE 'encounters' during its operations."

>> READ MORE: What is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency now under fire?

Pratt also indicated in the letter that the city has no obligation to maintain the contract beyond its expiration, and he reiterated the concerns of some residents and immigration rights advocates.

"Without recounting the details of recent national and local events in this letter," he wrote, "it suffices to say that ICE's conduct has led to deep-seated fear and mistrust of ICE in Philadelphia's communities."

The PARS database, which has been shared with ICE since 2008, is managed by three city entities — the courts, the police, and the Office of the District Attorney — two of which would have to sign on in order to renew the contract.

District Attorney Larry Krasner has said he does not support the renewal of the contract, and Kenney has the final say when it comes to the police. The First Judicial District has not revealed its stance publicly.

The mayor has said he's weighing whether the termination of the contract would impact court proceedings related to the Philadelphia's "sanctuary city" case against the Trump administration.

Last month, a federal judge sided with Philadelphia officials in that case, ruling against the Trump administration, which attempted to withhold $1.5 million of federal grant money because the city refused to share certain information beyond PARS with ICE. There's some concern that terminating the agreement with ICE could be used against the city if that decision is appealed.

City officials have faced pressure for years from local immigration rights organizations to terminate the PARS contract, though the situation intensified over the last two weeks while "Occupy ICE" protesters have camped out at City Hall. Ending the PARS agreement is among the group's demands. Last week, Kenney met with immigration advocates, including representatives from the encampment, to discuss the future of the PARS agreement.

On Wednesday morning, about two dozen protesters banged drums and chanted near the ICE office in Center City, two weeks after Philadelphia police raided and destroyed an encampment set up at the same location. They then marched to the new around-the-clock demonstration site activists established at City Hall.

Activists chanted "Abolish ICE" and "Shut down Berks" during a protest at Eighth and Cherry Streets that blocked traffic and lasted for about 45 minutes before they marched past the ICE office and weaved their way through Chinatown on their way to City Hall. "Berks" is a reference to a federal family detention center in Berks County.

Some wore turquoise T-shirts that read, "Mayor Kenney End PARS."