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Philly immigrants hit hard in nationwide ICE sweep

In a four-day operation targeting 10 sanctuary cities, nearly 500 people were taken into custody - including 107 in Philadelphia.

In this Feb. 9, 2017, photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents appear at a home in Atlanta, during a targeted enforcement operation.
In this Feb. 9, 2017, photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents appear at a home in Atlanta, during a targeted enforcement operation.Read moreBryan Cox / ICE via AP

Federal authorities came knocking on the doors of 10 sanctuary cities this week, taking away nearly 500 undocumented immigrants during a nationwide four-day sweep.

The largest number of arrests took place in Philadelphia — 107 people caught in raids targeted at cities and states that seek to protect undocumented residents, or to at least treat them like everyone else who enters the justice system.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, said Operation Safe City captured scores who allegedly violated immigration laws, prioritizing those with criminal convictions, pending criminal charges, or gang affiliations.

ICE arrested people who had committed sex crimes against children, sold drugs, and possessed weapons, the agency said.

Critics said that targeting Philadelphia looked like payback.

The raids came almost a month after Mayor Kenney sued Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the federal attempt to withhold grant money from sanctuary cities.

"As I've stated many times," Kenney said Friday, "when our immigrant communities cannot trust law enforcement, they are less likely to want to work with them to fight crime. Operation Safe City does not make our city safer and further sows seeds of distrust between our police and immigrants."

Brian Abernathy, first deputy managing director, said the Police Department and mayor's office found out about the raids from an ICE news release. He said he believed this was the first time ICE had openly stated it was aiming at sanctuary cities.

"It's a sign that the federal government is going to step up pressure on cities with policies that are welcoming and treat immigrants equally," Abernathy said. "But we still firmly believe our policies make us safe."

Philadelphia officials don't like the term "sanctuary city," saying they merely enforce policies and laws that treat undocumented and documented residents alike in the courts. That stance aggravates ICE administrators, who want local jurisdictions to detain undocumented immigrants when they are discovered.

"Sanctuary jurisdictions that do not honor detainers or allow us access to jails and prisons are shielding criminal aliens from immigration enforcement and creating a magnet for illegal immigration," ICE acting director Tom Homan said. "As a result, ICE is forced to dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities."

ICE wants cooperative relationships with local law enforcement "to help prevent dangerous criminal aliens from being released back onto the streets." Cities that adopt "non-cooperation policies" undermine that effort, Homan said.

The sweep took place the same week the Trump administration set a new, historically low cap on refugees, saying 45,000 would be allowed into the country during the 2018 fiscal year. Painting outsiders as dangerous — some Mexicans are "rapists" and "bad hombres" — has been one of the president's refrains. He has sought to ban travel from several Muslim-majority nations, ramped up enforcement actions, and intends, unless Congress acts, to strip deportation protections from certain young people, known as Dreamers, who were brought into the country as children.

The ICE raids did not target people shielded by DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Philadelphia saw the most arrests even though its undocumented population is much lower than some of the other cities.

For instance, Philadelphia has about 50,000 unauthorized immigrants, while New York has 10 times as many, about 525,000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Yet Philadelphia had more than twice the number of arrests, 107 compared with New York's 45.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that Mayor Kenney sues Jeff Sessions last month, and then Philadelphia gets hit," said Peter Pedemonti, director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that seeks justice for immigrants. "It's retaliatory."

As arrests occurred, about 15 people phoned New Sanctuary to say that a family member had been taken into custody, Pedemonti said. New Sanctuary attempted to locate the accused in the system, so that families would know their whereabouts. It also sought to connect families with lawyers and provide emotional support. The organization plans to hold a prayer vigil outside the ICE office in Center City on Thursday.

Immigrant advocate group Juntos called ICE "a rogue agency" that acted against cities and communities "who refuse to cooperate with a racist, xenophobic and white supremacist administration in violating people's rights."

The Quakers spoke out, calling Operation Safe City "a cynical misnomer."

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) reiterated his desire to end sanctuary city policies. "It is past time for Congress to act to end unsafe sanctuary city practices that make it harder to stop illegal immigration and keep dangerous criminals off the streets," he said Friday.

ICE said it arrested 498 people from 42 countries who were living in places from coast to coast. Arrests were made in Baltimore, 28; Cook County, Ill., 30; Denver, 63; Los Angeles, 101; Portland, Ore., 33; Santa Clara County, Calif., 27; Washington, D.C., 14; and Massachusetts, 50.

Agency spokespeople did not respond to a request to release the names of those arrested in Philadelphia and the charges against them.

One of those arrested in the city, ICE said in a statement, was a citizen of the Dominican Republic who had previous firearms convictions. He had been released from local custody, the agency said.

The people taken by ICE had 317 criminal convictions, and roughly one in five had been previously deported, ICE said. Those arrested had 86 convictions for driving under the influence.

Some of those arrested will face federal criminal prosecution for illegal entry and illegal reentry after removal.  Those not being prosecuted will undergo administrative processing for removal.  Those with pending orders of removal, or who returned to the U.S. after being removed, may be deported immediately.