The Philadelphia region's top Justice Department official sharply criticized city leaders Wednesday over their immigration policies, which he blamed for giving a "free pass" to a Honduran man who sexually assaulted a 5-year-old girl.
In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain denounced Philadelphia's "sanctuary city" status as dangerous and blamed it for "foster[ing] mistrust between the community and local law enforcement" by favoring undocumented immigrants.
Although his statements echoed previous remarks from his bosses in Washington, it marked the first time since McSwain assumed his post in April that he had broken so directly and forcefully with city officials.
"If it turns out by playing favorites that you're allowing children to get raped, my office is going to have a big problem with that," he said.
McSwain was discussing the case of Juan Ramon Vasquez, an undocumented immigrant whose repeated sexual assault of a family member after his 2014 release from a city jail has become a flash point in the "sanctuary cities" debate. Federal prosecutors secured a guilty plea from Vasquez, 38, of Upper Darby, on immigration offenses Tuesday.
But the U.S. attorney's statements about the case prompted a pointed response from District Attorney Larry Krasner, who shot back when asked about them after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in South Philadelphia.
"Spoken like an appointee of the Trump administration," Krasner said. "What do you expect?"
Asked specifically about McSwain's linking the rape of Vasquez's victim to the city's sanctuary status, the district attorney replied: "That's very dramatic. The Trump administration has made it so that immigrant children can get raped because they're afraid to call the police … [due to its] policies of deporting people who are victims."
Mayor Kenney refrained from criticizing McSwain or his office directly during the news conference, which highlighted federal, state, and local efforts to combat gun crimes, but stressed that he disagreed with the U.S. attorney's opinion.
"We have the highest respect for law enforcement at the federal level," he said. "We just happen to disagree on this particular issue. … That does not mean we will not cooperate on human trafficking, on drug cases, on all kinds of cases."
The back-and-forth between municipal leaders and the city's top federal official underscored a growing rift between Philadelphia and Washington on immigration enforcement policy.
Since last year, city officials have sparred with the Trump administration over whether they should be required to hold undocumented immigrants flagged for possible deportation in city jails past the release dates for the crimes for which they were arrested. Then, last month, Kenney's administration announced plans to cut off access for federal immigration agents to a city database that logs police arrests in real time.
Meanwhile, demonstrators have persisted in a vocal campaign for weeks calling for the dissolution of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency primarily tasked with enforcing immigration law.
McSwain, speaking Wednesday in his office overlooking Independence Hall, cast those positions as wrongheaded and said anyone displeased with immigration laws "should be working within the system in order to get the laws changed, they should not be making baseless accusations against ICE saying that they are acting illegally."
Kenney, Krasner, and Police Commissioner Richard Ross have argued that relying on local law enforcement to help locate and deport undocumented residents only endangers the wider community because it makes it less likely that those who do not have legal status in this country will come forward to report crimes.
"They have it exactly backwards," McSwain rejoined Wednesday. "They're fostering mistrust between the community and law enforcement by choosing not to enforce the rule of law."
In June, a federal judge in Philadelphia barred the Justice Department from seeking to compel the city to comply with immigration enforcement efforts by withholding law enforcement grants.
A key issue in that case – which the Justice Department continues to appeal – was the city's refusal to honor ICE requests to hold undocumented immigrants being released from city jails. City officials maintain that they will respond to such requests – known as ICE detainers — only if the paperwork is accompanied by a signed arrest warrant from a judge.
Federal immigration authorities have called such requirements overly burdensome, and repeatedly have highlighted Vasquez's case as an example of the dangers of Philadelphia's policies.
Philadelphia police arrested Vasquez — who also used the name Ramon Aguirre-Ochoa — in 2014 and charged him with aggravated assault. He was released the following year when the case against him was dropped — despite an ICE detainer requesting that he be held for possible deportation proceedings.
Vasquez was arrested again a year and a half later for raping a 5-year-old family member. He pleaded guilty to that crime and was sentenced last year to eight to 20 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors filed their criminal immigration case against him in 2016. His guilty plea Tuesday — to one count of illegally reentering the country after deportation — all but ensures he will be deported after he is sentenced and serves an additional term of incarceration for that crime.
Had Vasquez been turned over to immigration authorities as originally requested, McSwain said Wednesday, his subsequent crimes never would have occurred.
"This case is the worst-case scenario," he said. "You have a situation where there was a terrible crime committed because the city plays favorites."
Vasquez's attorney, federal public defender Mythri Jayaraman, declined to comment on his case Wednesday.