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How Philly 'sanctuary' stance got caught up in Toomey-McGinty crossfire

The claim last week by Sen. Pat Toomey caused alarm: The Obama administration would withhold critical public-safety grants to punish Philadelphia for its position as a "sanctuary city."

After picking a fight with Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney (center) over the city's "sanctuary city" policy, Sen. Pat Toomey (right) is now fighting with Democratic challenger Katie McGinty (left), who says Toomey is risking Philadelphia dollars.
After picking a fight with Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney (center) over the city's "sanctuary city" policy, Sen. Pat Toomey (right) is now fighting with Democratic challenger Katie McGinty (left), who says Toomey is risking Philadelphia dollars.Read moreStaff File Photos

The claim last week by Sen. Pat Toomey caused alarm: The Obama administration would withhold critical public-safety grants to punish Philadelphia for its position as a "sanctuary city."

The reality, as is often the case, is more complex.

Mayor Kenney's office said the Pennsylvania Republican was blowing smoke. Toomey doubled down. The feds weren't eager to clear up the confusion, leaving the impact, for now, unknown.

But the fray has brought another fact into focus.

Philadelphia's sanctuary city policy - hardly at the top of the national debate - is taking on unusual prominence in the race between Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty, one of the most closely watched Senate contests in the country.

In an election year where terrorism and national security have risen to the forefront along with trade and jobs for many voters, Philadelphia's stance, for Toomey, dovetails nicely.

"For a lot of Pennsylvanians, the status of Philadelphia as a sanctuary city is probably not very high on their list," said Christopher Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "The broader issue of immigration has become very important. And therefore this has become more of a flash point than it might otherwise be."

Toomey's assertion that Philadelphia's sanctuary policy had cost the city federal funding came after the Justice Department this month issued new guidelines to withhold certain law enforcement-related grants from some municipalities that don't cooperate with its immigration officials.

Philadelphia's policy, which was rescinded by Michael Nutter just before he left office but reinstated by Kenney on his first day on the job, bars almost all such cooperation.

It blocks the police from complying with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainer requests or from notifying federal officials when a prisoner who is undocumented is being released - except if that person has been convicted of a violent felony and the feds have obtained a warrant.

Supporters say that the policy builds trust between law enforcement and undocumented immigrants, easing fears that contact with police could lead to deportation.

But critics worry that the policy endangers the public and point to the murder last year of a woman in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who shortly before had been released by local police without notification to immigration officials.

Philadelphia's stance has been the subject of harangues by Senate Republicans and Democrats in the Obama administration alike - a rare example of the two finding common ground.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has singled out Philadelphia as being particularly resistant to cooperating with immigration authorities, and he traveled to Philadelphia in May to formally ask Kenney to reconsider, a fruitless endeavor.

Toomey for months has hammered the policy - and McGinty for not taking a tougher stance against it.

Tough talk in campaign

Earlier this month, Toomey secured a Senate vote on legislation to withhold some federal money, including Community Development Block Grants, from sanctuary cities like Philadelphia. The bill was blocked by Democrats. Then last week, he launched a television ad, titled "Safety," that asks "Who will do more to keep us safe?" and slams McGinty on sanctuary cities and other issues.

The push is part of a broader effort by Toomey, long known as a fiscal hawk, to present himself as a guardian of public safety and a champion of police.

Analysts in both parties say Toomey's focus on sanctuary cities lets him speak to the anger over illegal immigration that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has tapped, without the same incendiary rhetoric or broad brush. Republicans also said it allows Toomey to cast McGinty as extreme by highlighting that members of her own party have been critical of sanctuary cities.

"In terms of distinguishing yourself from your opponent and painting your opponent into a corner, it's a terrific issue," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican analyst based in Harrisburg.

Democrats, in turn, accuse Toomey of fearmongering for political gain. (Kenney has called the senator's attacks "straight from Donald Trump's anti-immigrant playbook.") But McGinty has had to tread carefully, balancing between those on the left who favor the policy and more moderate voters who may oppose it.

McGinty has previously said local officials should be allowed to make their own decisions about law enforcement. But facing pressure, she urged Kenney earlier this month to "ensure that there is robust communication" with federal officials when it comes to violent criminals and suspected terrorists - regardless of their immigration status.

Toomey's campaign accused her of "waffling." And in an open letter to her last week, he called her "shift in position . . . woefully inadequate."

"Serious public officials and aspiring lawmakers must take a stand against Mayor Kenney's extreme sanctuary city policy," Toomey wrote.

On Thursday, McGinty fired off her own law-and-order proposal, calling for doubling U.S. funding for community policing grants that she says could ease simmering tensions between minority communities and police.

She pointed out that Toomey voted last year for a bill that would punish sanctuary cities by cutting such grants (though the senator's own version this year targeted a different pot of federal dollars).

And she criticized Toomey for praising new Justice Department guidelines that could cost Philadelphia law enforcement funds.

McGinty, who likes to point out that her father was a Philadelphia police officer, said Toomey has been "almost giddy in his enthusiasm for trying to kneecap our own police."

Toomey's camp called McGinty's police-funding proposal a "stunt."

Beneath the rhetoric

Beneath all the political smoke, the impact of Philadelphia's sanctuary policy on its federal grants remains unclear. The federal policy issued this month says the department plans to deny grants for some sanctuary cities.

On that point, Philadelphia would seem to be in trouble. But Lauren Hitt, Kenney's spokeswoman, denied that and said the city does cooperate with immigration officials in many cases, including on cases of terror suspects.

"Any suggestion that the Department of Justice has indicated to us that it plans to withhold funding from Philadelphia for our critical criminal justice needs is simply not true," Hitt said. "Nor is it correct to say we are doing anything to shield from the federal government violent criminals or suspected terrorists. That is simply false."

Asked to clarify whether Philadelphia will be losing grant money, the Justice Department declined comment. A spokesman provided a memo that says cities with sanctuary policies will be given time to clarify them - or risk potentially losing funding.

If the funds are withheld, though, the impact will likely be minimal.

Toomey's legislation had targeted nearly $39 million sent to Philadelphia.

The grants on the line now, which fund various criminal justice agencies with the majority going to the Police Department, provided about $1.7 million in revenue to Philadelphia last year - out of the city's total federal pot of $342.6 million.

215-854-2730 @TriciaNadolny