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Kenney to Trump administration: Our sanctuary-city policies are legal

With a $1.67 million federal policing grant at stake, Philadelphia officials asserted that their "sanctuary city" policies don't run afoul of a federal law.

Mayor Kenney says Philadelphia’s policies doesn’t run afoul of federal law.
Mayor Kenney says Philadelphia’s policies doesn’t run afoul of federal law.Read moreAvi Steinhardt

With $1.67 million in federal policing grants at stake, Philadelphia officials asserted Thursday that their "sanctuary city" policies don't run afoul of a U.S. law that bars them from keeping residents' immigration statuses from federal agents.

Mayor Kenney said at a morning news conference that some of the city's sanctuary policies date to 2001, under Police Commissioner John Timoney, and that they have allowed immigrants to "pursue the American dream" while police tackle crime.

"More importantly, they do not break a single federal law," he said. To undocumented Philadelphians, he pledged: "I know this is a very scary time, and there are a lot of rumors flying around. I will treat you like any other citizen of this city."

Last year, under President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice informed city officials that in order to keep a policing grant they had just been awarded, they would have to certify they were complying with a federal law that restricts cities from enacting their own laws banning communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the immigration status of people encountered by police or other municipal agencies.

In April, under President Trump, the department sent a letter to nine cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, reminding them they had until the end of June to certify their compliance. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened that noncompliant cities could see grants withheld or "clawed back," or be barred from receiving grants in the future.

This week, the city sent a letter to the department "formally certifying" that it was in compliance with the law.

"We have not had to revise or change any policies," City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante stressed.

Philadelphia police policy forbids officers from asking about anyone's immigration status, Tulante said. When officers inadvertently learn about someone's immigration status, that information will make it into a police report only when that person is suspected of a crime, he said.

That's to protect victims and witnesses of crimes who would otherwise be afraid to come forward, city officials say.

"We can't imagine the federal government having interest in someone who's law-abiding," Tulante said.

And because Philadelphia police upload reports to crime databases that ICE can access, the city argues in its letter, it isn't restricting communications with ICE.

The grant at stake pays for overtime and training for local police, city officials said, adding they don't think the law they are required to comply with is "relevant to the grants we are receiving."

"They have nothing to do with the enforcement of immigration laws," Tulante said.

Staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.