Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Judge rules for Philadelphia in ‘Sanctuary City’ case

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson said the Trump administration's attempt to withhold about $1.5 million in federal law-enforcement grant money "violates statutory and constitutional law."

A federal judge ruled in the favor of the administration of Mayor Jim Kenney, here at the beginning of the dedication of LOVE Park in May.
A federal judge ruled in the favor of the administration of Mayor Jim Kenney, here at the beginning of the dedication of LOVE Park in May. Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

A federal judge has ruled for Philadelphia in its highly contentious "sanctuary city" case against the Trump administration, saying the city's refusal to help enforce immigration laws is based on policies that are reasonable, rational, and equitable.

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson issued his decision Wednesday afternoon, following a four-day trial this spring and nearly a year of litigation, ruling that the Trump administration's attempt to withhold about $1.5 million in federal law-enforcement grant money "violates statutory and constitutional law."

The money comes under what is called an Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant. "The city is entitled to prompt payment of the JAG funds," the judge said.

The Trump administration wanted to withhold the funds unless the city agreed to actively assist federal authorities in identifying and turning over undocumented immigrants. The city sued in the summer of 2017, saying the Police Department is not an arm of immigration enforcement, and that making it one would damage community relations.

After the ruling became public, Mayor Kenney was captured on video as he broke into what looked like a Snoopy "happy dance," slapping a high five with chief of staff Jane Slusser as he sang out, "A sanctuary city, yeah!"

Meeting later with reporters, the Irish American mayor joked that he usually doesn't dance unless he's had "a couple of wines," then choked up as he spoke of earlier trials of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Japanese immigrants.

"Philadelphia has always been and will always be a welcoming city," he said. "Philadelphia needs its immigrant community."

The mayor, long at war with President Trump, said the decision "prevents a White House run by a bully from bullying Philadelphia into changing its policies."

Efforts to contact U.S. Justice Department senior trial counsel Daniel Schwei, who battled the city in court, were unsuccessful.

Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley called the judge's ruling "a victory for criminal aliens in Philadelphia, who can continue to commit crimes in the city knowing that its leadership will protect them from federal immigration officers whose job it is to hold them accountable and remove them from the country."

The Justice Department continues to maintain that it exercised  authority given by Congress to attach conditions — "designed to keep Americans safe" — to public-safety grants, he said. The department will continue to fight to keep its "commitment to the rule of law, protecting public safety, and keeping criminal aliens off the streets."

The city challenged three specific conditions of the grant:

First, that it must provide U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, with access to city prisons to conduct interviews with inmates. Second, that when ICE asks, the city must provide advance notice of when undocumented people are being released from prison. And third, that the city must comply with a law that, according to the federal government, requires local officials to share information about the citizenship or immigration status of any person.

Baylson, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002, shot those down.

"The public statements of President Trump and Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions, asserting that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born citizens, are inaccurate as applied to Philadelphia, and do not justify the imposition of these three conditions," he wrote.

In his ruling, Baylson said that given that 11 million undocumented people live in the United States, "most of them living peacefully with families, children and good jobs," the complexity of the Philadelphia case demonstrates "the sheer impossibility, as well as great expense, of relying on a policy of 'removal' (deportation)."

At the heart of the case was a relatively small amount of money — somewhat more than $1.5 million in a grant to a city with a $4.4 billion budget — but a big principle: whether the Trump administration can hold back money unless the city agrees to make its Police Department help federal agents identify and arrest people who immigrated without appropriate documents.

A key issue was the city's refusal to honor ICE detainers for people who were being released from custody, viewing those papers as administrative requests, not binding. City officials say they will respond to a detainer only if that paperwork is accompanied by a signed warrant from a judge.

The administration argued that city policies allow dangerous criminals to be released into the community when they should be deported to their homelands. It wanted the city to hold people on detainer until ICE agents can get there.

The Justice Department statement included a list of seven foreign nationals, convicted of crimes including aggravatged assault and delivering cocaine, who the department said were released because the city did not honor an ICE detainer.

Broadly defined, a sanctuary city limits its cooperation with federal authorities who enforce immigration laws. Those cities' leaders aim to ease fears of deportation among undocumented residents, believing that members of immigrant communities will then be more willing to report crime.

Across the U.S., dozens of states, cities, counties and other jurisdictions have declared themselves or been tagged as "sanctuary cities." Federal courts in Illinois and California, like in Philadelphia, have moved to restrict how the administration may act to compel local governments to help enforce immigration law.

"This decision is binding on Philadelphia, but some legal principles could be used as persuasive authority in other courts," Philadelphia City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said on Wednesday.

Philadelphia officials reject the title of "sanctuary city," saying they simply enforce city policies that provide equal treatment for people who come into contact with the criminal-justice system, regardless of immigration status. Immigrants who commit crimes are arrested and charged just like anyone else, city officials said.

"This [ruling] should reaffirm to our immigrant communities that we are glad you are here, we want you here, we will always fight to ensure that Philadelphia remains a welcoming city to all," said Miriam Enriquez, head of the city Office of Immigrant Affairs.

In earlier opinions and writings on the case, the judge summoned tales from Greek mythology, German folklore and the New Testament. This decision was no different, quoting Act 4, Scene 7, from Hamlet: "No place indeed should murder sanctuarize."

Baylson compared Philadelphia officials to the sailors in Homer's Odyssey, seeking to avoid the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis as they travel to the island of Thrinacia.

"To Philadelphia, Scylla represents compliance with a federal statute requiring that the city issue no guidance restricting its police and other officials from sharing information about the immigration status of city residents, while Charybdis represents $1.6 million that Philadelphia would use to provide vital resources to bolster its local criminal justice prerogatives."

The city, he wrote, "can steer safely to Thrinacia, accepting the $1.6 million without compromising its local objectives."