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Trump administration says Philadelphia's 'sanctuary city' policy violates law

Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- In the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute, the Trump administration has declared that Philadelphia's "sanctuary city" policies violate federal law and has given city officials two weeks to contest the ruling or lose at least $1.6 million in police funding.

The decision was outlined in a letter delivered this week to Mayor Jim Kenney and disclosed Thursday, and followed threats earlier this year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to cut off federal grants for Philadelphia.

Both continue the protracted battle between the administration, with its hard-line immigration policies, and city officials, who have insisted their policies on undocumented immigrants are legal and make the city safer.

In a news conference, the mayor renewed his contention that the Justice Department is overstepping its reach and signaled the city would not back down.

"This has all been about political showmanship," he said. "It comes as no surprise that they think we haven't satisfied" the grant requirements. "They won't be satisfied until we actively join them in scaring immigrants out of our cities. And we won't be doing that."

He said the Justice Department was trying to coerce the city into adopting policies that would make its citizens less safe.

As the administration's attempts to withhold broader swaths of federal funding from sanctuary cities have drawn court challenges, the department has homed in on smaller targets, such as the $1.6 million grant issued last year and already spent on initiatives including overtime and police training. Then, under President Barack Obama, the department told city officials that to keep the funds, they would have to certify they were complying with a federal law that bars cities from restricting communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the immigration status of people encountered by police or other municipal agencies.

In April, under President Donald Trump, the department notified Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and other cities that they had until the end of June to certify their compliance. In May, Sessions threatened that noncompliant cities could lose funding or be barred from receiving future grants.

A month later, Philadelphia sent its reply, arguing its sanctuary policies don't violate federal law.

Philadelphia police policy forbids officers from asking anyone's immigration status; city officials have said that when officers inadvertently learn that information, it is recorded in a police report only when that person is suspected of a crime. That's to protect victims and witnesses of crimes who would otherwise be afraid to come forward, they say.

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