‘Sanctuary City’ Not a Sanctuary for Immigrants After All

PHILADELPHIA — Saroun Khan, a Cambodian immigrant and Olney resident, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in March of last year, and has since been put through a series of detainment transfers, and is still currently on a path to deportation.

Khan has been living in Philadelphia with his family since their arrival in 1984, when he was only four years old. Despite being a permanent legal resident of this country, he is now at risk of being sent back to a country unfamiliar to him because of an offense he committed decades ago and has already served prison time for, according to the Inquirer

This instance of unjust detainment by ICE in Philadelphia is part of a larger trend of the U.S. deporting more Asian people, many of whom have been here for years, often because of old criminal convictions. 

The increase in the removal of Asian people from the U.S. is no doubt a component of the ramping up of U.S. war propaganda against China and Chinese people, as well as the increase in acts of violence against Asian-Americans in recent months.

But how is this happening here, in Philadelphia, a major city which frequently positions itself as a “sanctuary city?”

What is a ‘Sanctuary City’? 

A sanctuary city is generally understood as a city or municipality that limits its cooperation with federal government immigration agencies such as ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There is no single definition of the term and different municipalities have varying policies regarding how local law enforcement will or will not cooperate with federal immigration agents. Some examples of these limitations include refusing requests for joint patrols (called detainers), refusing to gather information on the immigration status of city residents, and refusing to jail an individual who has posted bond and is set to be released, according to Learning for Justice.

Philadelphia, which is often referred to as a “sanctuary city,” actually does not identify with that term, according to the city website. Local government officials describe Philadelphia as a “welcoming city,” and claim that city employees, including police officers, are prohibited from asking “about the documentation status of people they encounter.” However, the website makes clear that “Philadelphia works with our federal partners and does not stop ICE from arresting Philadelphians whom they believe are undocumented.”

The city government claims that its policies reflect “American values” and that the policies “uphold the golden rule,” (i.e. treat others the way you wish to be treated) but statements such as these are only empty rhetoric, and do nothing to protect the rights of immigrants, people of color, or working class Philadelphians. 

Immigrant Communities in ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Can Still Be Targeted By ICE

Last year, “sanctuary cities,” across the country were specifically targeted by the Trump administration to carry out mass arrests and deportations despite the “sanctuary” label. During the uprising against racism that spread across the nation last summer, DHS was deployed in unmarked vehicles to kidnap protesters and disrupt demonstrations. In September and October, ICE was ordered to carry out approximately 170 arrests in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, and Washington D.C., according to WHYY, as part of “Operation: Rise”. In Philadelphia alone, there were 26 arrests between Oct. 3 and Oct. 9. ICE even put up billboards around Philly denouncing sanctuary policies for immigrants.

The deployment of DHS and ICE in these instances and the resulting media coverage was a political move by the Trump administration to bolster his “law and order” campaign strategy. What is disturbing, though, is that “Operation: Rise” is not particularly more aggressive than day-to-day ICE operations, which hardly ever get media coverage. In 2019, the average number of ICE removals per month in Philly was 341 people, totalling 4,096 arrests and removals in 2019, according to ICE’s end of year report. That figure is shockingly high for a city that claims to defend the rights of its immigrant communities. 

New Administration Takes Power, But Harmful Policies Remain in Place

Earlier this year, President Biden signed an executive order which was intended to adjust the priorities of ICE operations and to institute a 100 day “pause” on certain removals which did not fall into the aforementioned priority groups (terms of executive order described here), according to the Washington Post. The pause, ultimately, was not implemented because a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary restraining order to block it. 

The new and temporary rules would not have protected anyone in the country without documentation from removal, and deportations are still occurring. The Biden-Harris administration has been in power for four months and has already deported 127,457 people nationally, according to United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant advocacy organization. Similar to the policies of a “sanctuary city,” Biden’s executive order only shifts the priorities of ICE operations and requires a pre-approval for some arrests of individuals that do not fall into priority groups. Undocumented immigrants are still very much at risk of being deported under the new administration. 

Biden also retained a harmful immigration policy adopted at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Title 42, which allows the Border Patrol to turn away immigrants at the border due to the public health crisis. The Biden administration claims that it has made a crucial adjustment to the policy, and has started to allow more migrant children into the country, as reported in USAToday. This adjustment in policy is highly problematic in its own right, however, because now unaccompanied children are being held in prison-like facilities along the border. While the administration claims their policy is addressing the humanitarian needs of these children, in reality, children are still kept in cages as they were during the Trump administration, as seen in these images published by Reuters.

Editorial cartoon by Gary Varvel

The System Is the Problem; Organizing and Solidarity Are the Solutions

Highly aggressive ICE operations and the unjust and harmful deportation of thousands of people a year is a bi-partisan effort. Over the past eight years (2013-2020), spanning Obama’s second term through the Trump administration, the average number of administrative arrests by ICE per year in Philadelphia is 4,333, per ICE end of year statistical reports.

These statistics for Philadelphia alone make a compelling argument that the city, as much as it positions itself as safe and welcoming for immigrant communities, is not much of a sanctuary at all. Ultimately, the criminal justice system in place is a system that operates in the interest of capital, and of the ruling class, and generally operates the same regardless of which ruling-class party is in power — save for perhaps a few minor adjustments. ICE terror is a form of social control — it is much harder to organize and fight back against corporations and big businesses if you’re always afraid of being deported to another country in retaliation.

Philadelphians are organizing and working to protect immigrants from ICE, and the struggle to make Philadelphia a safer place for all communities is ongoing. For example, Juntos, a community led, latinx immigrant organization, recently started a campaign to teach educators in Philly public schools how to respond if ICE were to enter school facilities.

In the summer of 2018, there were mobilizations by activists across the country to #OccupyICE, including here in Philadelphia. A coalition of progressive organizations in the city including the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Green Party of Philadelphia, Philly Socialists, Democratic Socialists of America, and more, set up an encampment at the ICE headquarters at 8th and Cherry streets, staying multiple nights and risking arrest in protest of violent ICE raids across the country.

The solution to this ongoing crisis of violent arrests, intimidation, and deportation in immigrant communities is to foster multinational solidarity amongst the working class, and to not only abolish ICE, but to build a society in which all people have the right to a job and to housing — a world in which the global south is no longer subject to the poverty enforced by the cruel, imperialist policies of countries like the United States.