Immigrant organizers in Philadelphia won a landmark victory in April when Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order greatly limiting collaboration between police and federal immigration officials. The order ends the practice of “ICE holds,” under which police detain an immigrant at the request of Immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) so that the agency can investigate whether the individual may be deportable. Unlike similar policies recently enacted in cities such as New York and San Francisco, Nutter’s order applies to all undocumented immigrants, including those with criminal records, making Philadelphia’s immigration policy one of the most progressive in the country.
Mayor Nutter’s initial drafts of the executive order, which were shared with immigrant rights groups, would have continued to allow ICE to place holds on immigrants with criminal records, as well as those who had merely been charged with a crime. Ultimately, the administration conceded to pressure from immigrant-rights groups and issued a blanket policy stipulating that city jails can no longer imprison anyone on behalf of ICE without a federal warrant. As ICE does not typically seek out such warrants, legal advocates say that the order effectively puts an end to ICE holds in the city.
The Philadelphia Family Unity Network (PFUN), the coalition of immigrant rights groups that spearheaded the push for the change, grappled at first with the question of whether it should advocate on behalf of immigrants with criminal backgrounds. Some felt this focus would be a tough sell to city politicians, while others argued that it was morally wrong to advocate on behalf of accused violent criminals.
But others believed that excluding immigrants with criminal backgrounds from the campaign would only help fuel the criminalization of poor people of color. “One in five people in Philadelphia are formerly incarcerated,” said Mia-Lia Kiernan of 1Love Movement. “The values of rehabilitation, redemption, and transformation…should [also] be applied to the immigrant community.” Organizers hope that their strategy will prove a model for other cities fighting deportations. “The immigrant rights movement has been divided,” says Kiernan. “It’s hard for people to connect the movement to healthcare, labor, education. When we’re talking about immigrant rights in relation to mass incarceration, it takes a lot of education to make that link.”