Kenney, activists decry ‘inflammatory rhetoric’ of immigration debate [audio]

 Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney speaks at Wednesday's immigration rally. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney speaks at Wednesday's immigration rally. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Toting signs reading “No to the Donald Trump Bill” and “Immigrants are not your scapegoats,” community leaders and activists took to LOVE Park on Wednesday morning to rally against a U.S. House of Representatives proposal that would punish America’s “sanctuary cities” by withholding certain Justice Department grants.

Representatives of several immigrant-rights groups joined with Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and Jennifer Rodriguez of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs to decry what they perceive as “hatemongering” and “inflammatory rhetoric” surrounding the debate.

The heated national discussion was sparked by an undocumented immigrant with a felony record accused of the fatal shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco on July 1.

San Francisco, like Philadelphia, is a “sanctuary city,” where local law enforcement does not ask for a suspect’s immigration status. Per a controversial executive order signed by Mayor Michael Nutter last year, police do not hold undocumented immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, known ad “ICE holds,” either.

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Those in LOVE Park maintained on Wednesday that the tragic case is being exploited for political gain.

“We’re standing here together to say no [to] a bill that was introduced last week … seeking to force cities like Philadelphia to abide by collaboration between police and ICE,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, of the grassroots Philadelphia Family Unity Network coaltion that successfully lobbied against ICE holds.

She said that being a sanctuary city helps foster better relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities when they don’t live in constant fear of deportation.

Kenney on priorities

Kenney, whose op-ed in defense of sanctuary cities, “Non-cooperation is good governing,” ran in Al Dia this week, said he was there “to support the Constitution of the United States” and chided what he saw as misguided agendas on Capitol Hill.

“I wish the U.S. Congress would be as animated and energetic about gun violence and education as they are about holding immigrants without a warrant,” Kenney said. “They want us to carry their water and do something unconstitutional because they’re not willing to take the bull by the horns and fix immigration.

“You can’t pay me to violate the Constitution. [Immigration] built this country. I’d be in Ireland cutting peat out of a bog if it wasn’t for immigration. … The only group of people who have a right to tell people to go back where they came from are Native Americans. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written in this city, and I’m not violating that at the whim of ICE.”

Asked what ICE should do when seeking people with prior offenses, he said they should get warrants instead of relying on those holds.

“What happened in San Francisco was a tragedy,” he said. “It happens every day here among native-born Americans. No one seems as upset about the killing of young African-American males in the city, but if a Mexican immigrant kills somebody, the whole world has to come to an end.

“I think Congress should be as concerned about what goes on in our city streets when it comes to gun control and access to weapons as opposed to worrying about this one particular tragic incident. I don’t see Donald Trump getting all upset about crime in an urban environment. Those are the things they should be worried about: keeping people safe from guns and keeping people educated. Rather than deal with the problem of immigration reform, they’d rather scapegoat a couple of incidents for their own benefit.”

Mayoral-race issue

The issue surfaced within the city’s mayoral race earlier this month when Republican candidate Melissa Murray Bailey declared “Philadelphia will not be a sanctuary city” if she’s elected.

About two hours after Wednesday’s press conference, she issued this additional statement:

My strong stance against Philadelphia being a sanctuary city has nothing to do with a person’s country of origin, race or ethnicity.

Jim Kenney would like you to believe it has to do with fear, but in reality my stance is just based on common sense and safety.

Plain and simple, there should not be a bureaucratic executive order in place that orders the Philadelphia police to release an individual here illegally, that could have been previously convicted of a violent crime, multiple drunken driving violations, or any other number of crimes that endangers the people of our city.

As a mother of a small child, on issues of safety, I feel Philadelphia must act with common sense and cooperate with the federal government to make sure our streets are safe for everyone.

To Jim Kenney I ask, why do you feel the city of Philadelphia should put the safety of our children and fellow citizens in jeopardy by ignoring federal authorities and releasing potentially dangerous criminals back onto the street?

NinetyNine took that last question from Bailey to the Kenney campaign for a response.

“The inflammatory rhetoric coming from Trump and other Republicans on this issue completely ignores the facts,” said spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. “Sanctuary cities do allow ICE agents with warrants to detain undocumented immigrants with violent criminal histories.

“Additionally, the otherwise law-abiding immigrants who live in these cities feel safe enough to report violent crimes to police and cooperate as witnesses in police investigations.”

Additional reporting and audio from WHYY’s Tom MacDonald.

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