Sessions calls for end to sanctuary cities in Philly speech; Mayor, top cop, protesters disagree [photos]

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Updated Friday, June 21, 2017 3:00 p.m.

Speaking to a packed audience of law enforcement officials in Center City this morning, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on Philadelphia and other sanctuary cities to work with immigration authorities to rid their communities of immigrants who enter the country illegally.

“I urge the city of Philadelphia and every sanctuary city to reconsider the harm they are doing to their residents and law enforcement,” Sessions said this morning in a 20-minute speech at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at 6th and Chestnut streets. “Let’s see if we can get on the same path. If we’re going to stop the rise of violent crime, let’s work together.”

In the past, Sessions and President Donald Trump have threatened to cut off some federal funding to Philadelphia and other cities that have adopted policies limiting cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Sessions argues sanctuary cities break the law and put dangerous people back on the streets, instead of holding them for ICE to deport.

His comments drew an immediate rebuke from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who responded after a news conference announcing a city appointment at City Hall.

“I took an oath as mayor to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which includes the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires a criminal warrant to be issued to hold anyone in custody,” Kenney said. “If the Attorney General thinks we’re going to turn our police officers into ICE agents to do their bidding to scare our communities, to drive people underground, to keep them from reporting crime or being witnesses to crime, it’s never going to happen. I think they (federal authorities) have their own problems to worry about, and they should be worried about Robert Mueller (special counsel leading the Russian investigation) more than they should be worried about any of our immigrant populations.”

Kenney added: “To try to lay crime at the feet of immigrants is really horrible, and it’s just unworthy of conversation.”

Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who was in the audience, argued that local law enforcement doesn’t belong in the immigration business. Police have a tough enough time building bonds with local residents without having them worry about their immigration status, he said.

“Young men from here,” who are hopeless and dealing with poverty, are a bigger problem than law-breaking immigrants, Ross added.

“The sad reality is this: In Philadelphia, probably like a lot of major cities as it relates to violent crime, our problems are not people from other countries,” Ross said. “Our problems are some of the young men from here who are hopeless about a lot of things, they’re dealing with economic issues that lend themselves to all kinds of problems as it relates to gun violence.”

While Sessions urged cities like Philadephia to reconsider these policies, he stopped short of repeating previous calls to stop or “claw back” federal grants to sanctuary cities, which Ross said could be devastating to his department. 

The city is also pushing back at the notion it can even be called a “sanctuary city” as the term has been used by Sessions and President Donald Trump.

“That really talks about cities and municipalities that willfully refuse to comply with a particular federal law,” city solicitor Sozi Tulante told NewsWorks/WHYY. “We’ve complied with that law, so we don’t think that’s us.”

In today’s speech, Sessions also decried national and local upticks in murder, shootings and other violent crime, saying the murder rate jumped nearly 11 percent nationally and 13 percent in Philadelphia from 2015 to 2016. He didn’t cite a source for the Philadelphia statistic, and the police department’s website shows that the number of homicide victims actually fell from 280 in 2015 to 278 in 2016, down from the decade’s high of 391 in 2007.  However that same site has homicides are up 20 percent this year over last.

“We all deserve better,” Sessions said. “It is not a Philadelphia problem alone. It certainly is a national problem … Americans all have a right to demand safety. The first and most important job of government is to protect the safety and rights of its citizens.”

He specifically highlighted the violent gang MS-13 as a target for “eradicating.”

“Our goal is to dismantle transnational criminal organizations,” Session said, adding that MS-13 has 10,000 gang members in the United States, including in Philadelphia. “Their motto is to kill, rape, control … We have a motto too, and that motto is … justice for victims and consequences for criminals. We will eradicate this threat. MS-13’s days are numbered.”

In Sessions’ wide-ranging speech, he also promised to fight drug traffickers and work to reduce drug overdoses and the opioid epidemic. He did not repeat past threats to withdraw funding from Philadelphia and other sanctuary cities.

About 40 protesters rallied outside as Sessions spoke, chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” and “no ban, no wall, the Trump regime has got to fall!” They carried signs with slogans including: “Those who forsake liberty for security shall have neither” and “America was never great! We need to overthrow the system!” Many of the activists were with a New York City-based group called Refuse Fascism.

As Sessions prepared to take the podium at 11 a.m., the protesters spilled off the sidewalk and blocked the street. Many were particularly piqued by Sessions’ call for more mandatory minimum sentences and support for civil forfeitures. They also demonstrated in favor of Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy.

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