Since Monday night, dozens of protesters have been camped out in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Center City Philadelphia.
Tensions between protesters and the police came to a head Thursday when authorities broke up the encampment to clear protesters away from the building grounds. Seven people taken into custody were cited and then released.
Nevertheless, the demonstrators pressed on in an area designated by police that does not block entry to the ICE office.
One of the group’s demands is for the city to end its contract with ICE that grants the agency access to the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System or PARS, a real-time arrest database. ICE pays the city about $5,500 a year to access the database.
The current contract runs through Aug. 31, and protesters are calling on Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to let it lapse.
Protester Mara Henao, a member of the Philly Socialists, said the contract isn’t worth risking the safety of undocumented residents.
“It’s just messed up that Philadelphia is a sanctuary city, but then is still giving information that is putting people in danger,” she said. “And the financial incentive is not even enough to defend this kind of decision making.”
A defendant’s immigration status is not included in the database, since Philadelphia police aren’t allowed to ask. But the database does include the person’s name, address, place of birth, and upcoming court dates — enough information for ICE to draw conclusions about a person’s citizenship, said civil rights attorney Susan Lin.
“The problem is there are other, just plain old identifying information that become code for somebody’s status,” said Lin.
ICE can use this information to track down undocumented immigrants it wants to deport.
Lin said a defendant’s information is also available in other databases, such as the National Crime Information Center. The difference is that PARS provides the data in real time.
Between October 2017 and March, Philadelphia’s ICE office — which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia — has made more than 2,500 arrests and deported more than 1,900 people.
ICE representatives declined an interview request, but officials confirmed that the agency plans to renew the contract.
Earlier this week, when asked whether the city planned to reissue the contract, a spokesman for the city said the Kenney administration is weighing all of its options.
Deana Gamble, a city spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday that one factor in that decision will be an ongoing case against the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last August, Philadelphia officials sued U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the DOJ’s decision to withhold grant money from the city for not fully cooperating with federal immigration agents, including the fact it does not share a suspect’s immigration status. A judge sided with Philadelphia, but Gamble said the case is still pending because the DOJ can appeal the ruling.
Gamble wrote that the case could have major implications for other sanctuary cities in the U.S., so city officials are proceeding with caution.
However, the Philadelphia stands firm in its disapproval of ICE’s practices, she said, and officials have promised to continue monitoring how the federal agency operates in the city.
“As we’ve stated many times, we disagree with ICE’s aggressive tactics, their separation of families, and their targeting of law-abiding immigrants,” Gamble wrote. “We will not become an extension of ICE’s immigration enforcement. ICE access to PARS — should it continue — in no way lessens our disdain for ICE policies and our commitment to maintaining Philadelphia as a welcoming city.”
The protesters’ other demands include abolishing ICE itself and shutting down a federal detention facility in Berks County for people awaiting decisions on their immigration cases.