Trump in Toomey’s corner on penalizing Philly, other ‘sanctuary cities’

Listen 4:27
In this file photo, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about trade policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo, file)

In this file photo, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about trade policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo, file)

A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump seemed to mock U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, suggesting the Pennsylvania legislator kowtowed to the wishes of the National Rifle Association.

This week, the president and Toomey demonstrated they are solidly on the same page as far as “sanctuary cities” – and the penalties those municipalities should face.

On Tuesday Toomey was one of a handful of lawmakers invited to the White House Tuesday to discuss the cities, including Philadelphia, that hold immigrants on behalf of federal authorities only when presented with a judge’s warrant.

As TV cameras recorded the meeting, Toomey spoke frankly with Trump.

“Mr. President, the idea that certain municipalities and jurisdictions in the United States confer a special legal protection on violent criminals because they came here illegally, that is a breed of madness that the vast majority of my constituents … ” Toomey said.

“It is rather incredible,” Trump interjected.

A measure Toomey is sponsoring aims to cut off certain funds to cities with policies that the Department of Justice says hampers its effort to detain and deport illegal immigrants. While Philadelphia has won a court case over the dispute, Toomey’s proposal would breathe new life into the effort.

“Legal immigrants in this country often live amongst people who are here illegally, and their lives are threatened by this policy,” Toomey said.

Limited research on crime rates in sanctuary cities vs. other cities shows no statistically significant difference. Officials in Philadelphia and other cities contend they need sanctuary policies to ensure immigrants feel comfortable calling the police when they’re victims of crimes.

Democrats react

Democrats from the region are up in arms over Toomey’s efforts, especially now that the Department of Justice is suing California over its sanctuary policy.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is one of the fiercest critics of such efforts.

“Well, it’s beyond surreal. You would think that the Department of Justice would have a lot bigger issues to fry like gun trafficking in our country, like gangs, like a whole host of issues of foreign interference in our country,” he said. “But they go after a state based upon the state’s rights to decide how it’s going to execute its laws.”

While the Trump administration keeps trying to enact such restrictions, others say the Philadelphia federal court win should be a warning that such policies are valid.

“I think it’s a nonstarter,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, adding that Toomey and Trump are playing to the right wing of their party. “I think they are talking to a certain audience within the country.”

And U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, who also represents Philadelphia, said the Trump White House is taking America backward on immigration.

“There’s one thing that I can pretty much guarantee at this point,” he said. “This administration is the most anti-immigrant in at least a hundred years. There’s no question that they’re going to continue doing things — whether it’s against California or other municipalities or states that are all derived at targeting immigrants.

“I really wish that this president understood American history better, understood that we are a nation of immigrants.”

Call for more comprehensive approach

Some Republican Congress members, even those who have large immigrant communities in their districts, are critical of sanctuary policies.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello represents parts of four counties west of Philadelphia, including Chester County. Under newly drawn district maps, he would represent agricultural areas with sizeable immigrant populations. But he has no sympathy for Philadelphia’s policy.

“Well, Philadelphia should communicate right? I think you reach a certain point in time where the City of Philadelphia would come to the realization that they do have to follow the law there, and they have to report if they pick up someone who does not have the proper paperwork,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re sanctioning the nonenforcement of existing law.”

But Costello said he’d rather see Congress and the White House focus on a broader immigration proposal that also deals with the unauthorized immigrants brought to this country as children.

“I would like to see the Senate get a comprehensive immigration bill that’s bipartisan,” he said. “The more votes they have over there, the better — and that’d be the basis for having the bill pass the House.”

Toomey’s proposal on sanctuary cities has failed twice, but he’s not giving up — especially now that Trump has backed the plan so strongly.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.