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July 11, 2016

As sanctuary city, Philly could lose grant funding under new DOJ guidelines

City slated to receive $1.68 million in JAG funds

Immigration Sanctuary Cities
0711_Kenney_ICE_Immigration Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Jim Kenney advocates for "sanctuary city" policies during a rally at LOVE Park in July 2015.

New guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Justice could prevent Philadelphia and other so-called "sanctuary cities" from receiving federal grant funding.

Municipalities that fail to adhere to federal immigration orders could have funding withheld – or be denied future funding – from the DOJ's Justice Assistance Grant and State Criminal Alien Assistance programs.

Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik outlined the guidelines in a letter sent last week to U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.

Kadzik told Culberson that DOJ will emphasize to applicants "the importance and requirement of adherence to all applicable federal laws," which include a 1996 law forbidding local governments from withholding information about an individual's immigration status. 

If a grantee is found to be in violation, it will be given a "reasonable amount of time" to comply, before possible penalties such as the withholding of funds or future grant ineligibility are invoked, the guidelines state.

If enforced, Philadelphia could be impacted.

The city is allocated $1.68 million in JAG funding for Fiscal Year 2016. It has received $8.6 million since 2012 in JAG grants, which provide funding for various law enforcement, crime prevention and prosecution purposes.

Allocations for SCAAP grants will not be announced until October, but Philly has received $483,821 since 2012, including $150,080 last year. The program provides federal payments to states and localities which incurred correctional officer salary costs for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens.

Mayor Jim Kenney's office previously has stated it has no plans to change the city's sanctuary policies. Spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Monday that DOJ has not notified the city regarding any funding in danger of being withheld. 

"Any suggestion that the Department of Justice has indicated to us that it plans to withhold funding from Philadelphia for our critical criminal justice needs is simply not true," Hitt wrote in an email. "Nor is it correct to say we are doing anything to shield from the federal government violent criminals or suspected terrorists. That is simply false."

Philadelphia is among numerous municipalities across the country that give "sanctuary" to undocumented immigrants. Local law enforcement officials are prevented from informing Immigration and Customs Enforcement of an undocumented prisoner's release – unless the individual was convicted of a violent felony and ICE officials procure a warrant.

Sanctuary polices have generated considerable debate since a San Francisco woman was killed last summer by an undocumented immigrant who was dismissed by police after they picked him up on a decades-old drug charge.

Proponents, like Kenney, say sanctuary policies create trust between police and immigrants, who otherwise might be afraid to report crimes. Opponents say they leave violent criminals on the streets.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has been among the most vocal opponents of sanctuary policies, penning a bill that would have blocked sanctuary cities from receiving federal Community Development Block Grants. Philadelphia stood to lose $38.8 million.

The legislation failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to end debate during a procedural vote last week that mostly fell down party lines. Two Democrats supported it while one Republican opposed it.

Toomey continues to make the issue a focal point of his re-election campaign against Democrat Katie McGinty. He encouraged her in a letter Monday to join him in calling on Kenney to end Philadelphia's sanctuary policies, noting the new DOJ guidelines.

"But now Mayor Kenney’s untenable sanctuary city policy means that Philadelphia will not receive millions of dollars in federal law enforcement grants under the Obama administration’s new policy," Toomey wrote. "... Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy is an even greater threat to public safety now because local law enforcement will be paying the price for decisions made by local politicians."

McGinty previously encouraged Kenney to reconsider the city's sanctuary policies, though she stopped short of outright rejecting them.

"As I've stated repeatedly, violent criminals, whether they are documented or undocumented, need to be apprehended and prosecuted," McGinty said in a statement. "Further, I do not believe that the sanctuary cities approach is the answer to our complex immigration and law enforcement challenges, and that we are always safer when law enforcement agencies at every level are working together."

Philadelphia first became a sanctuary policy in April 2014 under former Mayor Michael Nutter. But the mayor altered those policies in late December 2015 – just before he was set to leave office – to share more information with federal immigration officials.

Kenney, who supported the policies while on City Council, reinstituted the former policies upon taking office in early January.