Rally a Department of Homeland Security Immigration Field Office, in Philadelphia, PA, on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

DA Larry Krasner pursued reforms to protect immigrant defendants from ICE. Will they survive his re-election race?

When President Donald Trump ramped up his campaign against cities that adopt sanctuary policies to protect immigrants from ICE, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office found itself on the front lines.

Larry Krasner, a former public defender and civil rights lawyer who was elected DA in 2017, worked with the office of Mayor Jim Kenney to expand the city’s existing sanctuary protections. In 2018, they cut ICE’s access to a local law enforcement database. Within his office, Krasner instituted policies to curb immigration consequences such as deportation for some immigrants accused of crimes.

But Philadelphia officials and the Trump administration continued battling. The Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain attacked the officials for their sanctuary policies, drawing a rebuke from Krasner, and the Department of Justice tried to withhold grant funding from the city. A judge struck down the attempt. Despite Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election, cooperation with ICE still looms large in local politics, and it has emerged as a campaign issue in the DA election this year.

In the Democratic primary on Tuesday, Krasner faces Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor who is running with the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, Philadelphia’s police union. 

In a televised debate on May 5 hosted by the city’s NBC affiliate, the candidates sparred over ICE and a DA’s responsibility in upholding Philadelphia’s sanctuary status. 

“We want a prosecutor, not a social worker,” Vega said in the course of his answer.

“This is a sanctuary city,” Krasner said. “The mayor declared that.”

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face Republican Chuck Peruto, who has also taken issue with Philadelphia’s sanctuary policies, in November.

“Worst case scenario, a lot of these measures get rolled back and we’re gonna see a spike in deportations again,” said Miguel E. Andrade, an activist and the former communications director of Philadelphia based immigrants’ rights group Juntos.  

In the May 5 debate, the two Democratic candidates were asked how they would use prosecutorial discretion regarding immigration laws. 

“We set up the first ever unit to make sure we could protect victims who are undocumented, witnesses we needed who are undocumented, but also in appropriate cases defendants whose criminal violation was minor but who faced unreasonably large consequences from immigration,” Krasner said. He noted that his office had helped break a 10-year contract “in which the city would immediately expedite information to ICE.”

Vega said in response that Krasner was harming the city “in terms of his dealing with undocumented people who have committed crime” by reducing charges on some immigrants who are “violent predators.” He added he would not share information with ICE regarding victims of crimes who may be immigrants. “Those people who are unleashed on my community, they are going to be prosecuted,” he added, “and if the federal government comes in and lends a helping hand, then so be it.” 

Asked in a follow-up if he would share information when ICE asks, Vega responded, “If it’s the information as to a defendant, yes.” He added, “But they don’t have to ask for that: That is in the computer banks of the police department.” 

“But if they want you to give it to them, you will?” the moderator asked once more. 

“Yeah, I have to, I have to follow the law,” Vega replied.

ICE does have robust data-gathering pipelines that penetrate sanctuary protections across the country. Law enforcement agencies put information such as biometrics and other data into networks that feed into ICE databases and alert the agency to information that it can use to target immigrants, such as people with outstanding orders of removal.

Still there are plenty of policies and decisions that local officials are making that limit the amount of data ICE is able to extract. Those are guardrails that new officials could lift. 

“Just because they have access to other databases doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the work to limit their access,” said Andrade. “Why would you not … force ICE to use their own resources instead of Philadelphia municipal resources to do their dirty work for them?”

Vega’s campaign did not answer requests for comment on his views on immigration policy. The FOP, which has endorsed him, also did not reply to requests for comment.

Krasner moved to restrict the data that ICE can see soon after taking office. In August 2018, he worked with Mayor Kenney to block ICE from Philadelphia’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS). PARS is a database that records information about people arrested in the city. 

Through PARS, ICE was going after people arrested by the Philadelphia police who it suspected of breaking immigration laws, regardless of whether they ended up being accused or convicted of crimes. PARS does not list immigration status, but it does reveal whether an individual was born outside the United States. ICE is known to investigate foreign-born individuals caught in the nets of law enforcement as an alternative to knowing their legal statusa replacement, even though many foreign-born people are citizens or have legal status; movements in other places have tried to to stop law enforcement from asking about people’s birthplace or sharing that data. 

As of 2017, nearly 13 percent of Philadelphia’s population was born outside the United States. And the city’s ICE field office was arresting immigrants with no criminal convictions at a rate significantly higher than that of any other region. 

“Many immigrants are scared to participate in our criminal justice system because they are fearful that they or their loved ones will be deported,” the DA’s office said at the time to justify its decision to end PARS access. 

“Quite frankly, cooperating with ICE at this time makes our city less safe,” the statement added.

During his first term, Krasner also created an immigration counsel position in the DA’s office to protect some defendants from being deported as a result of a criminal conviction. 

The counsel’s job, as reported by WHYY in 2019, is to consider swapping charges and tailoring plea agreements to avoid triggering immigration consequences for some offenses including shoplifting, soliciting prostitution, or assault. 

Criminal convictions can prompt deportation proceedings, even for people with legal status. But whether they do will hinge on the sentence (jail terms can have immigration consequences if they last at least 365 days) and the exact charges prosecutors use. Most Pennsylvania theft statutes are grounds for deportation, for instance, but not all. This gives prosecutors the option to pursue charges and sentences that either shield noncitizens or threaten them with removal.

Krasner hired Caleb Arnold, an attorney who previously worked for an immigration law firm, to fill the role. When deciding whether to intervene in a case, Arnold weighs a number of factors, including the severity of the allegations, time spent in the U.S., dependent family members, and criminal records. 

High-level crimes like murder aren’t eligible for Arnold’s consideration. “When people are charged with low-level offenses and pose no risk to public safety, they should not face a threat of deportation,” Brandon Evans, Krasner’s campaign manager, said in an email exchange with The Appeal. 

Krasner said during his debate with Vega that “there are cases where it is appropriate for someone to be deported, because the crime is serious. And that’s fine.” 

Vega often draws a connection between his opponent’s approach to criminal justice and increased violence, pointing to the spike in shootings and homicides in Philadelphia in 2020. And during the debate, he did this in the course of his answer on ICE and immigration laws. “I’m here to protect people. You can’t even go to Macy’s on a Sunday morning without being raped,” he said. 

Evans said it would be “absurd” to suggest a link between the shootings and the DA’s sanctuary initiatives. “The office isn’t cutting plea deals where people charged with homicides receive misdemeanor convictions to avoid collateral consequences,” he said. 

Studies have shown that there is no detectable causal relationship between the presence of undocumented immigrant populations and crime.

And immigrants’ rights activists make the case that it is cooperation with ICE that endangers safety. Andrade fears that losing sanctuary protections could harm public safety as communication further breaks down between undocumented people and the police. 

Katia Pérez, an activist with Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive organization in the city, echoed those worries, mentioning her own experiences. Her mother was undocumented for the first eight years that she lived in the United States. And Pérez’s stepfather was abusive.

“The police weren’t called,” Pérez said. “She was afraid they would ask questions. And situations like that are not unique.” 

Pérez says Krasner is off to a great start. But she would like to see the DA’s office and other city officials push reform further.

“The threat of deportation should never be on the line,” Pérez said.