At Monday night's State College Borough Council meeting, council members voted unanimously to make State College a sanctuary city. Sanctuary cities are places that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities in the pursuit and detainment of people who may be in the country illegally.
As councilman Jesse Barlow explained it, State College "will not voluntarily assist in any effort by the federal government to apprehend, detain or deport community members."
Barlow said the borough didn't have the resources to be assisting the federal government and didn't want its police force to be responsible for enforcing complicated immigration law.
Beyond that, he said, "this resolution is also a recognition that the borough is a diverse community that is becoming more diverse and that embraces and welcomes that diversity."
A few borough residents spoke up in support of the resolution, as well as representatives from Penn State's Center for Immigrant Rights. The group will be leading "teach-ins" to help residents, students and immigrants understand their rights in the borough, the state and the country.
One resident, Peter Morris, spoke to the council, saying, "It takes a little more courage to vote yes on this than maybe it would in normal times."
Morris was referring to the recent political controversy around sanctuary cities, which State College now finds itself right in the middle of.
Sanctuary cities under fire
Sanctuary cities were a hot topic during the 2016 election, with members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation leading the fight against these localities.
Recently re-elected Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey has proposed legislation that would stop sanctuary cities from receiving certain federal funding programs. Republican Congressman Lou Barletta, who also just won back his seat, took it a step further. His bill would cut all federal funds to sanctuary cities.
Both of these bills have failed previously in Congress. But that was before the election of Donald Trump, who has said eliminating sanctuary cities is part of his plan for the first 100 days of his presidency.
Sanctuary cities are a popular target for Republican leaders. They often cite horrific crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally after they are released from local custody.
Barletta has first-hand experience with this kind of fallout. In 2006, when he was mayor of Hazleton, a resident was shot and killed by an immigrant living in the country illegally who had not been detained by the city of New York. That event led Barletta to crack down on illegal immigration across the city, throwing Hazleton into the national spotlight on the issue. Since then, Barletta has been elected (and re-elected) to Congress, where he has been campaigning against illegal immigration ever since.
Still, some cities bear the name proudly
State College isn't alone in wanting to be identified as a sanctuary city. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney made restoring the city's sanctuary status one of his first moves in office. Philadelphia will not notify the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency if they have a suspected illegal immigrant in custody, nor will they detain anyone after the city would have released them, unless the detainer request comes with an arrest warrant from a judge.
Since the election, Kenney has doubled-down on the issue. He told Philly.com, "We respect and live up to the Fourth Amendment, which means you can't be held against your will without a warrant from the court signed by a judge. So, yeah, we will continue to be a Fourth Amendment city abiding by the Constitution."
Pittsburgh is considering following suit. Members of city council proposed making Pittsburgh a sanctuary city, though in many ways, it already acts like one.
Timothy McNulty, spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, told Public Source that "the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police practice is to honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain those wanted in criminal investigations, but to refrain from working as immigration officers ... the PBP does not engage in investigatory detention of individuals based on their immigration status."
CBS Pittsburgh reports that members of city council would like to see the city officially stand up as a sanctuary city — even if it puts them at odds with President-elect Trump.
The great gray middle
Even as municipalites declare themselves sanctuary cities, the real fight in Pennsylvania may happen on the county level. Most municipalities turn suspected criminals over to the county jail system, meaning ICE would be dealing with the county, not the city.
That has left some counties reconsidering their position. In 2008, Ernesto Galarza, a legal resident, sued Lehigh County for improperly detaining him on behalf of ICE. The county settled for $95,000 and a promise to stop honoring detainer requests unless they come with an arrest warrant.
A number of counties followed suit, striking a middle-ground between disregarding ICE completely and putting themselves at risk of a lawsuit. More than 30 counties have some policy or practice that limits their complete cooperation with ICE detainers.
Under Toomey's law, ICE would assume full liability for improper detainers. That might incentivize some counties to start honoring detainers, but if they don't, federal funds would be on the line.