Bill Would Restrict State Funding For Sanctuary Cities In Pennsylvania

Jan 26, 2017


State Sen. Scott Wagner addresses the crowd during a Veterans Day breakfast held at the York Expo Center in November. Wagner expanded Pennsylvania's latest "sanctuary cities" bill to restrict all state grant access, rather than only those for law enforcement, as the measure went through the state Local Government Committee, which he chairs.
Credit Jason Plotkin / York Daily Record

Pennsylvania communities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials would not only possibly lose some federal funding under President Trump’s latest executive order — they’d get cut off from state grants, too, under a bill that cleared a state Senate panel Wednesday.

The Municipal Sanctuary and Federal Enforcement, or SAFE, Act would require law enforcement agencies to hold someone for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even if there's no warrant. It would also prohibit any local policies to the contrary.

And communities would be liable for any damages attributable to people released despite an ICE detainer request.

Republican State Senator Guy Reschenthaler from Washington County is the bill's prime sponsor.

"This is only applying to individuals who are already in custody to begin with," he said. "You’re not going to have police officers running around asking to see people’s documentation."

Reschenthaler says the limits wouldn’t include all state funding, just extras like grants or low-interest loans for road and other infrastructure projects or economic development programs that temporarily return state taxes to local officials to reinvest in their communities.

Still, the state awards hundreds of millions of dollars that way every year.

The Senate Local Government Committee voted the bill through, 8-4, with the panel's Democrats opposing.

One was Senator Vincent Hughes from Philadelphia.

"We are treading into some very serious waters here in terms of individuals' civil liberty," Hughes said.

State Senator John Blake from Scranton says another possible problem with inappropriate detention is that Pennsylvania taxpayers already have been on the hook in the past for related lawsuits.

That’s often the reason for policies targeted by this bill. Hughes and Blake introduced five amendments to try to limit liability and prevent racial profiling, but all of them failed. One amendment got through from committee chairman Sen. Scott Wagner, the powerful York County Republican who's running for governor.

Reschenthaler’s chief of staff Aaron Bonnaure says people wouldn’t be held for longer than 48 hours.

But that’s not spelled out in the bill, and a study from Temple University found some counties will detain for as long as two weeks.

Typically, county-level agencies and facilities are the ones that get these requests from ICE, and penalties wouldn’t apply to municipalities within noncompliant counties, according to Bonnaure.

That's a notable distinction from the federal proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania.

So is Toomey's suggestion to transfer liability to the feds when law enforcement's cooperating with ICE. State legislators shot down Blake's amendment that would've put the responsibility on the Commonwealth, should the SAFE Act become law and municipalities get sued trying to comply.

Toomey's also targeting Community Development Block Grant funding. CDBG grants vary widely among communities, both in total amounts and budgets' relative depenedence on them.

York, the latest Pennsylvania city to get vocal about its stance on welcoming immigrants, counts on CDBG money for one percent of its budget, according to a Keystone Crossroads analysis of federal grant and statewide municipal budget data. 

CDBG funds make up just half a percent of Philadelphia's budget, slightly less than one percent in State College, and 1.7 percent percent in Pittsburgh — all communities where leaders have made similar declarations.

The Municipal SAFE Act bill is similar in intent to, but far more specific than, one introduced last session.