Philadelphia is ending a controversial data-sharing contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a move seen as a major accomplishment for immigration rights activists who are making a nationwide push to sever ties with the agency.
Federal immigration agents have long had access to an arrest database maintained by local authorities in Philadelphia, but protesters and now several top city officials say ICE abuses the cache of law enforcement data to prey on immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally.
For weeks, so-called “Occupy ICE” demonstrators have shown their fury by encamping outside of Philadelphia City Hall, erecting a large tent village of sorts and hanging signs demanding that ICE be blocked from having access to the database known by local police and court officials as PARS.
At one point, demonstrators stormed the halls of city hall to press for the termination of the agreement with federal immigration authorities.
Occupiers have been meeting privately with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and sharing what they say are examples of ICE agents using the database to fish for unauthorized immigrants, many never having been convicted of a crime.
Now Kenney, who has been a outspoken defender of Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city, is saying no more.
“If I could abolish ICE, I would,” the mayor said. “But we can abolish this contract, and we are.”
The announcement, which came Friday, means the city will not renew the decade-old deal with ICE once it expires this fall.
Through the system, where police log all the interactions they have with city residents, ICE can access a person’s full name, birth country and detention status. Not listed is whether someone is in the country legally or not. Kenney, however, accuses federal agents of doing guesswork to racially profile city residents.
“Just because the person’s name is Lopez, or some other Hispanic name, you’re going to go to their house and take people out of their home? I mean, It just makes no sense,” Kenney said. “And I never want to be part of this.”
Federal immigration enforcement officials are not pleased, describing the decision as the latest barb from Philadelphia’s leaders to immigration enforcement officials, who have been facing off over migrant rights since President Trump came into office.
An ICE spokesman noted in a statement that Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status already makes enforcing the country’s immigration laws challenging.
For instance, the city refuses to hold onto those suspected of being in the country illegally for ICE unless presented with a warrant from a judge, and Kenney went to federal court to maintain that position after the Department of Justice tried to withhold federal funding to the city over its lack of cooperation. A federal judge sided with Philadelphia.
The ICE spokesman said blocking agents from using the database “adds insult to injury by needlessly compromising public safety.”
Across the country, protesters are agitating for both local governments and private companies to break ties with ICE in response to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to immigration enforcement, which led to the now-rescinded policy of separating families caught crossing the border. Activists on college campuses from Maryland to California have launched campaigns for universities to end contracts with ICE. So too have employees at private companies, including at Microsoft, where employees recently gave the company’s chief executive a petition demanding that a software contract with ICE be axed.
Others, including several prominent Democrats, are calling to abolish ICE altogether.
“The immigrant advocate groups are clearly winning significant battles at the local level, and this is counted now among them,” said Peter Spiro, who teaches immigration law at Temple University, referring to the victory for immigration rights activists in Philadelphia.
“Immigrant advocates have nowhere to go in Washington these days, in either with the administration or in Congress,” he said. “So they’re trying to exercise these other pressure points.”
Back at the encampment, activist Mara Henao, 29, who was born in Colombia and helped organize the anti-ICE encampment, said since President Trump’s hardline policy on immigration started escalating, life for many of her family members and friends has become distressing. She said blocking ICE’s access to the database can alleviate some of their worry.
“It’s important because all we want to do is to be able to have a normal life,” she said.
Henao has legal status, yet she said that has not stopped her family from discussing how they would go into hiding if immigration agents targeted her.
“We talk about this. Like, what if someday, they come for you, Mara, what are we going to do?” she said. “Do we send the kids to my mom? It’s all these things. Why am I have to worry about it?”
Department of Homeland Security officials told NPR that immigration officials will “continue to work to remove illegal aliens and uphold public safety” in Philadelphia. They called the decision to not renew the database contract “irresponsible.”
But Kenney responds that Philadelphia will not be backing down.
“That’s not the policing that we’re looking for. There’s rules and regulations that police have to follow that these guys don’t follow,” the mayor said, referring to ICE. “So we’re not going to provide them with additional information so they can round up people.”