The federal government is gearing up for a fight against sanctuary cities, and activists are trying to push Pittsburgh into the ring. However, it may be up to Allegheny County, which controls the jail, if the city ever becomes the sanctuary for undocumented immigrants that Philadelphia, New York City and Seattle have become.

A sanctuary city is loosely defined as a jurisdiction that regulates interaction between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prevent police officers from enforcing immigration laws in their everyday interaction with residents.

Proponents say it’s key to maintaining relationships between police and immigrant communities and thus extending police protection to them.

During his campaign, President Trump deemed sanctuary cities dangerous and meddlesome to immigration law enforcement. Just recently, the U.S. House passed the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act,” which would strip federal law enforcement funds from sanctuary cities.

Since 2014, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s policy has been to refrain from investigating or detaining people solely based on suspicion of immigration law violations, but to honor ICE requests to detain anyone wanted in an ongoing criminal investigation—a policy not unlike those of many sanctuary cities.

Other city agencies do not screen for immigration status before providing services.

Activists have pushed Pittsburgh to go further, and petitioned for and held a hearing before City Council last month. Councilman Dan Gilman says he is working on legislation to strengthen the city’s immigrant protections.

“I believe Pittsburgh has the laws in place to provide the exact same goals and protections as a sanctuary city,” says Gilman. “We are a changing environment, so we’ve got to be proactive.”

Pittsburgh is not, however, listed as a sanctuary city on the map run by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group generally critical of them, nor on ICE’s report on “non-compliant jurisdictions.”

The fact that Allegheny County runs the jails “makes Pittsburgh a little different,” says Gilman.

Here’s why: The jail system detains and processes those arrested by police in any town or city in the county, including Pittsburgh. “Currently, ICE officials have the ability to see which inmates are at the [Allegheny County Jail] and have staff come into the facility several times a week to review inmate[s’] immigration status,” wrote Warden Orlando Harper in an email.

The Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections’ policy on immigration checks was refined after a lawsuit filed by Angelica Davila of West Mifflin, according to Sara Rose, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Pittsburgh office, which represented Davila. (It’s not the policy on immigration checks that was affected by the lawsuit but whether the person was held based solely on retainer, issued by ICE, says Amie Downs of the county.)

A U.S. citizen born in Mexico, Davila was held for 48 hours in 2011 on an ICE detention request. After settling, the jail agreed not to honor ICE detainers or hold arrestees suspected of immigration violations longer than they would anyone arrested for whatever alleged crime had brought them in. They do, however, communicate with ICE, informing the agency of when potentially undocumented immigrants leave, Harper confirmed.

A U.S. citizen born in Mexico, Davila was held for 48 hours in 2011 on an ICE detention request. After settling, the jail agreed not to honor ICE detainers or hold arrestees suspected of immigration violations longer than they would anyone arrested for whatever alleged crime had brought them in. They do, however, communicate with ICE, informing the agency of when potentially undocumented immigrants leave, Harper confirmed.

Brenda Solkez, a member of the local immigrant rights group FURIA, contends that “undocumented immigrants are not safe in this city” due to the presence of ICE. When asked why she focuses on the city government and not that of the county, she replies, “The county just seems so big. I think it’s better to start here, where we live.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald commented: “We have worked hard to ensure that Allegheny County is a welcoming community by participating in and engaging in efforts and initiatives that highlight this county as an immigrant‐friendly one focused on maximizing opportunities for economic growth and furthering our efforts to be globally‐competitive. That will continue to be our focus. With that being said, our Jail and law enforcement community will continue to perform our responsibilities under federal and state law.”

Have an opinion on whether or not Pittsburgh should become a sanctuary city? Constituents can find their County Council representative here and email Rich Fitzgerald.

(Editor’s note: This article was amended to include a statement from Rich Fitzgerald which was provided to the writer prior to publication.)

About The Author

Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Nerve, and the Village Voice.

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