In Pittsburgh, No Sanctuary For Immigrants And Refugees

The city finds itself amid a moral crisis, the outcome of which will determine whether southwest Pennsylvania truly is a welcoming place for immigrants.
02/10/2017 12:20 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2017
Demonstrators hold signs in support of asylum seekers at a rally supporting refugees.
Image via Flickr user: Takver.
Demonstrators hold signs in support of asylum seekers at a rally supporting refugees.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 7, 2017, activist and father Martín Esquivel Hernández was deported to Mexico from the United States. He was separated from his family despite overwhelming support from Pittsburgh’s Mayor, from Pennsylvania’s Congressman Doyle, from the city’s faith and labor organizations, and the Pittsburgh immigrant community. Martín’s deportation occurred as pressure is mounting for Pittsburgh to become a sanctuary city. Currently, praise is being heaped upon Democratic Councilman Dan Gilman, who took a politically ripe moment to introduce six “safeguards” for immigrants and refugees on Martin Luther King Day. It’s worth noting that Gilman’s safeguards did not come out of nowhere—leaders of Pittsburgh’s immigrant community were brought to the table and consulted. Pittsburgh’s plan to become a welcoming city has been in development for a year. However, until Pittsburgh city council members put meaningful legislation in place to uphold the Fourth Amendment and protect members of its immigrant community from the police and ICE agents ― as it is failing to do for undocumented people like Martín ― the city will not be a welcoming one.

Deportations in America’s “Most Livable City”

Together with his wife Alma, Martín played an instrumental role in every community-based initiative launched in the last four years to improve the lives of immigrant families in Pittsburgh.

“They are exactly the kind of residents we need to attract to Pittsburgh to make this a better place to live,” said Sister Janice Vanderneck, director of Casa San Jose.

Pittsburgh prides itself on its status as a “livable city,” which supposedly stands for immigrants’ rights. The mayor wants to increase the city’s population by 20,000 people and has cited the importance of community that is “supportive of all people” for attracting businesses that will improve the local economy.

Meanwhile Martín, one of the most important civic leaders in the Pittsburgh Latino community, was locked away in for-profit prisons and jails in Ohio for the last nine months. His son saw his father treated as a criminal; his daughters suffered in school; his elderly mother succumbed to illness and his wife, now the only parent in the house, had to become the family’s primary breadwinner.

For families like Martín’s, Pittsburgh can hardly be livable.

No human is illegal. That did not stop Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from treating Martín as though he were a criminal, shuttling him from the jurisdiction of one rogue ICE field office director to another without explanation.

When he was first detained, Martín was held under the authority of Thomas Decker, the ICE Field Office Director for Philadelphia. Decker is also in charge of the Berks Detention Center, a holding place for immigrant families that is essentially an internment camp, located about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. Three years ago, when 22 mothers went on hunger strike at Berks to protest the facility’s treatment of their children, Decker subjected the mothers to countless intimidations. Allegedly, Decker personally told the children detained there that he would see to it that they would never be freed.

Organizers and activists flooded Decker’s office with phone calls asking for him to exercise prosecutorial discretion in Martín’s case, but it was to no avail. Meanwhile, a US District Judge approved a plea deal that reduced Martín’s felony charge to a misdemeanor on December 30, 2016. Her decision recognized Martín’s contributions to the community and was made with discretion.

The District Judge had no authority over ICE, which handles immigration cases under a separate system of law. However, the reduced sentence ought to have meant that Martín was not a priority for deportation under ICE’s own internal guidelines.

In January, Martín was transferred to the jurisdiction of Rebecca Adducci, the ICE Field Director for Detroit. Adducci essentially operates as a rogue agent in an already unsupervised agency, and her office is notorious for its abuse of immigrants. Among other transgressions, she was responsible for the raiding of elementary schools in Detroit, where agents surrounded the school and arrested parents as they were picking up their children. She terrorizes immigrant communities by routinely rounding up large groups of people and has arrested as many as 63 people at once. In 2014, she deported a homeowner and father of three US citizens while he was awaiting his green card. One of her agents killed a young man in front of his family with impunity.

When activists and organizers began calling Adducci’s office in support of Martín, she demonstrated cowardice, changing the telephone system to make it more difficult for her to be reached and limiting the time in which a person could leave a voicemail to thirteen seconds.

Adducci didn’t care that Martín had an entire city standing behind him. She deported him anyway. ICE’s local South Side office has become emboldened in the aftermath of Martín’s case. Last week, agents rounded up four people at a gas station . Another innocent man was detained on February 7  ―  the same day as Martín’s deportation.

City’s “Safeguards” Fall Short

This is the atmosphere in which Councilman Gilman has introduced six bills that he says will support immigrants and refugees in the city. Gilman placed his legislation under the banner of making the city “welcoming.” He would do well to go beyond this and incorporate these initial bills into more comprehensive legislation that would turn Pittsburgh into a “Fourth Amendment City” similar to Philadelphia.

If Pittsburgh were a Fourth Amendment City, it would uphold the Constitutional right for all persons “to be free of unlawful searches and seizures.” This would involve introducing legislation that meets the requirements the immigrant community has specified are necessary to make the city a truly safe place: ensuring that law enforcement is barred from informing ICE when they encounter people they believe might be undocumented persons.

As a bonus, turning Pittsburgh into a Fourth Amendment City would comply with Mayor’s Peduto’s economically-oriented bottom line. In Philadelphia, the Fourth Amendment order ensures that taxpayers do not have to shoulder the cost of federal detention mandates or federal mistakes. A number of lawsuits have been initiated across the country when US citizens or legal immigrants not subject to deportation were held in detention, costing city taxpayers, due to a mistake by overzealous ICE agents. Courts have held that cities who detain upon federal request do so at their own risk.

Gilman’s proposals, however, fall short of addressing issues with Pittsburgh police and ICE deportations. They are as follows:

1. Prevent the city from contracting with companies recently convicted of wage theft — an issue, Gilman says, that immigrants and refugees often face.

2. Call for a communications and “language access” plan to make city services more accessible to people with disabilities and English language learners.

3. The entirely symbolic measure of calling on the city to “welcome all visitors, residents, workers and students.”

4. Urging the federal government to uphold the amnesty offered for childhood arrivals under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. This measure places responsibility in the hands of a federal government whose chances of listening are nil.

5. The preemptive measure of ensuring “that city benefits, services, and opportunities won’t hinge on a person’s citizenship or immigration status, unless a court order says otherwise.” In the Post-Gazette, Gilman said that he knows of no such discrimination currently happening.

ICE’s deportations are very real and occurring now. While Gilman’s legislation has provisions for transgressions that he says he does not even know are real, he does nothing to protect the undocumented immigrant community from the law enforcement that is abusing them now. Gilman’s policy says that police should cooperate with ICE to help detain people who are “subject to criminal investigations.” If there is one thing that the city ought to have learned from witnessing Martín’s case, it is that both local police and ICE don’t care whether or not a person is a criminal or a community leader  ―  both are painted with the same brushstroke.

Mayor Peduto claims that Pittsburgh has “almost” been a sanctuary city since 2014, despite a lack of legislation prohibiting
Image via Flickr user Mark Dixon.
Mayor Peduto claims that Pittsburgh has “almost” been a sanctuary city since 2014, despite a lack of legislation prohibiting the Pittsburgh police from cooperating with ICE.

According to the Mayor’s spokesperson, Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh has “almost” been operating as a sanctuary city since 2014. Supposedly there is an unpublished policy that the Pittsburgh police will not initiate providing information to ICE or “engage in investigatory detention of individuals based on their immigration status.” The Pittsburgh police will, however, cooperate if ICE initiates contact.

Unpublished rules have absolutely no public accountability. The immigrant community in Pittsburgh has nothing more than the government’s word that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is not cooperating with ICE — the same police force that assisted Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Even the school board’s recent pledge to make the public schools a “safe and supportive environment” means that all ICE needs to access the school grounds is permission from the district’s law department and Superintendent Hamlet, a man who seems to have lied about his credentials and lacked recommendations before being approved by the school board.

Pittsburgh can claim to be a “welcoming city” in name only. Consider Gilman’s proposals compared to Mayor Kenney’s executive order in Philadelphia, which restored the city’s sanctuary status. Under that order, almost all cooperation between city law enforcement and federal immigration agents is barred. Kenney’s legislation upholds a 2014 executive order created by the city’s then-Mayor Michael Nutter, which ended Philadelphia’s compliance with ICE’s “Secure Communities” program and placed the city at the forefront of the anti-deportation movement. Under the “Secure Communities” program, ICE shifted the burden of immigration enforcement onto city police. With Nutter’s order, the city refused to have its local law enforcement or prisons tell ICE about a prisoner’s pending release unless the person had been convicted of a violent felony and ICE had a warrant from a judge supporting its request. These provisions work to establish community trust between law enforcement and the vulnerable populations they ought to be serving. After all, if victims of violent crimes do not trust the police they will not call upon law enforcement to protect them.

Pittsburgh has no such provisions in place. There is nothing to stop the pro-Trump Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from telling ICE about the people they have in custody, nothing to mandate that ICE needs a warrant in order to access information from the Pittsburgh Police, and only flimsy barriers keeping ICE off school grounds. If ICE requests information, the Pittsburgh police will supply it readily. In surrounding neighborhoods like Mount Lebanon, where police reported Martín to ICE after racially profiling him at a traffic stop, there is not even an “unpublished rule” to prevent those police from initiating contact with federal agents.

Pittsburgh has an opportunity to move beyond branding itself as a welcoming city and become a place that upholds the Fourth Amendment and is a regional leader for immigrants’ rights. Councilman Gilman has an opportunity as well. He can prove that he is not a typical opportunist politician. He can prove that he actually cares about the lives of undocumented immigrants in Pittsburgh. He can do more than make empty action plans that will easily crumble to ICE’s federally backed force. He can write legislation that reflects all of the issues that are important to Pittsburgh’s immigrant community. And if that legislation passed, then it could leave a legacy more secure than an executive order.

A city won’t become welcoming just because Councilman Gilman declares it so. As long as members of Pittsburgh’s undocumented immigrant community do not feel protected in their homes, Pittsburgh will not be a safe city. It needs to start becoming one right now.

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