How Philly’s Immigrants Ended ICE Holds

Daniel Hunter May 5, 2014

On April 16 Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law one of the most progressive pieces of legislation limiting “ICE holds,” the practice of local police detaining individuals so they can be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — eliminating the practice for both city police and the city’s prisons.

Limiting ICE holds is a major campaign victory in the movement to enfranchise undocumented residents. It is also a win for folks with papers but without citizenship, who get caught in the dragnet of mass deportation, like refugees. ICE holds instill fear among undocumented residents, as Teresa Flores explained at a City Council hearing. Teresa spoke of her undocumented son loaning money to a U.S. friend. When her son tried to collect the money, the friend called the police saying he had threatened him with a weapon. The police arrested her son. Then, ICE put a hold on him, and he was deported.

“The deportation of our son has caused us unimaginable pain, not only to him, but everyone in the family,” Teresa told the council. “After my son was ripped from our home, we now fear that we cannot call the police if we need help. The connection between the police and immigration has created terror in our communities and makes neighborhoods more dangerous because it is very hard to report crime or ask for help if we are victims.”

ICE holds are voluntary by the city, costly (a cost born by cash-strapped cities), and widely practiced. In 2011, nearly half a million people were put in ICE holds.

As is the story behind most meaningful victories, Philadelphia’s ending of ICE holds is a result of smart, dedicated organizing. How they fought and won offers lessons for the entire national movement.

Compromising and losing

Five years ago it was hard to imagine that Philadelphia would pass what advocates are now calling “one of the most progressive pieces of legislation” in the nation. At that time a coalition of immigrant rights groups and advocacy organizations had asked Mayor Nutter to restrict ICE holds and limit ICE’s access to Philadelphia’s database of who is in custody.

After initially scoffing at the idea, Mayor Nutter eventually offered a concession: to eliminate ICE holds for victims and witnesses.

Members of the coalition reacted differently. Some were pleased. Others were not. If it’s inhumane to separate families merely because someone was a victims of a crime that got reported to the police, they argued, how is it any better merely because they are accused of a crime?

The initial coalition fractured over this concession. And while Mayor Nutter did implement his concession, a handful of the coalition members decided to restart the campaign, naming themselves the Philadelphia Family Unity Network, or PFUN. They would build a unified coalition that’s for everybody held by ICE holds — not throwing anybody under the bus.

No negotiation on human rights

Undocumented immigrant activists are often asked to distance themselves from each other. Democrats often encourage the movement to stand up for “upstanding” and “exemplary” individuals, by offering a path for citizenship for students or military veterans.

In the case of ICE holds, activists were first asked to distance themselves from criminals, or at least those accused of crimes. Even within their own coalition they were encouraged to seek elimination of ICE holds only for the bulk of people not accused of serious offenses. Eighty-two percent of ICE holds are for people with no convictions or petty misdemeanors — mostly traffic violations.

It was argued that since only 12 percent of people held by ICE were charged with serious offenses, it was both politically expedient and materially effective to stop ICE holds in only “non-serious” cases. This stance makes even more sense when you look at the rhetoric of ICE itself. In Philadelphia ICE claimed that its holds “ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”

PFUN coalition member, 1Love Movement, refused to kowtow to this undeserving versus deserving division. “Mass media portrays us as uneducated, irresponsible, violent, threatening, gang affiliated, ‘others,’ criminal aliens, drug users, foreign, different from everybody else, undeserving, and simple,” they explained on their blog. “We commit to showing the world the truth. And we call for something very simple — for our complicated truth to be honored in the policies that affect our families and our communities.”

Representing the high-ground position urged by the PFUN coalition, Father John Olenik of Visitation Church said in testimony before City Council, “[H]ospitality and divine acknowledgement of the human rights of all people should spur us on to discontinue the unjust agreement between the city and ICE.”

In addition to organizing amongst immigrants, PFUN met with advocacy groups who argued for political expediency and explained their campaign intention.

“We presented a very firm coalition line,” Nicole Kligerman, an organizer with New Sanctuary Movement, or NSM, told me during a phone interview. “We told advocacy groups if you disagree with us, please at least respect the coalition line by not taking a stance against us. We wanted to end ICE holds for everybody.”

After years of coalition-building, they returned to escalated actions to put on the pressure.

Pressure, heat and strategy

In June 2013, PFUN member organization NSM organized a 40-day public fast. With an eye toward building media credibility on the issue, the prolonged action gave media an on-going, developing story to cover. National and international media covered their un-barbeque the day before the Fourth of July.

Other groups followed up with more actions: NSM’s kid’s day of action on August 28 — timed three days before Philadelphia re-signed an agreement to share its database with ICE — and an October 5 march on the National Day of Action on Immigration Reform. NSM, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and SEIU made sure to focus the issue locally with a second march to the ICE building where they left hearts that said “don’t have a frozen heart, ICE.”

During this time negotiations with the Mayor’s Office of Immigration stalled. The mayor’s office offered no public movement on the problem and privately only offered the most minor, incremental change.

NSM organizer Blanca Pacheco explained in a phone interview, “We needed pressure on the mayor and thought of City Council. Even though they didn’t have legal power, we could organize people power to move the mayor through council.”

So they turned to City Council, who agreed to hold public hearings on the issue — just in time for them to announce the hearing dates for their Un-Thanksgiving Action, where more than 20 groups stood before a table with empty plates and bowls claiming “we can’t give thanks while our families aren’t at the table.”

This highlights yet another strategic principle. They risked staying on the mayors’ timetable and dying the slow death of a thousand meetings. To avoid that, they picked a secondary target (council) that could help them put some pressure on their primary target (the mayor).

“The mayor was off saying he was listening to the community, but he wasn’t,” Blanca explained. “We really used City Council hearings to show he wasn’t listening to or negotiating with the community.”

Pressure was increasing, with what was essentially a rebuke from the council of the mayor’s foot-dragging and escalated actions by the coalition, including an act of civil disobedience led by Juntos to block ICE trucks. Rumors soon swirled that the mayor was working on a policy.

The hard ask

Late at night at the end of February, ahead of a press conference with the coalition and councilmembers, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter called Nicole from NSM with a leaked copy of the draft policy from Mayor Nutter. It would eliminate ICE holds for all but those accused of first or second degree felonies involving violence.

All the months of organizing, educating and aligning the coalition on a core value sprang into action.

As appropriate, the private and public reaction was fierce. Advocates said the bill wasn’t good enough since it didn’t cover everyone. Erika Almiron from Juntos took the mayor to task for his lack of transparency.

“The immigrant community should have some involvement and voice about what it looks like,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer the day after.

Subsequent coverage in the media all carried the same message. Groups tempted to readily accept the compromise were quiet. Even a City Council ally was near the coalition’s hardline.

“Charging doesn’t make someone guilty,” Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said at a coalition press conference. “Let the process play itself out before you get a federal agency involved.”

This was negotiation out in the open. The coalition offered counter-policy. They weren’t backing down.

By the time council hearings were ready, the mayor had been appropriately chastised. During the hearings the mayor announced his intention to create a much stronger policy. Unlike most city policies it would apply not only to the police departments but also anyone in Philadelphia’s custody, including city jails. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “The order also means the city won’t tell ICE about a prisoner’s pending release unless the person was convicted of a violent felony and ICE’s request is supported by a warrant from a judge.”

The requirement for a warrant from a judge, which is almost never obtained, is a major achievement and, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “unique and cutting-edge.”

Philadelphia now joins San Francisco, New Orleans, New York City, and over a dozen other localities in limiting or completely eliminating ICE holds thanks to smart organizing and a commitment to not cede the high ground.

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.