Philly's Children of Undocumented Workers Take Letters to Mayor

It didn't take Rocio long to figure out why people were coming in and out of her new neighbor's house.

This woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, lives in a row home on a block of Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood. For the past two years, she has kept her children indoors to play.

"They don't play outside because of the fear that something bad would happen," she explained in Spanish. "All of the time, people are coming to knock on the door of my neighbor's house to buy drugs."

She has never called the police because she's afraid her name will somehow come to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known colloquially as ICE.

Officials in New Orleans, Newark and Princeton, N.J., all have recently announced they will limit their collaboration with ICE.

In Philadelphia, immigrant activists renewed calls on local police to scale back their collaboration with federal law enforcement, saying the relationship discourages immigrants from calling police.

"This situation would get better if we all talked about it to everyone in the neighborhood, talk together, to get together and denounce everything that's happening," Rocio said. "Because of the law between the police and ICE, the fact that I don't have legal status, I can't denounce it."

That's not a unique sentiment, according to immigration attorney David Bennion. And it's fueled by the fact that police and ICE do sometimes work together.

"My clients still feel that they cannot trust the police too often when often they are actually often victims of criminal activity and they are sometimes most in need of that police protection," he said.

Police share information with immigration in different ways, but immigrant advocates have focused in on an agreement that gives the agency access to a real-time database of police arrests, the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, called PARS. The ICE contract for access is due to be renewed Saturday, the last day of the month.

City: We do not agree

"I know that there are a lot of people in the community that feel that having this somehow destabilizes their entire relationship," acknowledged Philadelphia's Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison.

"We do not agree."

Gillison said Philadelphia wants dangerous individuals, who pose threats to public safety, out of the area, whether they're living in the country legally or not.

He pointed out that, in response to complaints, Mayor Michael Nutter ordered victim information scrubbed from the database back in 2010. By then, ICE had already had access to that information for two years.

"The immigration authorities, they cannot see victim information. They cannot see information for, let's say, domestic violence witnesses and whatever," Gillison said. "What they can see is the person who's arrested, a short, brief, literally probably even less than a Twitter summation of what is alleged to have caused this person to be arrested."

He pointed out that immigration authorities can attain much of the same information through the "secure communities" program, which gives ICE access when an individual's fingerprints are run against a database maintained by the FBI. ICE agents, however, can probably browse more freely in the automatically updating PARS system, he said.

Gillison said he has concerns about ICE seizing low-level offenders, because deporting people for minor offenses has an oversize impact on the families left in Philadelphia. According to Gillison, the city is lobbying Washington to change enforcement practices.

"As I have said, and the mayor has said many times, we are a welcoming city. We have made that quite clear," he said.

Gillison said the city will renew ICE's subscription to PARS.

Unsecure communities?

A major complication in all of this is that rumor can spread as quickly as fact and the nuances of the city's position do not always spread with them.

In July, the Latino organization Juntos organized a rally in South Philadelphia after a raid by Philadelphia police and the FBI in which they'd gone house to house collecting wanted suspects and probation violators. A woman who said officers had taken away her husband cried as she told her story to the small crowd.

Police say they only alerted ICE afterwards that at least one person arrested was in the country illegally but Juntos organizer Erika Almiron says that, in the panicked aftermath of the raid, residents readily believed they had seen a return of joint raids that police and immigration used to hold together.

"Local law enforcement, when they work with ICE, you cannot build trust with our community, but rather you break it apart and you make an unsecure community, not a secure community," she said.

This story was reported through a news coverage partnership between and

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