United States

Philadelphia District Attorney's Office Trains 300 Attorneys to Protect Immigrant Rights

What to Know

  • Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced, in 2018, the creation of a special immigration counsel.
  • The person is now training some 300 prosecutors on how to minimize the immigration penalties for people in the criminal justice system.
  • Such consideration would not be given to sexual or violent offenders.

While the federal government remains shut down over Congress’ inability to agree on border security, Philadelphia prosecutors are preparing to change the way they handle cases involving immigrants, both documented and not.

On Thursday, some 300 attorneys started training on how to minimize the risk of deportation for low-level and nonviolent offenders. The policy, introduced last year during Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s first month in office, would also protect witnesses who are immigrants.

It mirrors other policies Krasner implemented shortly after taking office, including ending cash bail for non-violent offenders and not prosecuting low-level drug cases.

“If you have a hard-working person who ... is supporting a family, does not have a criminal record, becomes intoxicated and does something that is not so severe, that is exactly the type of case where we are looking to show a level of compassion,” Krasner said Thursday.

But such compassion would not extend to sex or violent offenders, Krasner added.

“That is just not a situation where we feel the law needs to bend in order to accommodate immigration status,” he said.

The immigration policy was predictably met by two very different responses when it Krasner first announced it. Advocates applauded the decision, calling it a step forward in Philadelphia’s transformation into a sanctuary city.

Detractors, such as the Department of Justice, called Krasner’s policy “dangerous” and an “abandonment of the rule of law.”

But 12 months after making his announcement and hiring a special counsel tasked with training other prosecutors on the intricacies of immigration law, Krasner is doubling down on the policy.

“All this hysteria around immigration is political in nature,” he said. “We do not have an epidemic of people crossing the border.”

At least a quarter of Philadelphia’s immigrant population remains undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center. Overall, the city’s total foreign-born population increased in the last decade, reaching about 200,000 and accounting for about 13 percent of Philadelphia’s general population, according to a 2017 Pew report.

Advocates worry that those people, many of whom already live in the shadows, will be further marginalized if they feel the justice system is not on their side. 

Census data from 2010 showed that incarceration rates among Latino men was significantly lower than that of native-born men without a high school diploma.

Native-born men between the ages of 18 and 39 had an incarceration rate of nearly 11 percent — more than triple the 2.8 percent rate among foreign-born Mexican men and five times greater than the 1.7 percent rate among foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men, according to the American Immigration Council.

“A witness probably would not come forward, probably a survivor of a crime ... will not come forward, if they think they might get caught up in ICE’s custody,” Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos and city council candidate, said. “There are further policies for us to look into, but this is a great start.”

The appointment of immigration counsel Caleb U. Arnold was largely inspired by a similar experiment in Brooklyn. The idea was to encourage a better relationship between law enforcement and immigrant communities by not marginalizing already shunned residents.

In April, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office hired two immigration attorneys to train all staff on immigration issues and advise prosecutors when making plea offers and sentencing recommendations.

Gonzalez, a longtime veteran of the New York criminal justice system, said in a New York Times interview that targeting immigrants for deportation only weakens law enforcement’s ability to work with those communities. Witnesses and victims are less likely to come forward when a crime is committed, he said.

Over the summer, the City of Philadelphia ended a contract with U.S. immigration officials that allowed them to access Social Security and country of origin data after someone was arrested. PARS, or Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, become a rallying cry for both Krasner and Mayor Jim Kenney.

“Quite frankly, cooperating with ICE at this time makes our city less safe because it makes undocumented individuals fearful of coming forward to report crimes or testify in criminal cases. That’s simply unacceptable,” the district attorney said in August.

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