Philadelphia announces plans to cancel contract with ICE
A demonstration against ICE in Philadelphia. | Ben Sears / PW

PHILADELPHIA—Mayor James Kenney’s decision not to renew the city’s PARS contract with ICE was greeted with cheers and relief from Philadelphia’s immigrant community and from advocacy organizations. The contract, for which the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pays the city $5,500 a year, gave federal agents quick access to information about people arrested by the local police.

The contract will expire on August 31 and was first signed in 2008. It has been the source of controversy and contention since that time. PARS, the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, is a real time data base that the police department uses to get information about people they arrest. Immigrant rights activists have long argued, and the mayor confirmed in his announcement, that ICE had been using the data from PARS to target and intimidate individuals who they suspected were immigrants without documents. ICE’s actions had the effect of increasing the suspicion and resentment in immigrant communities causing residents to be less, not more, likely to report crime to local police.

Members of immigrant rights and advocacy organizations—including Juntos, the New Sanctuary Movement, the ACLU, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and others—had long worked to get the city to cancel the PARS contract and crowded into the mayor’s press conference. They greeted his announcement with cheers and some jubilation, while some pointed out that it had taken years of struggle.

Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement, noted that they had not been able to meet with the previous mayor, Michael Nutter, and that Kenney’s decision “brings a huge relief and allows people to not be afraid to go to court…and follow any other process in the city that needs to happen.” She felt that the mayor’s decision to end the contract signaled that the “political support has changed.” Miguel Andrade of Juntos stressed that the decision was a “victory that was won by and for the immigrant community of Philadelphia” and said that “once again Philadelphia is in the vanguard of immigrant rights in the country.”

The amount that ICE has paid the city for access to the PARS database may seem insignificant, but the mayor’s decision was actually part of a longer-term issue. The Trump Justice Department had threatened to withhold $1.6 million of federal funds provided through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) unless Philadelphia cooperated with ICE by providing access to its prisons and providing ICE with the immigration status of its detainees. The city’s refusal to comply risked losing the JAG funds, which are, of course, intended to support local law enforcement. Rather than comply, the city went to court.

In June, U.S. District Court Michael Baylson ruled that cutting off the JAG funds would violate the U.S. Constitution on several grounds. The judge held that, according to the separation of powers, only Congress and not the executive branch has the authority to attach conditions on spending. He also held that the DOJ was threatening to violate the 10th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from compelling state officials to implement federal policy. Media reports noted the irony of Baylson’s basing his ruling on a decision written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a strong opponent of immigrant rights.

The activists at the mayor’s press conference also stressed that the decision to end the PARS contract was a big step, but still only one step. Immigrant rights activists have also called on the state of Pennsylvania to shut down the immigrant family detention center in Berks County which has, since 2001, held families awaiting rulings on their requests for asylum. It is the oldest and now one of three such facilities in the U.S.

The Berks County facility near the city of Reading, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, has been the subject of controversy and protest and has been investigated by the local media there. One immigration attorney from Reading was quoted describing assignment to the facility as “purely arbitrary… there’s no rhyme or reason.” She said that when a family is picked up at the border, an agent decides whether they go to detention or are released with a notification that they will have to come before an immigration judge. Some families spend a few weeks; others have spent more than a year in detention.

Philadelphia Mayor Kenney appeared to support the move to shut down the Berks facility when he mentioned it at his press conference saying, “undocumented people are not criminals. They are in violation of some civil regulation, but they are not criminals. And certainly their children are not criminals.”

The city’s decision to cancel the PARS ICE contract also followed days of visible protest by activists calling for ICE to be abolished. After several days, Philadelphia police removed the protesters from in front of the Federal Court House at 6th and Market Streets; a tent city was then set up on the East side of City Hall where demonstrators continued their vigil for several more days before police again forced them to remove their tents.


Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).