Calling Trump's Executive Order A 'First Step,' Toomey Continues To Push Against Sanctuary Cities

Jan 30, 2017

Walk around the offices of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, and you'll find plans to do good behind every door. There's a food bank, a land bank, a work skills class, and programs to assist with affordable housing.

Executive Director Alan Jennings pokes his head into an empty classroom packed with chairs.

"This is a community room where we hold, in this case, home ownership seminars," said Jennings. "We have some 75-plus people who will be here tomorrow, learning how to become first time home buyers."

The Community Action Committee counts on local, state and federal funds for these programs in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. The first-time home buyer class, among other programs, is funded through a federal program called the Community Development Block Grant.

These grants are the largest source of community development funding in the country. Counties and cities have a lot of autonomy in how to distribute them, to government projects, like infrastructure or historical preservation, or nonprofit groups. Jennings says they're pretty great — if you can get them.

"We'd love to be able to rely on them," said Jennings. "The demand for services [and] the need to intervene in the marketplace is easily worse than it's ever been, but the funding has been so restricted over the years."

While CDBG funds don't make up a large portion of city or county spending, they can be a big deal to service agencies. Affordable housing advocates, literacy organizations and groups that serve seniors or people with disabilities are used to seeing these funds get chipped away, little by little.

But now, there's a threat to these funds that has nothing to do with budget cuts. 

Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act

On the floor of the Senate in November, Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania re-introduced the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act, saying, "My legislation would withhold Community Development Block Grants, which is very cherished by the city governments all across America, if they choose to endanger all of us by continuing to be sanctuary cities."

This bill didn't pass the Senate last year, but the idea got some affirmation from the White House this week. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that said he planned to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities. In a statement, Toomey applauded Trump's order, calling it an "important first step." Since the executive and legislative branches have control over different funding streams, Toomey said he planned to continue with his legislation. 

Who would this bill affect?

Philadelphia is a true sanctuary city. Philadelphia police do not proactively communicate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. If the agency asks the city to hold someone suspected of being in the country illegally, Philadelphia will ignore that request until there's an arrest warrant attached.

But there are 32 counties in Pennsylvania that aren't trying to be sanctuaries, yet under Toomey's proposal, would be treated as such.

Lehigh County is one of them. Former Director of Corrections Ed Sweeney says the county jumps through hoops to help ICE as much as they can.

"We expend a great deal of government resources to assist them," said Sweeney. "We send them all of our fingerprints of our new commitments, we send them names and home addresses and place of birth information on all our of new commitments."

They'll even coordinate with ICE so agents can be waiting to pick up people as soon as they're released. The only thing Lehigh County won't do is detain someone without an accompanying judicial order or arrest warrant — which is enough to lose Community Development Block Grants under Toomey's proposal.

What will happen if the bill passes?

Some counties might just start honoring the ICE detainers, rather than lose out on CDBG funds. A big concern with accepting detainers without arrest warrants is the liability the counties assume. Toomey's bill includes a clause that says ICE would shoulder all the legal liability for detainers the agency issues, which would go a long way towards allaying concerns. 

But, Sweeney says, if the bill passes in it's current form, some counties might consider going in the other direction.

"If at that point then we're being treated as a sanctuary municipality, then just perhaps we should act like a sanctuary municipality and stop cooperating to the extent that we would be with ICE."

These middle-ground communities may be forced to pick a side soon. In addition to Toomey and Trump, the Pennsylvania legislature is also considering a bill that would withhold some state funds from sanctuary cities.

Most counties in Pennsylvania likely couldn't make up a sudden loss of funding. But even though groups like the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley might lose precious dollars, that doesn't mean Jennings wants the county to start honoring ICE detainers.

"I'd like to go down at least in the little bit of local history that I've had any impact in, as being one who did the right thing, even when it got me in trouble," he said. 

CACLV serves anyone in need in the Lehigh Valley, regardless of immigration status. Without Community Development Block Grants, though, they'll likely have to cut back on the services they provide to everyone.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads