Westmoreland, Butler Counties Stand To Lose Millions If Sanctuary Cities Bill Passes

Feb 14, 2017

A bill aimed at withholding funds from sanctuary municipalities is making its way through the state legislature, but some western Pennsylvania counties aren’t sure how it will affect their policy.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas said the Municipal Sanctuary and Federal Enforcement, or SAFE Act, which requires municipalities to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests, wasn’t crafted with any consideration to local governments.

“I don’t know that threatening counties and the very vulnerable population that we serve is ever a good remedy,” Kopas said.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, Westmoreland and Butler counties are considered “sanctuary counties” because they have written policies not to honor detainer requests from ICE.

Kopas said the policy stems from a 2014 Lehigh Valley case in which an American citizen of Puerto-Rican descent was held by police because an arresting office thought he may have been an undocumented immigrant. A third circuit court determined ICE detainers should be treated as requests, not requirements. The man was paid $95,000.

Since then, Kopas said counties have considered the case precedent for local policy.

“So if county jails were to take ICE detainees, that puts us at legal risk,” Kopas said. “And now, apparently (the SAFE act) puts us at risk on the other side. If we don’t take them, we have to pay up on that end.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee estimated Butler County could lose more than $25 million and Westmoreland County could see about $50 million withheld in state funding. The City of Pittsburgh would lose around $9 million.

Butler County Solicitor Mike English said he’s paying attention to the language of the bill, which could include an exception for situations in which holding a person would violate that individual’s constitutional right.

“Other than that limitation in Butler, which is very common throughout the state, to not hold detainees strictly on their detainer,” English said. “It is our police and our practice to fully cooperate with any ICE investigation.”

The sponsor, Senator Guy Reschenthaler (R-37), cited a 2016 case in which a Dominican man sexually assaulted a minor in Philadelphia, as evidence that violent actions by undocumented individuals were common.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than their American-born peers.

Reschenthaler said he recognizes that some counties may be hesitant to comply, but doesn’t think the request is unreasonable.

“All we’re asking for is that if they have an illegal immigrant in their custody, pursuant to a lawful arrest and has an ICE detainer,” Reschenthaler said. “They honor that ICE detainer for up to 48 hours, that’s all.”

The measure passed through the Senate last week, in a 37-12 vote.  It heads to the House, which has a Republican majority.