Javier pictured with his wife and family on the day of his release. Photo by Jim Irby.

Sanctuary: Cities & Immigration

Sanctuary Cities

By: Jim Irby

Sanctuary City

Sanctuary City

Mural Arts Program James Burns’ “Sanctuary” grows out of the Community Wellness Project, designed to raise awareness about mental and emotional health and to inspire conversation about what constitutes community health. Based on the Enso circle, a form of active meditation that involves clarity of mind and movement of the hand, Burns’ design incorporates a number of natural elements, as well as striking imagery created by participants in workshops at Broad Street Ministry and around the city. Photo by Steve Weinik.


Sanctuary: Cities & Immigration

Cities around the country have been fighting to retain their “sanctuary city” status despite recent efforts from the federal government to penalize them for doing so.

The City of Philadelphia — with 12.7 percent of its residents born outside the United States — has been a central voice in this sanctuary movement.

What is a sanctuary city?

While there is no standard legal definition for “sanctuary city,” all the cities that have been given this label refuse to comply with certain federal requests to detain individuals or turn individuals into federal authorities based on their immigration status.

This doesn’t mean that they are totally non-cooperative with the federal government’s customs enforcement efforts. According to a statement by Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA), the city “works with our federal partners on anti-terrorism and drug trafficking,” and it does not “stop ICE from arresting Philadelphians whom they believe are undocumented.”

However, sanctuary cities believe that local police should not be required to do the work of federal agencies, or share information that could be harmful to residents of their cities.

What is ICE?

ICE stands for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which operates as a part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE officials are responsible for detention and deportation of individuals that they find in violation of immigration law. Immigration statutes are federal laws, and therefor ICE — a federal agency — is meant to enforce them.

Why do cities’ policies matter?

While ICE has the funding and the federal mandate to arrest and detain individuals for crimes related to immigration, most people are first detained by local authorities. When someone is brought into custody and ICE wants to interrogate them or pursue further action, they may issue a “detainer” asking the local authorities to hold the person in custody longer.

While many jurisdictions comply with these detainees, sanctuary cities have challenged them, and have found a legal basis to do so: The Immigration Legal Resource Center reports that because a detainer is not a legal warrant, federal courts in both Pennsylvania and Oregon have determined that holding someone in custody with an ICE detainer alone is unlawful arrest.

Why provide sanctuary?

According to Philly’s OIA, the city’s sanctuary policies uphold the American value of treating all people equally and fairly: “Blaming an entire group of people for our country’s problems and violating their right to due process isn’t constitutional and it isn’t American. Philadelphia treats immigrants as we would any other resident under our criminal justice system.”

Opponents of sanctuary cities have focused their arguments around public safety, drawing attention to cases where undocumented immigrants have committed violent crimes.

However, it’s not clear that an aggressive approach to enforcing immigration law actually makes anyone safer. Supporters of sanctuary cities argue that these policies build trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities — trust that is crucial for reporting, solving, and ultimately reducing violent crimes. As OIA points out, crime in Philadelphia is the lowest it has been in 40 years, and it has continued to decline since sanctuary policies were enacted.

In addition to the moral and practical arguments, Philadelphia has a legal justification for its status: It will not turn over a detainee to ICE unless officers have a warrant. The city argues that holding anyone, regardless of immigrant status without a warrant is unlawful. This stance has been upheld in federal court.


Philadelphia: Challenges & Protections to Sanctuary Cities

  • April 16, 2014 — Philadelphia became a sanctuary city. Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order which 1.) prevented local police from holding someone in custody longer than they otherwise would, solely because of their non-citizen status, and 2.) limited the amount of information shared with the Department of Homeland Security about individuals released from custody, unless they were violent felons or the federal government had issued a warrant. While this order was briefly rescinded during Nutter’s last two weeks in office, Mayor Jim Kenney reinstated it on the day of his inauguration, January 4, 2016, reaffirming Philadelphia’s sanctuary status.


  • June 27, 2016 — U.S. Senator Pat Toomey introduced a bill in the Senate to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. Citing public safety concerns, Toomey named his bill “Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act.” In response, a spokesperson for Kenney stated, “If immigrants don’t report crimes or cooperate in investigations because they’re afraid of being deported, we are far less safe.” The bill stalled in the Senate.


  • Oct. 17, 2016 — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Bill 1885, an anti-sanctuary bill with 136 votes for and 55 against. Organizers at the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia spoke out against this bill, calling attention to the inherent racial profiling in its requirement that police report the immigration of status anytime there is “reasonable cause to believe” a person could be undocumented. The bill stalled in the Senate.


  • Jan. 25, 2017 — In his first week in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order cutting federal funding to sanctuary cities. On the same day, Pennsylvania Senate Bill 10, which would cut all state grant funding to cities that do not comply with federal immigration law was first considered in the Senate.


  • Feb. 7, 2017 — Pennsylvania Senate Bill 10 passed in the State Senate. It was sent to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where it has not yet been voted on.


  • April 3, 2017 — Pennsylvania House Bill 28 was introduced, again seeking to cut funding for sanctuary cities and make police non-disclosure policies illegal. It has yet to come to a vote.


  • April 25, 2017 — California Federal Judge William Orrick blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities. He wrote: “Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration-enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves.”


  • July 21, 2017 — Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he called on sanctuary cities to cooperate with federal authorities on issues of immigration. Kenney responded, arguing that sanctuary policies keep Philadelphia safer: “If victims and witnesses of crimes don’t report those crimes to the police because they fear deportation, that allows the real bad guys to stay on the streets.”


  • Aug. 30, 2017 — The City of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against Sessions and the Department of Justice. In order to receive a $1.67 million federal grant, Sessions had required that Philadelphia and other sanctuary cities allow ICE agents to question immigrants held in any detention facility and that they be willing to provide notice two days before releasing an undocumented person from custody. The city argued that these requirements “are contrary to law, unconstitutional, and arbitrary and capricious.”


  • Sept. 5, 2017 — Sessions announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy of the Obama administration that provided protection from deportation for about 800,000 individuals who had immigrated to the U.S. as minors. Sessions announced the suspension of new applications and gave Congress a six-month window to act to replace it.


  • Sept. 29, 2017 — ICE announced that it had detained 498 people over four days in 10 sanctuary cities in “Operation Safe City.” Over 100 people were arrested in Philadelphia, more than in any other city.


  • Oct. 11, 2017 — The federal government issued a warning to sanctuary cities, requiring them to demonstrate their compliance with federal immigration law by Oct. 27.


  • Nov. 15, 2017 — A federal judge ruled in favor of Philadelphia in its lawsuit fighting Sessions’ August attempt to block distribution of law enforcement funds for the city. Kenney expressed anger at the need for the lawsuit in the first place: “This is not a time for jubilation.”


 A Family Reunited: Refuge & Release

Javier with his family.

Javier with his family.

Javier with his family outside the Arch Street United Methodist Church.

Seeking Sanctuary

While sanctuary cities offer important protections, for Javier Flores Garcia, further action was needed. Javier took refuge in the basement of Arch Street United Methodist Church last November so that he could stay in the United States with his family. An arborist who first moved to the United States in 1997, he — along with his two sons, his stepdaughter, and his wife, Alma — had come to call Philadelphia home. Having faced past deportations, he repeatedly returned to the United States to be with his family. In 2016, he explained to New York Times reporters,

“I’ve never bought drugs, I’ve never helped anybody else cross the border — my only crime is coming back…I came here for the love of my children.”

In 2015, he was detained by ICE agents and held for 16 months. He was released from detention with a brief window to receive the papers he had applied for before again facing deportation. Unable to fill the requirements in time, rather than report for deportation, he asked Arch Street United Methodist Church to take him in.

The church, which had been part of the New Sanctuary Movement since 2011, agreed to provide him housing indefinitely. Churches provide “sanctuary,” where people can stay without risk of deportation because ICE agents make a policy of not making arrests in places of worship. While in a sanctuary, Javier could not leave the building, or he risked being separated from his family once again. “It’s very very hard to be in sanctuary, but it’s something I had to do for my children and for my family…Every day is the same. You’re in the same place, but you have to stay focused and remember your final goal.”

Arch Street United Methodist Church where Javier sought refuge.

Arch Street United Methodist Church where Javier sought refuge.

The Arch Street United Methodist Church where Javier sought refuge for eleven months.


On October 11, after almost eleven months in Sanctuary, Javier took his first steps outside of the building—with his family—as the crowd that had gathered on North Broad Street chanted “Sí se pudo!” (“Yes we did it!”). After an application process that began in 2015, Javier was finally granted permission to stay in the United States.

Javier qualified for a U-visa, a specific type of visa granted to individuals who were victimized in certain crimes and who cooperate with law enforcement to solve and prosecute those crimes. In 2004, Javier sustained serious injuries at the hands of two violent criminals who stabbed him multiple times. His cooperation with police led to the arrest and prosecution of these two individuals. While he qualified for the visa, his previous deportations required him to file a waiver.

The waiver had been denied twice, but on the third appeal, he was promised the U-visa, which once he receives, he can file for residency.

Outside the church for the first time in nearly a year, Javier addressed the crowd, “This has been a difficult journey, but it’s also the wonderful situation where you can tell people that if you keep on fighting that you can win. After the storm comes the calm.”

Asked what the first thing he’ll do when he gets home, Javier replies, “I would like to be able to run and play with my children.”

What It Took To Win

Javier’s victory represents the strength of both his personal will and that of his family, and yet, many others had an important part to play. Javier offered gratitude for his lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, who filed the legal appeals which ultimately won him his U-visa.

Persistent organizing also played a role. His family started organizing with Juntos, an advocacy group for Latinx immigrants, in September of 2015. When Pope Francis visited that month, he saw the sign that Javier’s stepdaughter, Adamaris, had made — “Please Help Us” — and offered her a blessing. Adamaris and Javier’s wife Alma also led demonstrators at the Democratic National Committee in July of 2016. Erika Almiron, Executive Director of Juntos described what it took to win: “Victories like this are won when you’re working in conjunction with community and having a legal strategy. And I think it’s with that that the power is built.”

Finally, the church played an important role by offering not just a symbol of refuge, but real protection for a vulnerable community member. Reverend Robin Hynicka, described his vision for the power of sanctuary. When he was traveling with one of Javier’s sons, “every time we were in the van and we’d come across a church steeple,” said Hynicka “[Javier’s son] would look up and point. And he’d say “Mi papa!” Because every steeple represented a place where his father was…If every house of worship and community center of conscious could really be that symbol for our young people…what a powerful statement that would make, and what justice could be done in this world.”

What You Can Do

Support Legal Defense Organizations

While the Washington Post reports a 43% increase in immigration enforcement arrests since Trump took office, the number of deportations has not increased. One significant reason for this is that advocacy groups and legal organizations have seen a huge influx in funding since the 2016 election. Supporting those who can fight these cases in court can slow and even prevent deportations.

Join or Advocate for Sanctuary Congregations

SanctuaryPhiladelphia.org lists twenty Sanctuary Congregations around the city that are actively standing up for immigrant justice. Support these congregations, or work with your own faith-based or community organization to connect with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.


Real, sustainable victories are won by those building movements on the ground. Join or support organizations who have a vision for immigrant justice and commitment to making a change in the lives of Philadelphians. Local organizations include: Juntos, 1Love Movement, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, New Sanctuary Movement, Welcoming Center for New Philadelphians, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Esperanza, and many more.



Photo Credits:

1: Mural Arts Program James Burns’ “Sanctuary” grows out of the Community Wellness Project, designed to raise awareness about mental and emotional health and to inspire conversation about what constitutes community health. Based on the Enso circle, a form of active meditation that involves clarity of mind and movement of the hand, Burns’ design incorporates a number of natural elements, as well as striking imagery created by participants in workshops at Broad Street Ministry and around the city. Photo by Steve Weinik.

2: Javier with his family.

3: The Arch Street United Methodist Church, where Javier took refuge for 11 months while awaiting his fate with immigration. Photo by Jim Irby.