Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez pushed for the city to change its practice of detaining immigrants on behalf of federal officials.
Before immigrants get deported, they are sometimes held temporarily by local law enforcement at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. But cities across the country, including Philadelphia, are saying they will no longer fully cooperate with that plan.
Offenses including traffic stops and felonies can lead to deportation for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally — or even those who are legal permanent residents. ICE requests that municipalities hold suspects until they can be transferred into federal custody.
Until recently, Philadelphia honored a couple of hundred of these "immigration detainers" a year. But in April, Philadelphia's mayor signed an executive order essentially ending that practice in the city.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, the first Latina to serve on the Philadelphia City Council, pushed hard for the change and celebrated at the public announcement.
"This victory is so huge, not only for the city of Philadelphia, but for the rest of the country," she said, "and for those of you who do immigrant work and know the faces behind the stories, the people who have suffered that we couldn't save before."
Philadelphia joined places like Cook County, Ill., Newark, N.J., and parts of California that had limited or ended their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
William Stock, a vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says this is the one way cities feel they can affect immigration policy.
"I think communities that are standing up to say, 'We are not cooperating with detainers,' are saying, 'And we are for that path to a legal status. We are for full integration of these people who, after all, are here because they want to be Americans,' " Stock says.
ICE declined requests for an interview for this story. Spokeswoman Nicole Navas sent a statement saying that ICE is trying to make sure "that dangerous individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities."
Dan Cadman worked in immigration enforcement for decades and is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. Cadman says politics shouldn't keep municipalities from turning over somebody who's stolen something or been charged with a DUI.
"It makes sense in those instances, after their interaction with the state criminal justice system is over, that if they are removable, that ICE do what it is charged with doing and remove them from the United States," he says.
Cadman doesn't believe immigration advocates who say police cooperation with ICE makes immigrants afraid to report crimes. He says municipalities may well have been scared by recent court decisions.
Ernesto Galarza, a U.S.-born Latino, was picked up on drug charges in Lehigh County, Pa., and held for immigration. He sued the county, which claimed it had only followed an ICE order. But ICE said it was only a request. In March, a federal court found the county liable for damages.
Afterwards, other counties in the region stopped honoring detainers. David Owens, the head of corrections in Camden, N.J., says he didn't want to stop working with ICE.
"As a law enforcement officer, of course I have concerns about releasing someone to the street with a gun charge, with a charge of violence. Yes, I've sworn to protect the citizens," he says.
But since the court ruled against the Pennsylvania county that held Galarza, Owens feels he can't keep someone on an immigration detainer after he's finished their criminal proceedings.
And while, for now, only about 200 jurisdictions have similar policies, more and more are joining that group every month.