Dozens of Pittsburghers on Wednesday recounted stories of immigrants living in fear of deportation and urged Pittsburgh City Council to pass “sanctuary city” legislation that would prohibit police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
Some spoke Spanish to council members, who were aided by an interpreter during a packed public hearing in the City-County Building, Downtown. Mothers who are members of the advocacy group United Force in Resistance of Immigrants in Action brought children with them to the hearing — allowing the little ones to watch from seats along the walls.
Gregory Godels, 70, of Point Breeze, who advocated for the hearing, said Pittsburgh needs legislation to protect immigrants and their children.
“You got to remember … that when you have an organization like ICE that comes into a community and does these sweeps and harasses people, it destroys the life of that whole community,” Godels said.
There is no hard definition for what makes a sanctuary city. The term generally refers to a city that adopts policy limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Pittsburgh’s “unbiased policing” policy prohibits officers from asking residents about immigration status, but permits them to assist federal agencies in tracking down immigrants wanted on criminal warrants.
Speakers praised the city for adopting the policy and legislation that helps immigrants access city services, but said it isn’t enough.
“What we’re looking for is legislation that goes further,” Godels said.
Mayor Bill Peduto in March reaffirmed the city’s commitment to welcoming immigrants in wake of President Trump’s increased emphasis on tracking down immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The Pennsylvania House and Senate have passed bills that would cut state subsidies for counties and municipalities that refuse to detain immigrants for federal authorities. Trump has also threatened financial penalties for refusing to cooperate with ICE.
Speakers said threats of deportation make immigrants reluctant to report crime or call for emergency medical help. They discounted reports of criminal behavior among illegal immigrants, saying most are hard-working people seeking safe harbor.
“Decades of research confirm that immigrants to the United States are significantly less likely than native-born citizens like me to commit serious crimes or to be in prison,” said the Rev. Hunter Farrel, 59, of East Liberty, a teacher at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Several council members said they would support sanctuary city legislation. Peduto is open to the idea, spokesman Tim McNulty said.
“He also opposes all efforts to turn local police into de facto federal immigration officers,” McNulty said.
Kenneth Kaleida, 67, of Beechview said Latino immigrants have revitalized the business district in his neighborhood.
“We have enough crime to deal with and don’t want to have our police waste their time and resources chasing down civil offenses,” he said.