An illegal immigrant living in Philadelphia has been charged with raping a child, spurring opponents of the city’s “sanctuary” policy to use his arrest to bolster their argument that such practices leave dangerous criminals on the streets.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Martina White, a Republican, says the alleged rapist, Ramon Aguirre-Ochoa, a 45-year-old Honduran national, avoided deportation only because of Philadelphia’s policy not to comply with most immigration-related requests from the federal government.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, White said she hopes the incident will inspire bipartisan support for her bid to hold sanctuary cities accountable for crimes committed by residents who are living in those municipalities illegally.
“There is a lot of support for the state of Pennsylvania to make sure sanctuary city policies do not continue, and that they do not spread,” White said, adding:
These policies are dangerous. Philadelphia, and cities like it, are basically encouraging illegal immigrant criminals to come there. And unfortunately, we are seeing that these policies impact citizens’ lives. These are very, very sad circumstances and repercussions from a flawed policy.
White’s bill would make any sanctuary city in Pennsylvania liable for “damages”—such as injury to a person or property—caused by illegal residents who have been convicted of a crime.
White introduced the bill in April in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House, and she says the legislation will get a committee vote in September. She expects the bill, which has 41 co-sponsors, including two Democrats, to be approved by the House.
Inspired to help address the costs of higher education and health care, White, 28, was elected in 2015 to represent Pennsylvania’s 170th district. A financial adviser, she is a lifelong resident of Northeast Philadelphia.
White’s push to punish sanctuary cities comes at a time of division over Philadelphia’s policy, which opponents consider to be one of the most extreme in the country.
Under the policy, implemented by Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, after he took office in January, the city in most circumstances does not respond to requests from federal immigration authorities to be notified of the release of an illegal immigrant from custody.
Michael Nutter, the city’s former Democratic mayor, had ended his own sanctuary policy before leaving office, but Kenney decided to quickly change course.
Now, Philadelphia will satisfy immigration requests only if the person in custody was convicted of a first- or second-degree felony involving violence. The policy requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal authority in charge of deportations, to present a judicial warrant—the equivalent of an arrest warrant—for cases in which it seeks compliance from the city.
According to ICE, Philadelphia chose not to honor an earlier detainer request in 2015 against Aguirre-Ochoa after the dismissal of criminal charges of domestic aggravated assault.
A detainer is a request from ICE asking local law authorities to hold immigrant detainees it suspects of being in the country illegally for up to 48 hours after they were scheduled for release from jail.
Aguirre-Ochoa remained free until his arrest July 26 in the child rape case, when he was charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and related offenses.
ICE has filed another detainer with Philadelphia, requesting Aguirre-Ochoa be transferred to the custody of federal immigration authorities after his case is resolved.
The case has drawn the attention of Pennsylvania’s national representatives, including Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, who is up for re-election.
In July, Senate Democrats blocked Toomey’s bill to strip congressional funding from sanctuary cities. Since the rape case, he has urged Kenney to repeal Philadelphia’s sanctuary policy.
Toomey’s Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, also called on Kenney to increase his cooperation with ICE.
And U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is concerned enough about Philadelphia’s policy that he has encouraged stronger compliance. He attended a City Hall summit on the issue hosted by Kenney in May.
Despite the pressure, Kenney so far has said he does not intend to change the policy, according to news reports.
As of publication, Kenney’s office had not replied to emailed questions from The Daily Signal about its immigration policy.
Supporters of sanctuary policies note that local jurisdictions are not required by law to comply with federal detainers or notices of release.
Under a 2014 federal appeals court ruling, cooperating with detainer requests is optional for local jurisdictions, and they are legally free to enact their own policies.
Indeed, advocates of sanctuary policies say they create trust between police and immigrants, who otherwise might be afraid to report crimes for fear of revealing their legal status.
Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, told The Daily Signal that the sanctuary policy has made immigrants living illegally in the city feel safer and more secure from deportation.
“It’s a hard time right now and this policy is taking a lot of heat,” said Pedemonti, whose immigrant rights organization advocated the policy, adding:
What I want people to understand is this is a very positive policy for both the immigrant and nonimmigrant community. It helps Philadelphia grow, keeps us safer, and it brings us closer to who we are as a country.
White, sponsor of the state legislation, acknowledges the positive impact that immigrants make on Philadelphia.
But she says given the size of the illegal immigrant population in America—about 11 million—there likely are some dangerous people among them, and cities and counties should be doing their part to protect the public.
“People expect their government to keep them safe and to make sure they are able to protect their families,” White said. “But unfortunately, some cities implement policies that attract criminals here illegally to come to the city, who know if they do get arrested and do serve time, they still can get back into their communities, having not been deported.”