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A city in Pennsylvania embraces immigrants as tensions over ‘sanctuary’ policies rise across the country

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Officials in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recently codified into law city policies that have been in effect since 2019 limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

The all-Democrat Lancaster City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last month preventing local police and any city official from inquiring about a person’s immigration status unless it’s required by state or federal law or by court order, or reasonably necessary in the course of a criminal investigation. It also prohibits them from providing any information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that could result in civil or noncriminal immigration enforcement actions.

Such “sanctuary” policies have been at the center of the national debate over immigration and border security ahead of the 2024 presidential election in November.

But the debate didn’t stop city leader from taking measures they say ensures that Lancaster remains a welcoming city where immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees can feel comfortable seeking city services and reporting crimes, according to Jaime Arroyo, the council’s vice president.

“This ordinance wouldn’t jeopardize anyone’s safety. City police will still cooperate with ICE if it’s mandated on a state or federal level but won’t go out of their way to ask for documentation,” Arroyo told NBC-affiliate WGAL-TV in Lancaster.

Immigrant rights advocates who rallied in support of the Trust Act said it allows residents, regardless of status, to feel like they can “more fully participate in civic society without fear” and feel safe when reporting crimes to police, using health and social services for their families or enrolling their children in school.

CASA, one of the most prominent immigrant advocacy groups in the state, has been championing the law for the past year — doing news conferences, holding rallies and working with city officials. Throughout the campaign, immigrant residents voiced concerns over having contact with police, fearful the interactions would result in their families being separated by ICE.

The Lancaster community “has had an overwhelmingly positive attitude” about the adoption of the Trust Act on Feb. 27, said CASA state director Daniel Alvalle. “All individuals, regardless of status, deserve safety, security and refuge, he said. “They should be encouraged to report crime, whether towards property or themselves without fear of being profiled or asked about immigration status.”

Councilwoman Janet Diaz told NBC News that she understands people have concerns around the bill and that she has received emails calling for it to be revoked. But Diaz said she voted for it to protect the rights of noncitizens and ensure they feel comfortable coming forward if they ever experience any harm from workplace injuries, sexual assault or domestic violence.

Forty percent of Lancaster’s population identifies as Hispanic, with about 11% not being proficient in English. Approximately 13% of the city’s total population is foreign-born. Ninety-six percent of the student population in the Lancaster school district report speaking Spanish.

But the ordinance has been criticized by Republican state senators and county officials, and ICE stated it was “disappointed.”

Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons blasted the ordinance, calling it “beyond troubling” while urging the City Council to rescind it.

“When you order your police to not cooperate in the enforcement of laws you don’t like, that does not engender ‘trust.’ It does the opposite,” Parsons told NBC News in a statement.

The director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations field office in Philadelphia, Cammilla Wamsley, said that “ICE is disappointed with the Lancaster City Council decision” but will continue to enforce immigration law in Lancaster and across the state.

“ICE’s interior enforcement operations focus primarily on public safety threats and are most effective when there is strong communication and cooperation with local law enforcement partners,” Wamsley said.

Republican state Sens. Scott Martin, Ryan Aument and Chris Gebhard said in a joint statement that the City Council’s decision “is appalling” because it came five days after it was revealed that the suspect in the slaying of a 22-year-old nursing student in Athens, Georgia, is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela.

Data from major city police departments across the country show there’s no evidence of a migrant-driven crime wave in the United States.

The National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice has stated “recent research suggests that those who immigrate (legally or illegally) are not more likely, and may even be less likely to commit crime in the U.S.”

Despite this, immigration is increasingly becoming a flashpoint in cities across the nation and reigniting the debate over “sanctuary” policies.

Tensions over such practices have been bubbling up in cities like New York, Chicago and Denver since 2022, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is seeking stricter security at the southern border, first started busing tens of thousands of migrants to those so-called sanctuary cities. The practice has left the cities struggling to keep up with demands for housing and social services to help migrants transition into more stable lives.

Officials in Lancaster have said they don’t consider their city a “sanctuary” one, but a “welcoming” one — meaning they’re part of the Welcoming America network.

The network is led by an Atlanta-based nonpartisan organization that promotes policies and programs with a commitment to immigrant inclusion across governments, businesses and nonprofits.

Lancaster was certified as a “welcoming” city in 2019 and has kept the designation since.

Fidel Gil Cedeno, 68, a longtime Lancaster resident and a community leader, left his native Dominican Republic in 1983 and settled in Lancaster. In his advocacy work with CASA, Cedeno has “heard so many testimonies” and witnessed many instances in which immigrant residents felt they couldn’t ask for assistance or access needed resources because of their status.

“I understand their worries about reaching out for help,” he told NBC News.

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