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Perry County Reverses Immigration Policies, Rejects “Sanctuary” Label

Immigration Family Detention Center in Sanctuary Counties

Pennsylvania’s Perry County Prison, in a county that has consistently extended its support to immigration officials, has ended a five-year policy meant to protect citizens from being unconstitutionally detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In part, the reason county officials ended the policy was that they did not relate to the “sanctuary county” designation.

County officials further said this is not going to change the due diligence the prison uses when it honors an ICE detainer. “The county has always cooperated with immigration officials,” said District Attorney Andrew Bender, who also serves on the prison board.

Since 2014, the county had been included in the list of sanctuary counties, because it required a warrant from a judge to detain a person who faces an ICE detainer. In 2017, the county altered its sanctuary policy, holding that going forward, the county would cooperate with federal law enforcement, Bender said. Finally, in 2019, the county ended its sanctuary policy.

What Is a Sanctuary Policy?

While there is no solid definition for a “sanctuary policy,” counties that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents are generally considered to be a “sanctuary county.” It is a misconception that counties with sanctuary policies do not turn in immigrants who have committed serious crimes. Counties with sanctuary policies do cooperate with federal immigration officials and will continue to turn over immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

The basic idea of sanctuary policy is that the federal government cannot compel a jurisdiction to take part in immigration enforcement. When an immigrant gets in trouble with the law, they are imprisoned or detained at the local county prison. Local law enforcement can detain an immigrant until the immigrant has been cleared of charges, posted bail, or completed jail time. Detaining the immigrant beyond that period just for being undocumented is unconstitutional.

Once the immigrant is arrested, their information is entered into the federal database that is accessed by the ICE. ICE then issues a hold, called a detainer. The local law enforcement agency adhering to the detainer holds the immigrant in custody until ICE picks them up for immigration detention.

It is important to note that being undocumented is a civil, not a criminal, violation. This means that local law enforcement cannot arrest an undocumented immigrant if the immigrant has not committed any crime. But ICE can make such arrests.

Further, cities with sanctuary policies continue to be safe and economically vibrant, according to a 2020 study. Another misconception is that sanctuary cities do not turn in immigrants, or that they shield them from deportation. The law enforcement of sanctuary cities does not conceal or shelter undocumented immigrations from detention.

About the Galarza Case

In Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent, was held by local police for three days based solely on an ICE detainer and without a warrant. ICE erroneously ordered his detention, believing he was an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic. On his release, Galarza sued both the local police department and the federal government. The case was settled in 2014 when the court ruled that ICE detainers were not orders from the federal government. Local officials have the power to resist compliance based on their own information and judgment.

The Galarza case had ripple effects on several local municipalities in Pennsylvania, changing their immigration policies. By 2015, 47% of counties in the state had written or unwritten policies limiting cooperation with ICE detainers. The Perry County prison board also enacted a policy where the county requires a warrant from a judge to honor ICE detainers. Any mistake that ICE commits in identifying an immigrant exposes local law enforcement to liability for the unlawful detention.

To learn more about this blog post or if you have any other immigration concerns, please feel free to contact me at or (484) 544-0022.