New coalition demands bill, hearing to make Pittsburgh a ‘sanctuary city’

“We think it’s urgent that we have sanctuary city status,” member Greg Godels said.

A yard sign welcoming immigrants in Highland Park.

A yard sign welcoming immigrants in Highland Park.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Officials have again and again declared Pittsburgh a welcoming city in the face of a federal crackdown on immigration, but a new group wants lawmakers to go a step further with official “sanctuary city” designation.

Greg Godels, a member of the fledgling Pittsburgh Sanctuary City Coalition, said he’s seen a “reluctance to tackle” taking that step. The coalition delivered signed petitions to the City Clerk’s office Friday asking for a hearing on the topic.

“We think it’s urgent that we have sanctuary city status,” he said.

There’s no one definition of “sanctuary city,” but it’s widely understood to mean a municipality that does not cooperate with federal authorities to detain or provide information about undocumented persons. In Pittsburgh, police are directed not to ask about immigration status or detain a person solely because of it, but officers will cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, if there is a criminal warrant.

In April, Mayor Bill Peduto said he was “of course” in favor of Pittsburgh becoming a sanctuary city. “We already have all the provisions in the city of Pittsburgh to meet sanctuary city status,” he said during a debate broadcast on WTAE.

“Being undocumented is not a criminal crime, it’s a civil crime like jaywalking. We shouldn’t be locking people up for jaywalking or for being undocumented,” he added at The Incline and WESA’s mayoral debate in May. “We’re working right now with our police bureau, law department and ACLU on updating our police policies to make sure they follow what our commitment is in being a city, at least in our own jurisdiction, that is a sanctuary city.”

Pittsburgh City Council member Dan Gilman also expanded protections for immigrants and refugees earlier this year through a package of legislation that included a bill that prevents city agencies from denying public services to a person based on immigration status. It passed council 9-0.

But to Godels, taking on the term “sanctuary city” is just as important as policy. It would show solidarity with other cities that are facing possible punishments for the designation. Godels cited a Texas bill recently signed into law that banned the designation. There’s similar legislation moving through the Pa. legislature.

While Pittsburgh may not consider itself a sanctuary city, state lawmakers do. A fiscal note attached to state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler’s bill to defund sanctuary municipalities lists Pittsburgh with Philadelphia, the City of York and several counties. “Municipality hasn’t officially declared itself a ‘sanctuary city’ but has adopted policies and practices that are consistent with sanctuary policies,” the note states of Pittsburgh.

Reschenthaler’s bill passed the Senate earlier this year, while similar legislation from state Rep. Martina White recently underwent first consideration in the House. There’s support for punishing sanctuary cities among Republicans and Democrats from Allegheny County.

But threats from Harrisburg haven’t stopped local groups in support of immigrants rights from asking Pittsburgh to go further. On May Day, a coalition of groups led by Pittsburgh’s Labor Council for Latin American Advancement held a march to ask Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to become an ACLU-designated Freedom City and County. The Pittsburgh chapter of the Answer Coalition and FURIA (Fuerza Unida en Resistencia de Inmigrantes en Acción) demonstrated at the City-County Building on that day seeking sanctuary city status. FURIA member Brenda Solkez is involved with the Pittsburgh Sanctuary City Coalition.

Godels said the coalition submitted a request for a hearing through the traditional process, which requires at least 25 signatures from people who are eligible to vote. He said a hearing would provide transparency and allow council to hear from many parties before drafting legislation.

When asked if he would consider introducing additional legislation, Gilman said in a statement via a spokesman, “I am always willing to listen and improve the legislation as needed to make sure we are protecting all our residents.”

“I am committed to protecting the right of all residents of Pittsburgh,” Gilman said. “The six pieces of legislation I introduced and passed were crafted in close cooperation with the individuals and groups that work with immigrants and refugees every day.”

While there’s no legislation on the table, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations will hold a forum and public hearing on “religious and ethnic intimidation” later this month. There’s a 1 p.m. session on the welcoming, sanctuary and freedom city designations and public comment scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. People interested in speaking about their experiences with discrimination can sign up here.