Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Thursday that he would seek to protect immigrants accused of nonviolent crimes from being deported or facing other immigration-related consequences through charging or sentencing decisions that could avoid triggering such penalties.
During a news conference at his office, Krasner said he had hired an attorney, Caleb U. Arnold, who will work exclusively on developing best practices and training assistant district attorneys to ensure that the preventative policy is applied office-wide.
The goal, he said, was not to let anyone get away with crimes, but to assure that immigrants — both legal and undocumented — are "treated fairly" by the criminal justice system.
"I see this as being part of a much larger approach of trying to protect vulnerable communities," Krasner said.
The announcement, one of Krasner's first major policy proposals, advances Philadelphia's status as a safe haven for immigrants and sets up another potential clash with the Trump administration, which is fighting in court to be able to withhold federal funding from the city over its "sanctuary city" status.
Neighboring communities also have been roiled by immigration debates in recent months: This week, protesters gathered in Bensalem to decry that Bucks County township's police department's stance that it would cooperate with federal authorities and deport undocumented immigrants accused of certain crimes.
Krasner acknowledged that he cannot stop federal immigration authorities from operating in the city. But he said this proposal — which also will seek to provide visas or other protections for immigrants who are victims of or witnesses to crimes — would help bolster citywide trust in local law enforcement.
The Department of Justice on Thursday called the proposal a "dangerous practice" without specifying whether it would take action against the city or Krasner's office.
"This is the type of abandonment of the rule of law and unequal enforcement of the law that this Justice Department diametrically opposes," spokesman Devin O'Malley said in a statement.
Arnold, formerly an immigration attorney in the city and a public defender in Colorado, said that the idea was not to wipe away criminal charges because of someone's immigration status, but to evaluate whether changes in charging or sentencing decisions could provide an outcome similar to one that a citizen would face, without punitive immigration-related consequences.
Krasner said he selected Arnold — who asked not to be identified by gender-based pronouns — due to Arnold's history of activism. Arnold was arrested for protesting at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and later acquitted on all counts. Krasner was heavily involved in defending protesters arrested at that event.
He said he was inspired to create Arnold's role after a similar program was launched last year by Eric Gonzalez, the district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y.
At the time of his announcement, Gonzalez said, "We don't want to destroy communities or tear people away from their families for low-level offenses. If someone confronts a guilty plea that would automatically subject them to a harsh immigration penalty, and there's another possible plea that would hold them accountable and ensure public safety, justice demands they be given the one that doesn't have immigration consequences."
Local activists at Krasner's news conference praised his decision.
"We see this as a step in the right direction for our city and for our DA's office," said Miguel Andrade, communications manager for Juntos, a South Philadelphia-based immigration advocacy group.