Philadelphia City Hall building at night
Philadelphia City Hall ()

As legal clashes over its status as a sanctuary city appear likely, Philadelphia is turning to a team of local big-law attorneys to advise it on how to handle the controversial immigration issue.

The city Law Department has tapped Dechert, a global law firm headquartered in Philadelphia, to help it navigate its status as a sanctuary city. The team, which is expected to include four to five partners and associates, is being led by Robert Heim and Judy Leone.

The city is also in talks with attorneys from Hogan Lovells to also provide guidance about the issue.

Specifically, the attorneys will work with lawyers at the city Law Department to determine how best to address an executive order President Donald Trump signed last month, which threatens to cut federal funding if certain actions are not performed by June 30. Similar legislation threatening state dollars is pending in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which the firm will also advise on if it becomes law.

“Proposals and legislation by both the federal and state governments have taken aim at local government seeking to coerce cities and counties into adopting policies that will harm their relationships with immigrant communities,” city spokesman Mike Dunn said in an emailed statement. “Dechert has been engaged by the city to help evaluate the level of risk associated with the state and federal proposals and the degree to which our state and federal constitutions, and other laws, protect the city from such coercion.”

Dechert has agreed to do the work on a pro bono basis, and the city is in talks with another unnamed firm to provide additional guidance on its status as a sanctuary city.

According to Heim, his firm’s frequent dealings with statutory construction issues and questions regarding constitutional limitations at both the state and federal level is what made his team ideal for working on the sanctuary city issue.

“The responsible thing is to know exactly where you stand with regard to compliance, and what the legal issues are should anyone argue that you’re not in compliance,” Heim said. “Given how tight money is everywhere, even a small amount of federal or states funds is a significant concern.”

Dechert’s agreement with the city is not time-limited, according to Heim, and the attorneys will continue working with the Law Department until the issue is resolved.

Although Dunn did not name the firm that the city is in discussions with, Hogan Lovells attorney Ginny Gibson confirmed that the firm is in talks with the city about providing guidance on its sanctuary city policies.

Gibson, who would likely be heading the Hogan Lovells team, said the parties are discussing the city’s needs and whether the firm will provide the work pro bono. She added that the firm’s experience in the federal grant and contract arena makes it a good fit to advise the city on the issues it is facing.

“The city is taking a responsible approach in seeking advice,” Gibson said.

Sanctuary cities have stated policies where local law enforcement does not comply with voluntary detainer requests from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and either limits or does not communicate with federal authorities about when an undocumented person may be released from local custody.

The executive order mandates that municipalities comply with all federal immigration enforcement laws and “make use of all available systems and resources” to do so. If the municipalities do not comply, they will not be eligible for federal grants that the state’s attorney general does not deem necessary for law enforcement purposes.

The executive order and the pending state legislation have been advanced as crime-fighting measures, contending that some undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be in federal custody go on to commit violent crimes after they are released.

Proponents of sanctuary policies likewise claim that the noncompliance policies are helpful in reducing violent crime, arguing that the policies help law enforcement officers build trust in communities with undocumented immigrant populations.

San Francisco, which is widely recognized as a sanctuary city, was the first city to legally respond to the president’s executive order. On Jan. 31, the city sued Trump, contending, among other things, that the order violates the separation of powers between state and federal governments.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has been an outspoken proponent of Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city, saying that the sanctuary policies have not made the city less safe and that the detainer requests violate the Fourth Amendment.

When asked whether Philadelphia will be taking a similar tack to San Francisco and filing a lawsuit, Heim said the attorneys are serving at the direction of the mayor, and they are in the very early stages of evaluating the issues.

“Certainly any responsible city administration that is dealing with the current headwinds from Washington concerning immigration policies and some movement from the state on that issue is going to want to know what its options are, and that’s what we intend to provide for the city,” Heim said.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.