Protecting immigrant communities in Philly
Caleb Arnold, the recently named Immigration Counsel to the District Attorney’s Office, spoke with AL DÍA about how they work to ensure immigrants are not deported simply for interacting with law enforcement.
It’s no secret that for many immigrants in the U.S., these are uncertain times.
Under the federal government of President Donald Trump, reports have been surfacing from all over the country of people being detained and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), often for trivial reasons. To challenge the anti-immigrant stance of this administration, the responsibility has fallen on local governments, including Philadelphia, a sanctuary city that is emerging as an exemplary champion in the struggle for immigrant rights.
Continuing Philadelphia’s push to protect its immigrant community, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced in January the appointment of Caleb Arnold to a newly created position: immigration counsel to the District Attorney’s Office.
“It is a position of extreme importance to anyone who believes vulnerable people and vulnerable populations should be protected by the law,” Krasner said during the announcement.
Arnold, who grew up in southwestern Colorado, has years of experience practicing immigration law in Philadelphia. Prior to their law career, Arnold was a community organizer and activist involved in queer issues and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. In addition to English, Arnold speaks Spanish, French, and some American Sign Language.
In their new role as immigration counsel, Arnold works to identify criminal cases in which defendants may face serious immigration consequences, such as deportation, that are dramatically disproportionate to the crime.
Arnold indicated that these minor crimes include marijuana possession, low-level domestic violence (meaning situations without significant injuries, such as cases that involve shoving), and even retail theft.
“Depending on how [shoplifting is] charged or what your status is, it is a quick trip to removal,” Arnold said.
Finding methods to prevent these incidents from potentially devastating the lives of defendants and their loved ones is a complicated process. As Arnold explained, there is a vast number of ways that criminal convictions can trigger immigration consequences so each case must be examined individually.
In some cases, the language of a statute can trigger immigration consequences, Arnold said. In an effort to prevent this trigger, the immigration counsel can work to have the defendant charged with a similar crime that carries consequences that are immigration neutral.
In certain other cases, Arnold explained, the length of a prison or probationary sentence can draw the attention of ICE. In these situations, sentencing can be reworded to prevent the trigger.
Arnold gave the example of a two-year sentence: “If you have instead two sentences of 364 days run consecutively, stacked one on top of the other, you have the same sentence but in a way that doesn’t trigger those same consequences.”
In addition to working with defendants to find plea offers that are immigration neutral, Arnold also certifies the proper visas to protect victims and witnesses of crimes who may be apprehensive to cooperate with law enforcement because of their immigration status. Arnold believes this type of cooperation will help to foster a safer city.
Community outreach is also a crucial component of Arnold’s position, especially given the increase in ICE enforcement under Trump’s administration.
“Immigrant communities are pretty terrified to interface with any area of law enforcement, including the District Attorney’s Office,” Arnold said. “So we are trying to build relationships across many different communities so that we can serve those populations better.”
When asked why immigrants should trust them, Arnold’s answer was simple: “Because I care.”
Arnold, whose partner is a Chilean immigrant, has been working with immigrant communities in different ways for more than a decade. To Arnold, immigrants are not just another group of people that they “may or may not be invested in.”
“I see the individual people and I see their families,” Arnold said. “I have seen firsthand the dramatic consequences of removal and the dramatic consequences of the pressure of ICE enforcement.”
“Even if you’re not subject to removal, just the daily fear is something that I have been around and a part of,” Arnold continued. “And I have been working with people in those situations for a long time now.”
As district attorney, Krasner has been a vocal proponent of immigrant rights. While he has acknowledged that the federal government remains capable of enforcing its own immigration policies in Philadelphia, Krasner has promised that his office will remain committed to immigrant communities throughout the city.
For Arnold, this commitment is the first step in building trust.
“I think the District Attorney has said pretty straightforwardly that we are not contacting ICE or communicating with ICE in any way,” Arnold said. “Our job is to focus in on Philadelphia and the communities of Philadelphia. Our role is to not to help that arm of the federal government.”
After Krasner announced Arnold’s appointment as immigration counsel, some conservative critics responded by calling Arnold a “radical activist.” Arnold was arrested for organizing a protest at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
During their interview with AL DÍA, Arnold elaborated on the incident. Arnold and other protesters had planned a street theater performance that would block the entrance of the convention center to protest the death penalty, but prior to being able to do so, the organizers were infiltrated by state police and arrested. The group fought the case against them and were eventually acquitted.
Arnold noted that this incident was nearly 20 years ago, and if critics want to call the immigration counsel radical for it, let them.
“I’ve always been committed and dedicated to my work, and committed and dedicated to communities,” Arnold said. “I think that if it is a radical notion to believe that we, in our view of justice, should consider the implications of people’s lives, and if it’s radical to actually look at immigrant communities and recognize their particular struggles in our city, then sure. That’s who I am.”