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By John Hill November 24, 2013

Talk show host John DePetro says Providence was a “sanctuary city” under Mayor David Cicilline

Though it isn’t generating the political heat it did five years ago, immigration is still a hot-button talk radio issue. It resurfaced Oct. 21, 2013,  when WPRO talk show host John DePetro was interviewing Brett Smiley, who plans to run for mayor of Providence.

DePetro asked Smiley what he’d do as mayor about the number of "illegal aliens" in the city, and then said that "under Mayor [David] Cicilline, it [Providence] was a sanctuary city. He and the chief at the time, Dean Esserman, they wouldn’t cooperate with ICE regarding illegals in the city."

The sanctuary city charge has been aimed at Cicilline, now a U.S. representative, before. Brendan Doherty, Cicilline’s Republican opponent in the 2012 congressional election, claimed during that campaign that Cicilline "espoused" Providence as a sanctuary city.  We found no evidence that Cicilline ever took that position and ruled Doherty’s claim False. We wondered whether DePetro’s phrasing was more on the mark.

DePetro said he based his statement on what he views as Providence’s begrudging-at-best cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.  

He said a prime example of that was the handling of a 2008 rape by Marco Riz, a Guatemalan man who was in the country illegally. Riz, who kidnapped a woman in Warwick and assaulted her in Providence’s Roger Williams Park, is serving a 30-year sentence.

The Providence police had picked Riz up on a misdemeanor charge months before the rape and released him, even though he had previously been ordered deported by an immigration judge.

In news accounts at the time, the Providence police and ICE each found reason to blame the other for the mistake. Providence police said they’d checked a national warrant database and found no warrants for Riz. They said they’d faxed a copy of his arraignment form to ICE and the agency never responded.

ICE officials said Providence police should have contacted the agency’s Vermont office to check Riz’s status, and if they had, they’d have found about about the deportation order.

(Now, instead of faxing reports, Providence police electronically transmit arrested suspects’ fingerprints to the attorney general’s office, which automatically adds them to national databases that ICE monitors, said Providence police spokeswoman Lindsay Lague and  attorney general spokeswoman Amy Kempe .)

So what about DePetro’s claim?

The phrase "sanctuary city" gets tossed around a lot when immigration policy is being discussed, but even experts have a hard time defining it.

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During a congressional hearing in 2007, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff observed, "you know, people use the term sanctuary city in different ways, so I’m never quite sure what people mean."

Some have applied the term to cities such as New Haven, Conn., where the city issues its own identity cards regardless of immigration status, cards that can be used to get city services or open bank accounts.

Or Takoma Park, Md., where residents who are not citizens of the United States have been allowed to vote in local elections since 1993.

Or San Francisco, where the city and county have ordinances that specifically forbid city employees from helping ICE unless ordered to by federal or state law or a warrant.

Or Cook County, Ill., where the county commissioners voted not to honor ICE requests to hold prisoners unless ICE was willing to pay for their incarceration. It also ordered that, absent a criminal warrant, county law enforcement personnel were not to expend time responding to ICE inquiries.

Providence had none of those measures under Mayor Cicilline, nor does it now.

In 2007, then-City Councilman Miguel Luna proposed an ordinance that would have specifically declared Providence a "sanctuary city." It never made it out of the Ordinance Committee for a vote.

While Cicilline was mayor, however, the city resisted then-Gov. Donald Carcieri’s efforts to enlist municipalities in immigration enforcement. But Providence continued to notify federal ICE officials when it arrested suspected illegal immigrants and was never cited for failure to cooperate by the federal government.

Our ruling

John DePetro said that under Mayor David Cicilline, Providence "was a sanctuary city."

While there is no legal definition of "sanctuary city," in the eight years that Cicilline was mayor Providence had not taken any of the measures adopted by other cities often identified by that label.

We rule DePetro’s statement False.

(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)

Our Sources, "Providence Mayoral Candidate Brett Smiley (16:26)," Oct. 21, 2013, "Holding the Department of Homeland Security Accountable for Security Gaps," testimony of Michael Chertoff, Sept. 5, 2007, at 1:45:45 mark, accessed Nov. 13, 2013, "Sanctuary Ordinance - What is the Sanctuary Ordinance?" City and County of San Francisco website, accessed Nov. 14, 2013, "City of New Haven Marks Fifth Anniversary of Elm City Card," accessed Nov. 14, 2013, "Cooperation of SCAAP Recipients in the Removal of Criminal Aliens from the United States," U.S. Department of Justice January 2007, accessed Nov. 14, 2013

The Providence Journal, "Case of Illegal immigrant fires political feud," June 26, 2008, and "Governor, Stop blaming illegal aliens," (commentary by David Cicilline), July 16, 2008

Interview, John DePetro, talk radio host, WPRO-AM, Nov. 14, 2013

Interview, Lindsay Lague, spokeswoman, Providence Police, Nov. 15, 2013

Interview, Amy Kempe, spokeswoman, Atty. Gen. Peter Kilmartin, Nov. 15, 2013

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Talk show host John DePetro says Providence was a “sanctuary city” under Mayor David Cicilline

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