Lawmakers respond to county request for stronger protection from immigration raids at sensitive locations

March 31, 2017

County leaders meet with federal lawmakers, community advocates on immigration raids and sensitive locations.

Six weeks after County Commissioners asked Oregon’s Congressional delegation to help dissuade immigration officials from targeting courthouses, those lawmakers this week introduced a bill to expand federal guidelines protecting schools, hospitals and other sensitive locations from immigration enforcement.

The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act would “make sure immigrant families can take their kids to school, go to worship or seek protective orders and police assistance,” Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) said Friday in Portland during a roundtable with local government officials, community advocates and faith leaders.

Bonamici co-sponsored the legislation with United States Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), José E. Serrano (D-NY), and Don Beyer (D-VA) is response to increased reports of that immigration agents are arresting people in places rarely targeted. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested people visiting the Multnomah County courthouse.  Rumors of raids at health clinics and schools have caused immigrant parents to keep children home from classes and caused clients to skip immunization and well-baby appointments.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at least 10 domestic violence survivors, all of whom are either legal residents or living in mixed-immigration status families, have stopped short of getting a protection order for fear they would be arrested themselves. Although there are no reports of this happening in Oregon, a Texas woman was detained when she went to an El Paso courthouse to file a restraining order.

“These dramatic detentions don’t make us safer, they incite panic,” Kafoury said. “Think about it. Women are now more afraid of the federal government than of the person who is abusing them.”

The Department of Homeland Security, in a series of guidance memos issued between 2011 and 2014, directed immigration agents to avoid arresting people in schools, hospitals and places of worship. President Donald Trump’s January order to increase immigration enforcement and seek partnerships with state and local law enforcement has caused many to fear wider sweeps.

“One thing I can point to is this memo, and it’s still in effect,” said Melina LaMorticella, president of the Oregon chapter of American Immigration Lawyers Association. But, she said, “it’s a cold comfort” that Trump can rescind at any moment.

The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act would change that guidance into law, protecting people from most immigration enforcement while in schools, hospitals and places of worship. The bill extends protections to courthouses, shelters and crisis centers, and public service organizations offering vital services for children, pregnant women, victims of abuse, or people with significant mental or physical disabilities.

The bill includes the same exemption allowed under current guidance: that enforcement could take place if there was an imminent public safety risk.

“Justice is complicated,” Rabbi Michael Cahana, of the Congregation Beth Israel, said. “The rush to judgment is easy. And we need a place of sanctuary in order to give some breathing space for justice to come about.”

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) cosponsored the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act.

Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said the bill, if it becomes law, would provide a buffer for residents seeking to access the most basic of services, from schools to medical clinics. The growing fear is even hurting small businesses in areas where more immigrants and refugees live and shop. "Parents are not sending their children to school, elders are afraid to keep doctor’s appointments, and shrinking clientele is hurting small businesses," she said. "Our social fabric and our local economy depend on people being able to freely access the institutions, services, and markets that make living in Multnomah County so vibrant and prosperous."

Andrea Williams, executive director of Causa, an immigrant rights group, asked lawmakers to address further concerns about how immigration agents identify themselves. Many wear jackets emblazoned with the word “POLICE”  confusing people who would otherwise know they can refuse to open the door unless immigration officials can provide a warrant.

“People trust local law enforcement,” Miller said. “They want to cooperate.” That’s what happened Sunday morning to the family of Francisco Rodriguez Dominguez, arrested at Portland home after entering a diversion program for drunk driving. Now he may be deported to Mexico, a country he left at age 5.

Many people immigrated to flee drug trafficking, violent crime, extortion and kidnappings in their home countries.

“When we deport people, this nation needs to know it’s life and death,” said Rev. Mark Knutson, of the Augustana Lutheran Church. As he spoke to the room full of news cameras and policy makers, Knutson held up a portrait: a father, Francisco Aguirre, and his teenage son, Moises.

Aguirre watched from the back of the room, his heart beating hard in his chest, thinking about a soccer field 3,700 miles away in the El Salvadorian village of Concepción de Ataco.

His son Moises had fled the violence of El Salvador in 2013, when he was 17. It was the same age Aguirre was when he escaped many years earlier. Neither man came to the United States legally, and both risked deportation. Moises, fearing arrest and detention after his father appeared on the radar of immigration officials, decided to return to El Salvador. 

Moises, at 19,  went to work at a coffee plantation and a cafe called the Portland Grill. He was playing soccer one day in February, 2016, when gunmen shot him dead.