Youth lead immigration legal workshop for peers

June 12, 2017

Commissioner Lori Stegmann and her office helped the Multnomah Youth Commission coordinate a workshop on immigrant rights.

Faisal’s father works several jobs. It seems like he’s never home. Meanwhile his mother rarely leaves the house, where she raises 11 children. Both parents have struggled to learn English since arriving from a Kenyan refugee camp.

Fernanda was reprimanded as a little girl, at home and at school, for speaking Spanish. By age 8, she was an ad hoc interpreter for people in her community, even translating legal documents.

Manuela wondered, after a trip to visit extended family in Mexico, why her mother couldn’t fly back to Oregon with her. Instead the family paid someone to sneak her mother across the border, where she was twice detained before becoming lost in the desert before her husband came to find her. Neither of her parents graduated middle school. But last week, Manuela earned her high school diploma.

They were some of the dozens of young adults who gathered Thursday to share stories of how immigration policy affects their lives -- and to ask government and community leaders about their rights and the legal limits of federal and local law enforcement. The know-your-rights workshop was led by the Multnomah Youth Commission, a body made up of people ages 13 to 21 that weighs in on policy for Multnomah County and the City of Portland.

“When we think about immigration and how it’s affecting our communities, a lot of time we focus on families or adults being arrested or detained. But there’s never really a focus on what happens to youths or teaching youths about their own rights and the action they can take,” said Blanca Gaytan Farfan, a junior at Warner Pacific College. “I want to remind people that youth have a unique experience, and these types of events with a focus on prioritizing youth voices are needed.”

The workshop was organized in partnership with the office of Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who represents east Multnomah County. Stegmann has hosted a series of workshops on the implications of shifting immigration policies under the Donald Trump administration.

After hearing stories from members of the commission, Stegmann stood up.

Gresham police Lt. Jeff Miller speaks to members of the Multnomah Youth Commission during an immigrant rights workshop.

“You are not alone,” she said. “I was adopted. I was left on the city hall steps.”

Stegmann was adopted from Seoul, South Korea, as an infant and raised by a family in the Rockwood neighborhood of East Portland. She thanked the teens for organizing the event and challenged them to push for change as the nation struggles with its identity.

“I am counting on you to step up, just like you have tonight,” she said. “This country was built by immigrants. I am so proud to be an immigrant. And a U.S. citizen.”

The youth commission began working on the know-your-rights workshop after a meeting with Stegmann’s office.

“In my first meeting with her, we were talking about things that concerned me, and immigration came up,” said Tana Barnett, one of the youth commissioners. “It hasn’t affected my own family, but folks I went to school with --  the fear that when I show up at school, will my classmates be there?”

The commission invited a panel of experts to field questions from the youth participants. The questions surrounded the power of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and its relationship with local law enforcement. Among their questions:

What is a “Sanctuary City”?

“The idea is more of an organizing tool,” said Julie Braker, an attorney with Immigration Counseling Service.

It’s not a legal or binding term, but rather a political commitment to focus on local matters rather than federal policies and laws, said Selby Abraham, an attorney with Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees.

Even though churches and schools are traditionally safe places for people who are undocumented, it doesn’t mean that immigration officers can choose to enter them, said Alice Perry, director of Community-Based Programs at Latino Network. “We need to make sure not to give people a false sense of security,” she said. “But it’s an important organizing tool to say, ‘we are here with you.’”

Multnomah County and the City of Portland have both declared themselves a “sanctuary” from the enforcement of federal immigration law.

Teens added their stories to a historical timeline during an immigrants' rights workshop organized by the Multnomah Youth Commission.

What is the youngest age someone can be detained by ICE?

“You can be detained at any age,” especially at the border, said attorney Braker. “If a parent and a small child are caught, they both will be detained.

Can a police officer ask about immigration status?

Under Oregon law, police officers are not permitted to ask members of the public about their immigration status.

“Our officers can get in trouble for that,” said Gresham police Lt. Jeff Miller. “Report that to us. Please do.”

“We can’t enforce federal immigration law, so we’re not supposed to ask about immigration status,” said Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Lt. James Eriksen.

However, when people are arrested and taken to a county jail, staff ask each person being detained about their country of birth. That’s because foreign nationals (people who are not citizens of the United States) have a right to speak to their consulate upon arrest. Any person can refuse to answer the question, but the jail must alert everyone to his or her rights. And if a person is from a mandatory reporting country, the jail must notify the consulate that the person has been arrested and is incarcerated.

That country of birth, as well as a person’s fingerprints, becomes part of that person’s jail record. And that record is shared with the state’s Law Enforcement Data Systems database, which in turn feeds a federal database accessible by immigration officials.

Can ICE come into my house even if a child answers the door?

“Opening a door is considered consent,” said attorney Abraham. “If it’s a young person, if it’s a member of the house, that’s considered consent.”

Abraham said they advise parents to instruct their children not to open the door to anyone they do not know.

“We want families to know to be cautious,” he said. And if ICE does enter, and it’s safe to do so, “take out your phone and begin recording in case protocol is not followed correctly.”

The ACLU has a mobile app that allows you to record law enforcement activity. The app automatically sends video to the Oregon office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gresham Police Lt. Miller said anyone who feels unsafe, no matter the cause, should call 9-1-1.

“Anything that feels wrong, maybe you just have a weird gut feeling, call and we’ll get someone there to mediate the circumstance,” he said.

He said local officers may not be able to stop immigration enforcement officers from arresting someone, but they can act as a witness. This is especially important if there is a question whether the individuals are truly federal officers.

“Don’t just take this behavior because you’re afraid of police or you think you have to do whatever ICE says. Call us,” Miller said. “I have no problem sending an officer.”