On May 16, one month after the majority of Oregon sheriffs simultaneously stopped honoring ICE holds in the biggest West Coast victory against deportations to date, dozens of immigrant activists marched into the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
“What do we want?” they chanted.
“THE SHERIFF!” the group replied.
“When do we want him?” they called — followed by the inevitable answer: “NOW!”
The sight was puzzling to some who had been following the news. In the previous month, 31 Oregon sheriffs had announced their opposition to ICE detentions, following a federal court ruling that stated that these holds violate a person’s constitutional rights. This ruling and its effect were completely unprecedented in the five years since the Obama administration announced it was implementing the national policy “Secure Communities,” a program in which local police departments coordinate with immigration databases in order to streamline deportations. But, as the full story of the Oregon anti-deportation struggle shows, this legal victory started in the streets and has continued since the ruling with actions like the May 16 sit-in when, with no sign of the sheriff and holding signs reading, “Our Community is Watching You,” dozens of immigrant activists sat on the floor to wait.
Nationally, over 120 cities, counties and states now limit collaboration between local police departments and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. More cities are joining each week; the majority of those have announced their new policies in the two months following this statewide victory in Oregon. Just last week, counties in Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico and California announced they would no longer honor ICE holds. This week, Orange County, Calif., declared it would end all immigration holds. Given that sheriffs in Colorado, Washington and other states have pointed to Oregon as the most influential precedent — the only time a state sheriffs’ association has encouraged its members to ignore ICE holds –– it’s a good time to ask, how did Oregon activists do it?
For the all-volunteer Immigrant Information Response Team in the city of Newport, Ore., tracing the victory against deportations begins with an influx of immigrants to the area in 1992. “People started showing up at bus stations, they had nowhere to sleep, and had been told ‘come to Newport, you can work at the fish plant,’” said the Response Team’s Jorge Hernandez. “So we started getting together to make sure people understood their rights.” Seventeen years later, after Barack Obama’s inauguration, the group began hearing about community members who had been arrested for not having a driver’s license and were turned over to ICE for deportation. Alarmed, the group got in touch with other member organizations of the Rural Organizing Project, which helps organizers across Oregon build local campaigns, to share strategies and information.
Around the same time in Portland, Ore., day laborers organizing with the group VOZ began mobilizing to travel to Arizona to support people opposed to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s racial profiling and the state’s new anti-immigrant laws. Upon returning to Oregon, they continued to back the ultimately successful campaign to pressure Wells Fargo to evict Arpaio from his office tower in Phoenix. But they also noticed that Oregon wasn’t all that different from Arizona; in both states, local sheriffs and ICE agents were working hand-in-hand. Known as an “ICE hold” or “detainer policy,” local sheriffs were voluntarily detaining immigrants suspected of being undocumented until ICE could pick them up, beyond the length of any required stay for criminal arraignment or conviction.
“We realized they had also quietly implemented the detainer policy in Clackamas [Ore.] and Washington [Ore.] and thought, what’s next?” said VOZ co-founder Romeo Sosa.
Together with other urban and rural Oregon organizations, VOZ formed the Activists Coming Together for Safety and Justice Network (ACT Network), as well as supporting legal aid and policy groups. The Rural Organizing Project and other ACT members began a county-by-county analysis to find out the impact of ICE detainers. “We were the first to reach many rural sheriffs on this issue,” said Amanda Aguilar-Shank with the Rural Organizing Project. “It wasn’t on their radar at all.” Many sheriffs had been complying with ICE requests without understanding the outrage this would create in their communities. In the first year of the program, with just six counties participating in Secure Communities, over 600 people were held by local police for pickup by ICE.
Still, local organizers struggled to make the case that this was having an impact on public safety. “It was hard to get good information locally,” explained Immigrant Information Response Team’s Jorge Hernandez. “The Lincoln County sheriff’s office claimed they didn’t know much about the program, and ICE wouldn’t return our calls.”
The group noticed a pattern: Latinos were being arrested, often after being pulled over for, in the group’s estimation, the crime of “driving while brown.” In order to demonstrate that the ICE detention policy was leading to people being unjustly arrested, the group combed through publically available data. “Eventually we figured out how to create a robot to automatically pull information from the internet on arrests, to show that people were getting detained for no reason,” said Hernandez. The group’s research backed up what they were hearing from community members. But the sheriff wasn’t interested in hearing about the fear this was generating among immigrants, and he often avoided meeting with the group.
Meanwhile, the Response Team began holding film screenings and community discussions in Lincoln County to raise awareness of the impact of turning the police into immigration agents. After several years, they started having an impact. “Newport is a town of 10,000 people,” Hernandez explained. “We would have 50-70 people at our monthly event, and the sheriff always heard about it. We know it bothered him because in 2012 he stopped responding to us completely, but we heard through an ally that he had gone to the state sheriffs association to say, ‘We have to do something about the ICE holds.’”
Beginning in 2011, Rural Organizing Project members in a dozen rural counties took similar action to educate allies about the impacts of the police-ICE collaboration, and to pressure local sheriffs to stop honoring ICE holds.
Around the same time, youth organizers with Oregon DreamActivist were focusing on getting individual detainees released from custody, with the support of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and other allies. In one of the cases, Faustino Luis Garcia was arrested for driving without a license by Clackamas County, and sheriff deputies subsequently turned him over to ICE. He was deported even though he had been eligible for a U-visa (he and members of his family were survivors of violent trauma), and his application was still pending. “That family inspired other people to fight for their rights,” said Oregon DreamActivist’s Ricardo Varela.
In addition to the chaos wrought on families by deportations, just fighting detention orders was often difficult. “One family had to sell both their cars and take on loans in order to pay the $8,000 personal recognition bond for someone who had been detained for allegedly littering while driving,” said Varela. Over 6,300 people were deported from Oregon via ICE detainers in 2012 and 2013 alone.
Although DreamActivist organizers had been participating with ACT Network, they were frustrated by the lack of progress. “Lots of people were talking to the different sheriffs, but the sheriffs weren’t changing anything; it was just words,” said Varela. He and Sosa of VOZ both noted that allies in Asian and African American communities had met with the sheriff to express their shared concerns over his detention policy. Deciding to put more pressure on the Multnomah County sheriff, who has jurisdiction over Portland, DreamActivist held a civil disobedience on May 1, 2012, in order to challenge his assertion that the sheriff’s department only detained “criminal” immigrants. “Undocumented people were no longer willing to be silent in public,” said Varela. The district attorney declined to press charges against those arrested, but Varela was kept at the Multnomah County Jail at the request of ICE agents. After a pressure campaign, ICE dropped the hold, declaring him “low priority.” DreamActivist organizers successfully won the release of eight others over the last two years in this way, with the support of local allies like Portland Jobs with Justice and the Center for Intercultural Organizing.
Organizers in Portland began seeing similar results as their rural allies after numerous community forums and direct actions. “We knew we were having an impact,” explained Sosa. “His constituents had started approaching [Multnomah sheriff] Dan Staton on the street, on his lunch break, to ask him why he was honoring detainers.” Still, in public the sheriff emphasized his support of immigrant communities, even as he refused to reduce ICE detentions. In 2013, after coming under pressure from organizers, the Multnomah County Commission passed a nonbinding resolution asking ICE to avoid deporting immigrants using “prosecutorial discretion.” The sheriff responded by announcing that he would only honor holds for people accused of more serious crimes. “But he broke that promise right away,” said Aguilar-Shank.
Concerned, organizers requested a meeting with the sheriff to discuss the lack of impact his “revised” policy was having on deportations, only to have him cancel on the day they were to meet. “Cancelling our meeting on that day was the last straw for us,” said Sosa. “We went straight to his office and wouldn’t leave until he talked to us. He took our petitions from the kids who had been impacted by his policy, smiled and told us how much he supported our community. He said, ‘Very soon I’ll get back to you.’ That never happened. We knew we had to escalate.”
But, according to Sosa, using civil disobedience wasn’t a consensus decision. “Our lawyers wanted us to stick with a legal strategy and even asked us to pull their names off of a press release,” he said. So, without their legal team, VOZ, DreamActivist and other undocumented activists held another civil disobedience at the sheriff’s office in 2013. “We said, ‘Aquí estamos! We’re right here. Arrest us. We know what you’re doing,’” said Sosa. They followed this action with other public actions and press conferences throughout the year, and other counties began hearing about the pressure being applied to Sheriff Staton in Portland.
A win sealed by the courts
In March, three years after statewide resistance to police-ICE collaboration had begun, ACLU lawyers filed suit in Clackamas, Ore., on behalf of Miranda Olivares, who was jailed for violating a restraining order. Her family was prevented from posting bail because of an ICE hold that had been placed when she was booked at the jail. She pled guilty to one charge and served a two-day jail sentence, resolving her case with Clackamas County, but the jail continued to hold her for another 19 hours in order to honor the ICE request.
On April 6, a federal judge ruled that Olivares’ constitutional rights had been violated. The effects were immediate.
“The [Multnomah County] sheriff called us that day to let us know he was opposing detainers, as if he was doing us this big favor,” said Sosa. “[But] it was all the community. This victory has nothing to do with him.”
Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt, president of the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, was quoted that day as saying, “We will no longer violate anybody’s constitutional rights. I can guarantee that.” Within two days, nine sheriffs had announced their opposition to ICE holds. Three weeks later, 22 other counties had joined. Interestingly, federal courts in Philadelphia and Rhode Island had already passed similar rulings declaring ICE holds unconstitutional. But in neither instance did the effects ripple out statewide.
And the ripples have continued, as in recent weeks sheriffs in Washington and Colorado have followed the lead of their Oregon counterparts in declining to honor ICE holds.
“In the end it was community pressure, a legal strategy and winning over the Multnomah County Commission chairwoman. We hit the sheriff from three different sides, so when it was ruled unconstitutional he had to fold,” said Sosa.
Adaptation and accountability
All the organizers interviewed for this article noted that they don’t expect the sheriffs to stop collaborating with ICE unless they keep the pressure on. And ICE has already started changing its tactics in response to the sheriffs’ actions, with organizers reporting that agents often come to criminal court arraignments to wait for detainees.
Varela and other activists are planning to keep up. “We’ve got to make sure the sheriffs are accountable to us and follow through on their promises. Public action is the way to do that.”
Back at the Washington County sheriff’s office on May 16, Sheriff Pat Garrett finally appeared to speak with Oregon DreamActivist. He said that he had already agreed to stop ICE detentions; the group replied it was there to make sure his office followed through on that promise. DreamActivist Sindy Avila was quoted as telling him, “We’re letting you know that our community is watching you. A secure community is an organized community.”
Varela says their constant activism has had an impact beyond slowing deportations. It’s also achieved something more fundamental: shifting who is protected in the U.S. legal system.“Before these last couple of years, there were two kinds of people under the law: documented, and everyone else.”
To Hernandez, this statewide victory was all about a long-term strategy. “Something I’ve learned in these 17 years is the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. We’re not waiting for Obama or the House to pass immigration reform. We don’t care if they pass it; I think we can change our communities from the ground level.” For Immigrant Information Response Team, he says, that might mean having more influence in local elections. “We’ve got to change the direction our cities are going in overall. If we have someone who is racist or anti-immigrant on our City Council, how do we plan for replacing them, even if that’s 15 years down the road.”