Illustration by Mark Searcy

THE NORTH PARK BLOCKS were crowded with American flags and protest signs on Tuesday, June 15. It was hardly a Tea Party: Dozens of local immigration reformers were rallying outside the Portland offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), decrying a rapidly expanding program that they say will make immigrants afraid to report crimes.

Under the new "Secure Communities" program, rolled out in Multnomah, Marion, and Clackamas Counties since April and May, anyone who is booked in county jail will have their fingerprints run through a national immigration database.

ICE, a division of Homeland Security, says the program will focus on "criminal aliens" who have committed serious crimes. But among the immigrants caught and deported under the new system have been people arrested for lesser violations, like driving without a license, and some who were never convicted.

Ashlee Albies, chair of the Portland chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, says Secure Communities puts families at risk.

"ICE says that Secure Communities is meant for violent criminals, but they're using it to deport people for minor offenses," says Albies. "When victims call in domestic violence cases, sometimes the victim gets picked up as well."

The immigrant rights group CAUSA, which helped organize the June 15 rally, takes a similar position on the program.

"Because immigrants may fear being separated from their families and deported, they will be less likely to report crimes where they are the victim," said CAUSA Oregon Executive Director Francisco Lopez in a statement before the rally.

Police officers in Oregon are not allowed to question anyone's immigration status during any police interaction. But once arrestees make it to booking, they're in the county's—and ICE's—hands. Under the old county jail policy, an ICE employee could interview and potentially flag the suspect for review, but fingerprints weren't automatically run through an immigration check.

Secure Communities began in the California, Arizona, and Texas counties that line the Mexican border. ICE is now furthering the program in urban areas and counties, prioritized by crime statistics and suspected levels of illegal immigration.

"Our focus is criminal aliens who have committed serious crimes," says Lorie Dankers, a spokesperson for ICE. After those criminals are sentenced or released, she says, "We don't want to let them back out on the street where they could be disruptive to public safety."

Dankers would not speculate on whether people who are never charged with a crime could face deportation through Secure Communities. ICE has not made public the number of immigrants deported through Secure Communities searches so far.

Once an inmate is identified as an undocumented immigrant, a special process kicks in. After the immigrant's case closes (whether it's dismissed, dropped, or the inmate is convicted), ICE has 48 hours to pick them up and transport them to an immigrant detention center.

For inmates in Oregon, that means being trucked to a 1,500-bed facility in Tacoma, which is run like a minimum-security prison by a private company, the GEO Group. Last year a securities analyst with Macquarie Research rated GEO stock a wise investment because of the "robust pipeline" of future prisoners headed for its facilities.

Immigrants from Latin America leave Tacoma on unmarked white jets, operated by the US Marshals Service.

For arrested immigrants, bail is essentially useless. According to Sergeant Dave Thompson with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, "If somebody comes in to post bail, we say that before we release the inmate, we'll contact ICE, and ICE has a set amount of time to come and pick them up."

In Tacoma, inmates have the opportunity to appeal their case, but most detainees are deported after about 30 days, says Dankers.