JON SPERRY

ROBERTO SANTIAGO hasn't seen his wife, the mother of their two daughters, since she was deported to Mexico in 2007.

Accused of presenting "false documents" to the Department of Motor Vehicles, his wife, a Mexican native, was detained by police. But while the district attorney's office dropped the charges, she was swiftly deported under a federal immigrant program that works with local law enforcement agencies and is supposed to snare only the most dangerously criminal immigrants.

Now a single father of two toddlers, Santiago fears for his family's future and has little trust in cops.

On Thursday, March 1, seizing on tales of mistrust like Santiago's, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners took the first step toward rethinking its relationship with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. After an emotional two-hour hearing, the board unanimously approved a first-in-Oregon resolution that calls for negotiations with the feds and lays the groundwork for a possible withdrawal.

"Nothing hurts a community more than the residents' fear of the local government," said County Chairman Jeff Cogen, the resolution's sponsor. "It's time we stepped up to reinstall trust."

Dubbed "Secure Communities," ICE's program essentially places the responsibility of the federal government—scoping out undocumented immigrants—in the hands of county corrections officials. Under the program, county sheriff's officials are obligated to send every immigrant inmate's fingerprints to ICE headquarters. The program is meant to target serious criminals, but it's also become well known for catching people facing only misdemeanors or even dropped charges ["MAX-imum Punishment," News, Aug 26, 2010].

According to ICE, just 18 percent of those identified as undocumented through Secure Communities from 2008 to 2011 were arrested for felonies, while the rest fell under misdemeanors.

Although Secure Communities is federally funded, loopholes have left the county paying extra costs associated with keeping immigrants in jail. To earn reimbursement from the feds, the county has to hold an inmate for four consecutive days. But charges are rarely severe enough to warrant that long of a hold, so most are let go earlier. The Oregon Department of Corrections says federal funding usually covers only about 15 percent of the program's expenses.

"It's not our responsibility to do the feds' work," says Eliana Machuca, co-founder of local human rights organization Act for Justice and Dignity. "They are burdening an already cash-strapped county."

But the leading concerns raised at Thursday's hearing weren't financial. One speaker, a police cadet, recalled a case in which his team was called out by the neighbor of a man lying on the floor in his own home, bleeding to death from a stab wound. Afraid of being deported, the man refused to call police.

"Multnomah County ought to be a place where people, regardless of their immigration status, feel safe to come forward and report crime, whether they are a victim, a witness or have knowledge of ongoing criminal activity," said Becky Straus, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

The sheriff's office, however, promised that its mission would remain unchanged, whether the county participates in Secure Communities or not. "Our perspective is that we're not out there doing ICE's job. We're doing the job required of us by the county," says Chief Deputy Drew Brosh. "To make the community feel safe."

Multnomah County isn’t the first government irked by ICE’s program. Last summer, all of New York State suspended its participation in the program, and in October, California’s Santa Clara County backed out. Multnomah would be the first of Oregon’s counties to reject the federal program.

With the resolution in place, commissioners plan to sit down with ICE in the next couple weeks and "reassess" Secure Communities' effectiveness. The board said it would work closely with local immigrant-rights advocates and organizations.

"This is the first step," teary-eyed County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury said at Thursday's hearing. "You have our commitment."