Photo by Paul Cone

IN MARCH, Multnomah County took the first step toward severing ties with a controversial federal program that checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a county jail, whether they're charged with a crime or not. But in the aftermath of a stirring May Day protest against that same program—leading to the arrest of four undocumented students in downtown Portland—it's uncertain just how long the road to change will be.

Multnomah County officials remain bound by the so-called Secure Communities program, which puts the job of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in the hands of local corrections officials.

"From our perspective, we're not doing ICE's job, we're doing the county's job," says Lieutenant Steve Alexander, the sheriff's office spokesman. He says that since March, nothing has changed with the way the office conducts immigration issues.

That slow pace is partly what led the four undocumented Portland Community College students—Liliana Luna, Ricardo Varela, Silvio Poot, and Diana Banda—to sit down in a street on May Day, wearing caps and gowns, and volunteer to have police walk them into squad cars while scores of protesters shouted, "Undocumented! Unafraid!" The arrests, coming after a 1,000-strong May Day march downtown, could have been a sure ticket to deportation.

"It gets to a point where you have to step out from the shadow and realize that no one is going to do anything if you don't do it," says Banda, who was released within two hours of her arrest. Banda, along with her fellow protesters, is a member of Dream Activist, a national group fighting against ICE and promoting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as minors.

The county dropped charges against all four, after a brief community court hearing that left an overflowing courtroom of supporters both confused and elated. But two, Varela and Luna, were detained afterward on an "ICE hold," meaning their fingerprints were sent to the feds. Here's the confusing part: Secure Communities is supposed to solely target serious criminals—and these students' charges were dropped right off the bat.

Why just Luna and Varela? Local attorney Kenneth Kreuscher, who has worked on immigration cases in the county, says the inconsistency comes as no surprise. "I've found that the ruling on ICE cases is pretty arbitrary," he says. "The county's relationship with Secure Communities is unhealthy and counterproductive, they aren't targeting people who are a real threat to society."

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted in March to reevaluate the county's relationship with Secure Communities ["On Thin Ice," News, March 8]. Their concern was that the program would sow mistrust of local law enforcement among immigrants—keeping them from calling police even when they're the victim of a crime, because they worry that could send them directly into the hands of ICE.

While Chairman Jeff Cogen's office has been meeting with community groups to understand the implications of changing the federal relationship, little overt action has been taken—yet.

David Austin, a spokesman for the county, says the situation is ultimately in the sheriff's department's hands. And as long as the sheriff's office continues to receive federal cash to keep the program up and running, it may be hard to stop. "As for now, nothing has gone forward," says Austin. "It's a slow process."

The two protesters with ICE holds, Luna and Varela, have since been released. But nothing's stopping the feds from deporting (or as they now call it, "removing") them at a moment's notice.

"We can no longer hide from the police," says Mohammad Abdollahi of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, who helped organize the May Day action. "It's time to be more open about our undocumented status. People may be deported, people may get arrested. But we can stop this."