AROUND the same time US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was sending out erroneous media releases about mass arrests in Portland and Seattle last month, it was “creating terror” with unreported stings in Woodburn, Oregon, says the president of a farmworker organization.
Readers across the region were confused in late September when ICE media releases repeatedly exaggerated the arrests of undocumented immigrants in the Pacific Northwest.
First, ICE proclaimed 33 arrests in Portland, until the agency was forced to admit the number was actually four. It did much the same in Seattle—claiming 33 arrests before offering the actual number: one.
Meanwhile, ICE agents were conducting raids on two farmworker families in Woodburn, affecting 15 people, says Ramón Ramírez, President of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), the Oregon farmworkers union.
“Those 15 people are terrorized—we had to bring in counselors,” Ramírez says. “Fuck all those numbers.”
The erroneous media releases and concurrent lack of info regarding a raid in Woodburn underscore a larger truth about local attempts to figure out what’s really going on with ICE: It’s practically impossible.
As concerns about the agency’s actions have reached a fever pitch, two media professionals assigned to the Pacific Northwest left the agency. ICE currently has no local spokesperson for the region.
“I think that the fact that they don’t have any [local] media folks is very dangerous, because what’s essentially happening is the public is not aware of what’s going on, what [ICE’s] actions are in the community,” Ramírez says. “I think it’s deliberate, so the public doesn’t know. And that is very dangerous.”
Pacific Northwest journalists who cover the agency say the way it handles information is a joke. Reporters the Mercury spoke with asked to remain anonymous so they could be frank without risking their jobs.
“Every time you try to get ahold of them, it’s kind of a shit show, honestly,” says one. “You don’t know when you’re going to get somebody, [or] how long it’ll take [them] to get back to you.”
“I don’t honestly wait for them to publish stories anymore,” he added.
Another used a different expletive to describe the agency’s repeated peddling of false or misleading information.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Justice announced Tuesday it is joining nine other states in suing the US Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, for failing ro release enforcement records.
The September gaffe isn’t the only misstep by ICE’s PR team since President Donald Trump took office and began cracking down more harshly on undocumented immigrants. The agency’s “Declined Detainer Outcome” program targeted sanctuary jurisdictions like Portland and Seattle, which don’t hold undocumented immigrants facing criminal charges despite federal requests.
Under the program, ICE’s website showed which jurisdictions decline federal requests most, plus a list of “notable criminal activity” by individuals—a move that depicted majority-Latinx undocumented immigrants in agency custody as hardcore criminals.
The program was discontinued on February 17, after just three weekly reports, amid criticism for being an effort to “shame” sanctuary cities. Salon.com, for example, compared it to Breitbart’s use of a “Black Crime” tag.
ICE’s practice of making it difficult to interview detainees also helps keep the undocumented-immigrant-as-criminal narrative alive.
“We’ll reach out to the individual to see if he or she is willing to provide signed consent to meet with you,” a spokesperson told this reporter last month. “If the detainee consents, we’ll make arrangements for you to meet with him or her.”
But when a source found a willing interviewee in custody, Angel Alonso Lujan-Gonzales, the agency added bureaucratic roadblocks: Before an interview could be granted, the detainee’s attorney would have to sign a form, and the agency didn’t respond to a request for the attorney’s contact information.
“They find no benefit in having an information outflow that they’re not totally in control,” says Leland Baxter-Neal, a Portland immigration attorney. “More than ever that’s true under [ICE Acting Director] Tom Homan.”
ICE says it’s planning to replace its two recently departed media relations staffers, but its current lack of any local spokespeople suggests the region is a low priority.
“There’s nobody in the Pacific Northwest at all? Wow,” says Andrew DeVigal, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. “That seems to be a challenge.”
For a month, until last Thursday, ICE’s media webpage listed Rose Richeson as spokesperson for the region, even though an email autoreply it made clear Richeson had departed. ICE updated the webpage after the Mercury asked about it, but did not respond to emailed questions.
Richeson’s replacement, Virginia Kice, also just retired.
“Oops—you’re too late. I retired at the end of September,” Kice’s autoreply announced. Even before that, Kice declined to respond to questions about ICE policies, saying, “we are severely short-staffed” and “underwater right now.”
It’s business as usual, says one of ICE’s national spokespeople.
“Turnover is a very normal part of the public affairs business and we are working to backfill positions that have been recently vacated,” wrote Sarah Rodriguez from ICE’s main media office in Washington, DC.
Using email to avoid verbal communication is also apparently standard operating procedure. “We just have a process, that all media reporters submit their inquiries to the ICE media [email] address,” said spokesperson Angela Price, also in DC.
Given the agency’s tendency to respond to questions with terse answers, the process leaves huge gaps in information. That might be the point.
“If they’re a government agency that’s under the umbrella of an elected official and if it’s taxes that’s paying for these services, you would think there’s a greater need for transparency for activities they’re conducting with the public,” DeVigal said.
A reporter and an immigration attorney the Mercury spoke with described ICE as short-staffed in Oregon. Others speculated that representing the agency at the front lines of Trump’s xenophobic, anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant policies—especially with stiff resistance across Cascadia—is a tough job.
Mat dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon, says the agency’s public relations reflects its main strategy: “to keep things as opaque as possible [and] increase enforcement irrespective of the Constitutional or human costs.”
“We just don’t know what happens,” dos Santos said, noting the recently bungled press releases. “Even their sort of modest attempts to be transparent feel more like marketing to Trump’s xenophobic base—and by the way, they got [the numbers] wrong.”