The Portland resident’s cell phone buzzed at 9:07 on a Wednesday morning last month. A text message.
The incoming number wasn’t saved in the man’s contacts, but it was local and the sender definitely knew who he was.
“Hello,” the message read, addressing the man by his first name. “This is Officer Smith. My address is as follows: 4310 SW Macadam Ave. Portland, OR 97239. Please feel free to call me with any questions that you have. I will need to heard [sic] from you soon.”
“Officer Smith” is Scott P. Smith, an agent with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The address on Macadam is the local ICE headquarters in Southwest Portland. The man he texted, who the Mercury has agreed not to name, is suspected by ICE to be living in the United states illegally and was recently charged with a misdemeanor in Multnomah County.
Smith soon got the man on the phone, attorneys say, and manipulated him into divulging his native country and immigration status. The agent was collecting evidence against him for a potential deportation proceeding.
It’s common, obviously, for ICE to go after undocumented immigrants. Stories of the agency’s heightened, sometimes cruel efforts to round up deportees have made national news on a near-daily basis since Donald Trump was sworn in as president in January—including a number of high-profile local incidents.
What’s unusual, in the Portland area at least, is ICE agents sending text messages to their targets in order to trick them into turning themselves in.
Two attorneys who work extensively with immigrants in Portland—John Schlosser, a public defender for Spanish-speakers charged with misdemeanors in state court, and Eileen Sterlock, a federal immigration attorney—tell the Mercury they’d never heard of ICE agents texting people before Smith’s September 20 message. Neither had Juan Rogel, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Milenio.
“As far as I know, the texting is new,” Sterlock says. “That’s not something I’ve seen before.”
She notes that fraudulent text messages, where scammers pose as ICE agents to con immigrants out of money (with the promise to drop a case in exchange for cash) are commonplace around the country.
“My biggest concerns are that there will be an increased risk of becoming a victim of fraud and, like in this case, that ICE officers will get individuals to admit to something over the phone that will make them subject to enforcement actions,” Sterlock says.
Schlosser, the Portland man’s attorney in the misdemeanor case, called and emailed ICE and the agent to confirm the text message was legit. ICE said it was.
“Everybody needs to start warning clients [ICE] may call and text,” Schlosser says of criminal and immigration attorneys. “Them trying to get admissions definitely makes me uncomfortable.”
Smith, when reached twice last week at the phone number he sent the text from, declined to answer any of the Mercury’s questions on the strategy. He referred our questions to ICE’s national communications office.
An ICE spokesperson responded to a list of questions about agents texting targets with a boilerplate answer: “Due to operational and safety implications, the agency does not comment on enforcement tactics.”
ICE’s forays into people’s pockets come as the agency faces increasing blowback for its more-typical enforcement practices—some of which are constitutionally dubious at best.
Take last Thursday.
Cell phone footage from that day shows ICE agents—a bearded white man in a green pullover, khaki cargo pants, and a baseball hat; a white woman in a black jacket, jeans, and running shoes; and two other men—entering a Beaverton home where a crew of painters were at work.
The agents were there to arrest a 33-year-old worker named Carlos Bolanos. They didn’t have a warrant to come inside, though, and admitted it on the now-viral seven-minute video filmed by Bolanos’ coworker, George Cardenas.
Instead, the agents barged into the house claiming, wrongly, that someone opening the door to answer their knock amounted to consent to search for Bolanos. They wouldn’t tell anybody their names.
“I need to see your identification!” the male agent yells at Bolanos. “Why? Because I have reason to believe you’re not in the country legally!”
Cardenas calmly asked if they had a warrant.
“We don’t need a warrant to come in this home!” the agent snapped.
Later, Cardenas again told the agents that they had no legal right to be in the house.
“When you opened the door for me and construed where Carlos was, I construed that was permission to enter,” the male agent said, again incorrectly.
The ICE agents eventually took Bolanos away, yanking a fresh paintbrush from his hands while yelling at him to “stop resisting.”
Bolanos was freed hours later, with ICE acknowledging his questionable arrest. The agency said in a statement that the “alien at issue” was released from custody “pending further investigation regarding the circumstance of his arrest.” The office is “reviewing the incident,” it said.
Cardenas’ Facebook video from last Thursday has been shared more than 13,500 times and has more than a million views. The warrantless detention saw coverage from the New York Times, USA Today, and NBC News. It also got the attention of most of Oregon’s congressional delegation.
Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley wrote a joint letter to Elizabeth Godfrey, the Portland-based regional supervisor for ICE, asking for a copy of the agency’s review of the incident and other information.
“Americans do not lose their constitutional protection from warrantless search and seizure simply because ICE believes they may be immigrants,” the letter says. “The actions of the ICE agents involved in Mr. Bolanos’ arrest are counter to the very policies and practices the Department of Homeland Security claims to uphold.”
Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer sent a letter to Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan. They, too, called for records, and highlighted a September 18 incident in Washington County in which plainclothes ICE agents profiled an American citizen of Hispanic descent.
Schlosser, the public defender, recognized the bearded ICE agent in the now-viral video. He says the man has stalked him and his clients in the Multnomah County courthouse and surrounding streets several times in the past year.
He’s not surprised the agent skirted the constitution last week.
“I was so pissed off, I was furious,” Schlosser says. “I’ve found him to be extremely disrespectful, aggressive, and dismissive.”