After the Trump administration unleashed its new “zero tolerance” immigration policy, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley was the first representative from Congress to try to enter an immigrant detention center for children who had been detained after their families had attempted to cross the US-Mexico border. He was also the first lawmaker to livestream it. In a Facebook Live video shot on June 3, Merkley—overdressed for the South Texas heat in a long-sleeved dress shirt and slacks—waited outside the Brownsville facility after being denied entry. After 20 minutes of polite phone calls to the center’s supervisor, the police show up.
“I haven’t been asked to leave the property, but I’m guessing that’s about to happen,” Merkley tells the camera before leaving. “I’m a little disappointed, but I’ll try again.”
The way Merkley handled the debacle—passionate, resolute, courteous, and a bit bumbly—is similar to how Portland has responded to the newest immigration crisis concocted by the Trump White House. With a persistent push by volunteer lawyers to represent incarcerated immigrants, an “Occupy ICE” campout that’s shuttered a federal immigration office, and a courteous request from a federal judge to extend basic civil rights to immigrants, Portland’s role in attempting to solve a crisis that’s largely taking place some 1,000 miles away is as unexpected as Merkley’s surprise visit to Texas.
Here’s how Portland’s become an unlikely star in this national shake-up.
In the courts:
The immigration policy introduced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May introduced two big changes to the country’s current immigration procedures. One ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to separate immigrant children from family members with whom they had entered the country illegally, placing them in detention centers like the one Merkley visited. The other change criminalized anyone who asks for asylum after crossing the US border—a request that the government has traditionally honored for immigrants fleeing religious persecution, civil war, or gang violence. Instead of letting those immigrants enter the country and wait for a hearing, ICE began placing asylum-seekers into already-crammed immigrant detention centers. After filling those facilities to capacity, feds started dropping asylum-seeking immigrants into at least five federal prisons—one of which lies 50 miles southwest of Portland.
The 121 male immigrants transported to the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institute represent 16 different countries, speak 13 different languages, and have legal needs that prison workers aren’t equipped to accommodate—like the Constitutional right to meet with an immigration lawyer before entering deportation proceedings. More than 60 of the detainees have requested access to a lawyer; all have been denied.
After more than five failed attempts to enter the prison, lawyers with Innovation Law Lab (ILL), a Portland law firm, took their concerns to federal court, demanding that ICE allow the immigrants access to legal counsel. Despite a US attorney arguing that ICE and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are the actual victims in this case—because the policy created by the government has overburdened the government—District Judge Michael Simon sided with the immigration lawyers and detainees.
“We are a nation under law,” said Simon, who heard the group’s case on Monday. “The rule of law is one of our most cherished principles. And because we are a nation that lives under law, the right to legal counsel is a right that has been recognized.”
Simon granted the lawyers immediate access to the detainees who have been held at Sheridan for nearly a month. In doing so, he acted in direct opposition to a tweet issued by Donald Trump last weekend, which declared that undocumented immigrants should be immediately returned to their home country “with no judge or court cases.”
“What am I to make of that statement?” Simon asked Dianne Schweiner, the US attorney representing ICE. “Does that mean the immigration detainees at Sheridan might be removed without having an asylum hearing?”
Schweiner said she didn’t know.
Lawyers with ILL began meeting with detainees on Tuesday.
In the commons:
Miles away from an international border or ICE detention center, Portlanders upset with Trump’s immigration tactics expressed their outrage by thwarting the local ICE office, a nondescript gray building on Southwest Macadam. After a few days of camping out in front of the building and shouting at any ICE staffer leaving or entering, the growing group of protesters successfully forced the regional office to shutter. Portland’s success encouraged other cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City, to start camping out at their ICE facilities.
On June 20, when the Portland office officially closed, an ICE media release cited “security concerns” for the closure and promised that “normal operations will resume once security concerns have been addressed.” A week later, the office remains closed and the protest camp, Occupy ICE PDX, has ballooned to more than 50 tents. In the past, rallies at this ICE facility have prompted the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to arrest protesters. This time, however, Mayor Ted Wheeler—who is also the police commissioner—has taken a different route.
“I want to be very clear: I do not want the Portland Police Bureau to be engaged or sucked into a conflict—particularly from a federal agency that I believe is on the wrong track,” Wheeler said last week about ICE. “If they’re looking for a bail-out from this mayor, they’re looking in the wrong place.” A spokesperson with Wheeler’s office said the mayor had given PPB “strategic direction” to not assist federal officers in cracking down on the protest.
That crackdown, however, could come at any moment. On Monday, federal agents handed out fliers to the campers, reminding them that blocking the entryway to a federal building was a federal crime. But, as of the Mercury’s deadline, the feds have yet to successfully evict the unflinching group of protesters, let alone start making arrests.
“Which laws are more important: breaking a law about obstructing this building or breaking international human rights laws?” asked Jacob Bureros, one of the Occupy ICE protesters. “We’re here to uphold the US Constitution.”