Multnomah County is considering action aimed at curbing future federal immigration arrests at the county’s courthouses.
The county would like the Department of Homeland Security to have courthouses fall under a designation known as “sensitive locations.” They could soon ask Oregon’s congressional delegation to make that request, a county spokeswoman said.
The move is the latest attempt by local officials to respond to fears after a federal government official confirmed to OPB that Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents arrested five people last month at or near county courthouses.
The county’s possible action comes after a week of ICE raids – or targeted enforcement actions – in a half-dozen states, including California, New York and Texas.
“We want people to not be afraid to come into court,” Judge Nan Waller, the presiding judge in Multnomah County, told OPB during an interview late last month.
People come into courthouses to pay fines, act as witnesses, as well as file lawsuits and restraining orders. If there’s fear of arrest over a person’s immigration status, Waller argued, it could keep that person from accessing the justice system.
“We are encouraging ICE to see courthouses as sensitive locations, and not to, to the extent possible, enter the courthouse to make arrests,” Waller said.
Waller said given ICE agents are federal employees and the courthouse is a public building, there’s little she or the county can do to prevent arrests from happening in or near courthouses.
The notion of “sensitive locations” stems most recently from an October 2011 ICE memo issued by then Director John Morton. Past directors have issued similar memos.
Morton said ICE should “ensure that these enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches.” Synagogues, mosques, public demonstrations and other ceremonies, like funerals and weddings, are also considered sensitive locations under the memo. The document also outlines exceptions for enforcement actions involving national security, terrorism and “imminent risk of death” or violence.
A spokeswoman for ICE said courthouses don’t apply under the 2011 memo.
“With regard to enforcement actions at or in close proximity to courthouses, ICE has issued guidance to its personnel specific to that issue,” Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for ICE, wrote in a statement. “However, due to law enforcement sensitivities, we haven’t released the details of that guidance.”
There’s no word on whether the memo, issued under the Obama administration, will be a policy continued under President Donald Trump.
Before the county’s request to the Oregon congressional delegation would become formal, the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners would need to vote on the matter. They’re expected to take it up at a future meeting, said county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.
Late last month, the county, along with the Sheriff’s Office, issued a statement in response to ICE activity at the county’s courthouses, saying “courthouses need to be safe locations for people to access justice.”
The day after ICE confirmed the arrests, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy Williams hosted a meeting at his office with more than a half dozen locally elected officials along with ICE officials.
OPB asked to attend the gathering of public officials, but that request was declined.
Williams pitched the meeting in a Jan. 28 email, a Saturday afternoon, following the uneasy week at Multnomah County. Rumors, bolstered by eyewitness accounts, swirled of ICE arrests at the county’s courthouses, but ICE had not yet publicly confirmed the arrests.
Williams invited the district attorneys and sheriffs from Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah Counties, county chair Deborah Kaforuy and Judge Waller, to meet with local ICE official Elizabeth Godfrey.
“I’m getting information that there are rumors, social media stories, and possible misinformation about what is occurring locally since the President’s executive order on immigration was announced a few days ago,” Williams wrote in an email, obtained through a public records request.
“Understandably, this is causing a lot of fear in our communities,” he wrote. “As I have told folks in meetings the last two days, there are lots of questions and unknowns about ICE and DOJ policies and priorities going forward. I am awaiting guidance from the Department of Justice.”
A spokeswoman for ICE declined to confirm what their representatives said at the meeting.
Sullivan-Springhetti, the spokeswoman for Multnomah County, was not at the meeting. She said the takeaway for Kafoury and other county staff who were present was clear.
“There is and remains a lot of uncertainty and distrust around what is happening in county courthouses,” Sullivan-Springhetti said. “ICE recognized the county’s concerned and were willing to meet, in person, to clarify what they were doing. However, they could not offer assurances for what would happen going forward.”
Sullivan-Springhetti said ICE officials told staff: “‘We have very few answers.’”
She said county staffers who were at the meeting left with the understanding that ICE had not received new orders from the Trump administration at that time.
“(ICE) said it had not changed,” said Sullivan-Springhetti. “They were operating in Portland as they always had.”