“Such policies undermine the moral authority of law and undermine the safety of the jurisdictions that adopt them,” Sessions said at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Portland’s Pearl District.
Sessions’ speech — made in a sanctuary city, in a sanctuary state — took place in USCIS’s “oath room” where people are sworn in to become citizens multiple times each week.
For the last 30 years, Oregon has been a sanctuary state. Local law enforcement agencies are prohibited from using their resources to enforce federal immigration law, if a person’s only crime is that they entered the country illegally.
“These policies hinder the work of federal law enforcement, they’re contrary to the rule of law and they have serious consequences for the law-abiding residents of Oregon,” Sessions said. “I urge the city of Portland, the state of Oregon, and every sanctuary jurisdiction to reconsider.”
That request comes on the heels of an injunction by a judge that said the federal government cannot withhold public safety dollars from sanctuary cities.
Outside, about 100 protestors held back by barricades and police spoke out against Sessions’ visit.
A coalition of activist and immigrant rights groups that included Portland’s Resistance, Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario and Milenio, gathered outside the USCIS building to demonstrate.
“Say it loud, say it clear, all immigrants are welcome here,” the protesters chanted.
The groups called Sessions’ meeting with local officials “potentially dangerous,” saying he could encourage local officials to enforce federal immigration polices, despite Portland’s — and, more broadly, Oregon’s — sanctuary status.
The protest also drew elected officials and hopefuls, including Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran and Dorothy Gasque, a congressional candidate for Washington state’s 3rd district.
Before the meeting, the groups leading the protest called on invited law enforcement and government employees to not attend the event. They urged city leaders to denounce a visit with someone “whose policies are in direct opposition to that of our own.”
Neither Oregon Gov. Kate Brown nor Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler met Sessions, the highest profile Trump administration official to visit the state.
Brown said she requested to meet with Sessions during his visit, but she never got a response from the attorney general or his staff.
The Democratic governor said Tuesday during a press conference at the state Capitol that if she had been granted a meeting, she would have given Sessions an earful.
“Oregon is a state that welcomes and wants to encourage our immigrant and our refugee communities,” Brown said. “We see them as a very important part of Oregon’s cultural and economic fabric, and they’re part of what makes Oregon unique.”
Wheeler also said he wasn’t welcoming Sessions’ message.
“I strongly oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to coerce local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws,” Wheeler said.
In his speech, Sessions also addressed the issue of detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those are requests ICE sends to local jails to hold someone when they think the jail has someone in its custody who is in the country illegally.
“But political leaders have directed state and local officers to refuse these requests,” Sessions said. “Cooperation has been a key element in informed crime fighting for decades.”
In 2014, a federal court judge in Oregon ruled ICE detainers weren’t a legally sufficient way to hold a person in jail. Following the ruling, all Oregon sheriffs stopped honoring detainers from ICE. Law enforcement agencies in Washington and California also followed suit.
“The result is that police are forced to release the criminal alien back into the community without regard to the seriousness of his crimes or the length of his rap sheet,” Sessions said. “They should, according to law and common sense, be processed and deported.”
Following his speech, Sessions met with several sheriffs from the Portland area.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said in a statement that Sessions “refused to acknowledge” the 2014 court ruling during the closed door meeting.
“We are not the de facto arm of federal immigration,” Reese wrote.
Sessions has criticized Portland in the past for not sharing all types of immigration information with federal agents.
On Tuesday, he brought up the case of Sergio Martinez as an example of the problems presented by sanctuary policies. Martinez was released from jail after he’d been deported several times. Upon his latest release, Martinez allegedly went on to assault two women before being arrested again.
Despite his criticisms of sanctuary policies and those who support them, Sessions praised law enforcement.
“We all know law enforcement is not the problem,” he said Tuesday in Portland. “The problem is the policies that tie your hands. Sanctuary policies endanger us all, and especially the federal immigration officers who are forced to pursue criminal aliens outside of jails and prisons.”
Reese also took to Twitter to criticize Sessions’ speech.
“If the administration wants to make controversial & dangerous changes to immigration enforcement, they should convince Congress instead of leaning on local law enforcement,” he tweeted.
Efforts are underway in Oregon to repeal the state’s sanctuary law. But, at least for the moment, state leaders appear to be unconvinced of the Trump administration’s arguments that sanctuary policies lead to more violent crime.
OPB’s Chris Lehman in Salem contributed to this report.