Courtesy Immigration and Custom Enforcement
The action of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who detained multiple people after stopping a pair of worker transport vans near Woodburn, Ore., last week may have been a routine operation, but it happened in an acrimonious political atmosphere that had civil rights groups blaming it on the Trump administration’s belligerence toward immigrants.
An ICE spokeswoman said agents initially were after two people, both of whom had multiple prior arrests and one of whom had a prior conviction, when they stopped the vehicles on a highway outside Woodburn on Feb. 24. Agents detained 11 people on allegations they were in the country illegally; seven of them remained in custody Feb. 28. Four were let go because an immigration judge had previously released them on bond pending removal proceedings, the ICE spokeswoman said.
As far as ICE was concerned, the action was routine. People who are in the country illegally and have criminal records are among the highest priority for apprehension and removal, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“Deportation officers conduct enforcement actions every day around the country and in Oregon as part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to uphold public safety and border security,” an ICE spokeswoman said in a prepared statement. “Our operations are targeted and lead driven, prioritizing individuals who pose a risk to our communities.”
But the action comes amid heightened political tension over border security and illegal immigration. Pacific Northwest agriculture has a major stake in the outcome, as many sectors rely on pruning, harvest or processing crews that are heavily immigrant, legal or not.
ICE provided a link to a Homeland Security memorandum that implements Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement. The memo calls for hiring 10,000 more ICE agents and prioritizes enforcement action against aliens who have been convicted of any crime, charged with a crime but not resolved, committed fraud or “willful misrepresentation” with a government agency or abused any program to receive public benefits. It also authorizes removal of anyone who “in the judgment of an immigration officer” poses a risk to public safety or national security.
But the Portland office of American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, and the farmworker and forestry labor union Pineros y Compesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) criticized the action.
Pedro Sosa, spokesman for the American Friends group, said in his opinion ICE has increased its activity and is acting more aggressively since President Trump signed the order. Sosa said that’s created “more fear in our community.”
The immigrant advocacy groups said they were “deeply concerned” about such stops and arrests and their impact on schools, the local economy and security. The groups denounced the “racist policies” of Trump that “criminalize and scapegoat hardworking immigrants and divide Americans.”
Details provided by ICE and by the immigrant advocacy groups varied somewhat.
American Friends and PCUN said 19 people were detained in the operation and 10 were released. They said the workers were on their way to forest jobs picking baby’s breath, a decorative plant used in arrangements, when they were stopped.
Rhetoric aside, it’s too early to know how the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement numbers will stack up against the Obama administration’s.
The Department of Homeland Security apprehended 530,250 people in the 2016 fiscal year, President Obama’s last year in office. That was about 60,000 more than during the 2015 fiscal year. The figures include apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol and by ICE.
A former Pacific Northwest business consultant who has studied the issue said the Obama administration targeted known criminals for arrest and deportation and didn’t bother with others that might get caught up in raids. “Trump just told ICE to go after criminals, but if there are others there, take them too,” the former consultant said.
“Familial considerations,” such as having children in the country, no longer apply in detention and deportation decisions, he said.
“There are agricultural workers in Idaho who are afraid to go to the grocery store or go see their kids play in an athletic event,” he said. “It is a shame.”
The former consultant asked not to be identified because he is not authorized by his current employer to make public statements on the issue. However, he has experience in immigration and agricultural issues.
Based on a description of the ICE traffic stops in Oregon and the type of job the workers were headed to, he said the people taken into custody were probably day workers who may not have been in the country long.
“Often times they’re more likely to have a criminal record or something that would show up in a background check” and keep them from more regular employment, he said.
The consultant acknowledged that the Trump administration can accurately point out that the people detained were in the country illegally and had no right to be here.
“From that point of view, yes,” the source said. “However, when there is no guest worker program for ag or forestry, for nurseries, what choice do employers have and what choice do employees have?” he asked.
The source said various groups have tried since 2007 to institute a guest worker program that allowed people to legally enter the U.S. on a temporary basis. President George W. Bush proposed a plan that would have worked, he said, but was rejected by Congress. Now neither political party wants the other party to get credit for solving the problem, he said.