It was before sunrise last September when eight immigration agents approached the family’s sedan.
Lourdes and her husband were parked outside their home on a dark, dead-end street in Woodburn, Oregon, a mostly Latino community about 30 miles south of Portland.
Their 3-month-old daughter was strapped in her car seat in the back. The family waited for Lourdes’ mother, who was still inside with the couple’s 2-year-old daughter.
The plan was to drop the kids at day care before the adults headed to their jobs picking grapes in the Willamette Valley.
The officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t initially identify themselves, said Lourdes, who OPB is identifying only by first name because she and her husband both fear being deported.
She could read “police” on their tactical vests, but the agent who spoke first covered his badge with his hand, Lourdes said.
The agents, speaking in Spanish, demanded to know where Lourdes’ father was.
“‘Tell me where he is. If not, I’m going to take you,’” Lourdes said the ICE agents told her. “I was like, ‘Wow, you guys are going to take me even though I haven’t do nothing?’”
Lourdes told the agents she didn’t know where her father was.
“I was talking to them because I didn’t know they were ICE,” she said. Then the agent removed the hand covering his badge.
“I told my mom and my husband, ‘Don’t say any more word.’”
The family tried to move from their car and go back inside their house. The agents, Lourdes later said, blocked their path.
The ICE agents wanted to know the family’s immigration status. They asked to see their IDs. Lourdes refused, she said, because the agents didn’t have a warrant or deportation order.
“I was really scared.”
At one point, Lourdes said an agent tried to guide her husband away.
“He was telling my husband, ‘Let’s go in the car to talk, I need to talk with you,’” Lourdes said. “And I told him, ‘No, you’re not going to take him, because if you take him you’re going to arrest him.’”
Lourdes asked the agents to leave. And then she did something that would be surprising, even unthinkable, in other parts of the country: She called the police.
Advocates say this is Oregon’s sanctuary law at work. The state’s 30-year-old policy limits police from cooperating with federal immigration efforts. A number of cities and counties, including Portland, have their own policies promising immigrants protection.
And that, supporters of such policies say, means immigrants with no criminal record feel comfortable calling law enforcement — even if they’re calling to ask local police to protect them from federal agents.
The Trump administration would have you believe something different. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been touring the country warning that sanctuary policies such as Oregon’s make communities less safe. He’s pushed sanctuary communities to prove their policies don’t violate federal law and threatened to withhold federal grants. The Department of Justice sued California in early March for its new sanctuary laws, which are similar in intent but more sweeping than Oregon’s.
“Whatever the crime rate is in a city, you can be sure it would be higher and will be higher if these policies are followed,” Sessions said during a speech in Portland last fall. “Sanctuary policies endanger us all.”
Policy experts on both ends of the political spectrum say there’s no data to support that. But the lack of statistical proof hasn’t prevented Sessions and other immigration hardliners from stoking fears.
They don’t point to Lourdes and her family. Instead, they cite cases such as Sergio Jose Martinez.
Last July, a 65-year-old woman in Northeast Portland woke up in the middle of the night to find Martinez in her bedroom.
He bound her arms and legs with her own socks and scarves. He blindfolded her, gagged her and wrapped a scarf around her mouth.
Then he forced her to perform oral sex and beat her.
Portland Police arrested Martinez within hours of the attack after he physically assaulted another woman while trying to steal her car at knife-point.
In December, Martinez pleaded guilty to assault, robbery and sodomy. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
According to ICE, Martinez had been deported from and re-entered the United States more than a dozen times before the Portland attacks.
Researchers say Martinez is an extraordinary case. They say there’s no evidence to support the Trump administration’s claims that sanctuary laws create more dangerous communities.
“It’s a rhetorical argument [Sessions is] using, but the facts don’t support him,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.
“When you take a look at the totality of crime research on immigrants in the United States, you find that immigrants are either less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, or about the same,” he said. “And that is a finding that has held since the early 20th Century.”
Last March, Nowrasteh co-authored a study that looked at incarceration rates of immigrants in the country illegally compared to native-born Americans.
“We find that they [illegal immigrants] are about half as likely to be incarcerated in prison compared to natives,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined interview requests. The DOJ also didn’t respond to requests for what data or research the agency has to support the attorney general’s claims.
A DOJ spokesman did write back in an email that said: “The calculation here is pretty simple: If a murderer or rapist is returned to the streets, the community is more at risk than had the criminal alien been turned over to ICE for deportation.”
Sessions has pointed to some research in his arguments against sanctuary policies. In July, during a speech in Las Vegas, the attorney general cited a study that he said showed sanctuary cities report more violent crime on average compared to cities that don’t have sanctuary laws.
“According to a recent study from the University of California Riverside, cities with these policies have more violent crime on average than those that don’t,” Sessions said during the July 2017 speech in Las Vegas.
But the author of that research says Sessions misrepresented his work.
“Obviously that’s not true because that’s not what our study shows,” said Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, a professor of political science at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington.
Gonzalez O’Brien and researchers at the University of California Riverside examined crime rates in more than 50 sanctuary cities and compared them to crime rates in 4,000 non-sanctuary cities.
The researchers found no relationship between sanctuary policies and crime.
Gonzalez O’Brien’s work fails to support aspects of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda. But it also fails to support claims made by some law enforcement agencies that say sanctuary policies make communities safer. Put simply, the study found there is no correlation whatsoever between crime rates and whether a city has some type of sanctuary policy.
Sessions stopped citing the research after Gonzalez O’Brien wrote several op-eds complaining that the DOJ was misstating his study’s findings.
In January, the left-leaning Center for American Progress published research that found a benefit of sanctuary policies to public safety.
Tom Wong, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, wrote in his study that there’s also an economic perk to communities that protect all residents.
Wong used data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained through a public records request. The dataset included 2,494 counties — 608 of which ICE considers sanctuary jurisdictions, according to the study. Using a statistical analysis, Wong matched like counties and incorporated FBI crime data as well as economic details from the 2015 American Community Survey.
“Altogether, the data suggest that when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer and community members stay more engaged in the local economy,” Wong wrote.
Absent data and research that bolster its case, the Trump administration points to individual crimes, such as the Martinez case in Portland or the case of Kate Steinle in San Francisco.
In 2015, Steinle was shot and killed while walking along the Embarcadero.
Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, who is in the country illegally, was charged with the 32-year-old woman’s death. His attorneys argued he didn’t intend to kill Steinle, rather Zarate found something wrapped in a shirt on the pier that turned out to be a gun. The weapon discharged after Zarate picked it up. During trial, the defense called experts who said the shooting was accidental, noting that the bullet Zarate shot ricocheted before hitting Steinle in the back. In December, a jury acquitted Zarate of murder.
President Trump has cited the Steinle case repeatedly, during the campaign and since taking office, in arguing for tougher immigration enforcement. After the Zarate acquittal, Trump called the verdict “disgraceful” and Sessions urged communities to abandon sanctuary policies.
A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2017
The president has called the case a “travesty of justice.” But Christopher Lasch, a law professor at the University of Denver, said it’s telling Trump and Sessions didn’t point to any facts that arose in the trial as proof of their beliefs.
The administration isn’t saying, “‘Here’s why our whole premise that immigrants cause crime in cities is, in fact, true, despite that the case we relied on for the last two years has come out as an acquittal with no criminal conduct,’” Lasch said.
Yet, Lasch said, the rhetoric that sanctuary policies pose a public safety threat has taken hold as part of the larger national debate surrounding immigration — despite the lack of research to back up those claims.
“It’s a story that people will believe, and they’ll believe it whether or not the facts bear it out,” Lasch said.
“There’s some deep-seated belief here about immigrant criminality that [Trump and Sessions] won’t let go of. People are inclined to believe that immigrants bring crime, and a lot of that is packaged up with our ideas about race.”
Back in September, Lourdes actually called the Woodburn Police twice about the eight ICE agents outside her home. The second time was to ask what was taking police officers so long.
Lourdes said she handed her baby to her husband in an effort to stop agents who were trying to lead him away.
“I give her to my husband so they couldn’t take him,” she said.
In the 911 call, Lourdes told the dispatcher that an ICE officer was trying to take the baby out of her husband’s arms.
“Tell them to hurry up, because they want to touch my daughter, and I told them I don’t want them to touch my daughter,” Lourdes said on the call, according to audio obtained through a public records request.
“Who wants to touch your daughter?” the dispatcher responded.
“The ICE—” she said, before being interrupted by the dispatcher.
In the background of the 911 call, a baby cried.
A spokeswoman for ICE said she couldn’t confirm the incident and also couldn’t speak to the specific actions of individual agents.
“During targeted enforcement operations, ICE officers frequently encounter other aliens illegally present in the United States,” the spokeswoman said in a follow-up email. “These aliens are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and, when appropriate, they are arrested by ICE officers.”
Lourdes later said that when she called the police, the only thing she was thinking about was her daughter’s safety.
“I trust the police,” she said.
That’s important to Jim Ferraris, who has been chief of the Woodburn Police Department since December 2015.
The city of about 30,000 is arguably the most diverse in Oregon with a population that’s 65 percent Latino, 10 percent Russian, with a growing number of Somali residents and a community of mostly white retirees centered around a golf course.
Even before Trump took office, Ferraris said, he’s made improving relations between the police and immigrant populations a priority.
“As I moved around the community to become acquainted, I heard very clearly that there was a sense of fear with law enforcement, that often times local law enforcement was confused with federal immigration authorities,” Ferraris said. “It’s no secret that it’s very likely that some of our Latino population is undocumented. So there was a clear message back to me that people were fearful of the police.”
Ferraris began a public relations campaign of sorts, writing newspaper editorials, appearing on Spanish-language radio and speaking at community meetings.
He’s also made efforts to diversify the police force. Today, about 35 percent of Woodburn’s sworn officers are Latino or speak Spanish.
“The only people that need to fear us are criminals,” Ferraris said. “People who may have issues with the federal government over their immigration status are not our issue.”
Back in September, two officers responded to Lourdes’ call, Ferraris said.
Lourdes and her family allowed them to search their home and confirm to ICE agents that her father wasn’t there.
After the incident, Ferraris received two calls: One was from Ramon Ramirez, with the area farmworkers union, complimenting the Woodburn officers. The second call was from ICE’s acting field officer, Elizabeth Godfrey, also praising how police handled the situation.
“What that exemplifies or demonstrates is that people in our community are not fearing us as they did,” Ferraris said. “And that they trust enough to call us and ask for our help.”