8/3/2010 2:59:00 PM For immigrants: Minor infractions, major penalties
A Tri-Met officer and his dog near a MAX train. Some immigrants report that violations on MAX and buses have landed them in immigration trouble.
Oregon immigration statistics
Estimated undocumented immigrants — 90,000 Foreign born part of Oregon population — 8.5 percent English not the main language at home — 12 percent Foreign born population from Mexico — 39 percent Foreign born population from Asia — 29 percemt Foreign born population from Europe — 17 percent White — 80 percent Hispanic — 11 percent Asian — 3.6 percent Black — 2 percent
Sources: Center for Immigration Studies and U.S. Census
Since 9-11, undocumented immigrants have faced a much harder road.
Federal security provisions meant to keep dangerous individuals out of the country have also prompted the deportation of others, including several active Portland Catholics who were contributing to the community.
Father Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland, has seen a Hispanic youth group leader and Marriage Encounter leader detained for deportation, for example.
The immigration busts have been sparked by infractions as minor as lacking identification when asked by a Tri-Met fare inspector.
"The bigger issue is this: There has been a quiet decision among courts to get immigration involved in anything," Father Zegar says.
At one time, he recalls, undocumented immigrants were given due process if involved in violations. If found guilty of crime, they would be deported. Now, many immigrants from Portland are sent right to the federal detention center in Tacoma, even if charges are dropped.
One St. Peter's parishioner was detained for possible drunk driving. Though that charge did not stick, the man was sent to Tacoma.
"All of a sudden, people are gone," the priest says.
Father Zegar sees a potential financial motive for the trend in these hard times. Once cities or counties turn a detainee over to federal immigration authorities, the cash-strapped local governments no longer have to pay for housing the prisoner.
Teresa Statler, a Catholic and an immigration attorney, says undocumented people in Oregon tend to be sent to Tacoma these days if they have any contact with law enforcement. That's even without an Arizona-style immigration law.
"It happens more in some counties than in others," says Statler, explaining that law enforcement officers in Washington and Clackamas counties tend to have a particularly close relationship to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Some of these people have been law-abiding folks for a long time," Statler says. "But for the fact they have a tail light go out, they would not have come on the radar screen."
Now that Oregon denies driver's licenses without proof of status — an outcome of a 2005 federal law — more immigrants are being detained than ever.
Once in Tacoma, detainees can be released on bond. Women with children get special provisions for release. A judge then decides on deportation.
Federal legislation passed in 1995 already said that local police have a duty to help federal agencies enforce immigration law. Statler thinks police need to be very careful lest they violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which says authorities must have "probable cause" before a search.
"What gives rise to the reasonable suspicion that someone is here illegally?" she asks. "Is it that they are in a crowd full of people who don't speak English? Well, there are U.S. citizens who have brown skin or black skin whose English is not so good."
Ruben Rivera, a Portland attorney, says immigration authorities will act on reports from anyone — DMV workers, IRS agents, Tri-Met fare inspectors. Rivera says that the federal law involving local police in immigration enforcement could well backfire — undocumented immigrants will not want to report crimes, lest they be snared.
The question has arisen in the past year: Should violations of bus and light rail rules lead to immigration investigations?
"It just doesn't seem fair," says Geoff Scowcroft, who leads immigration legal services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Portland. "It seems disproportionate to the offense."
Martin Gonzalez, who helps Tri Met reach out to people who don't speak English, says the transportation agency does not turn people over to immigration authorities. But if undocumented immigrants get booked by local police for a violation involving a bus or MAX ride, they may well be reported to federal officers.
Mary Fetsch, spokesperson for Tri Met, says asking for ID is not racially motivated, but is a way to check of a rider has previous violations in the system. If riders have no ID, inspectors are instructed to ask for a name and birthdate to run the check.
"We do nothing as far as immigration," Fetsch says.