Roughly 300 protesters greeted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions today, as the leading hardliner of the White House's crackdown on immigrants and refugees arrived to the decry the "sanctuary city" policy here.
"The Department of Justice will not concede a single block or street corner in the United States to lawlessness or crime," Sessions declared in his speech. "Nor will we tolerate the loss of innocent life because a handful of jurisdictions believe they are above the law."
Sessions spoke to federal law enforcement officials at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in the Pearl District.
Sessions' speech focused on sanctuary cities and states that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agents. He reeled off a litany of violent crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants, and urged Oregon and Portland officials to change their tune and cooperate with President Donald Trump's crackdown.
"Police may be forced to release pedophiles, rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and arsonists back into the communities where they had no right to be in the first place," he said, according to prepared remarks released in advance by the Justice Department. "They should according to law and common sense be processed and deported."
Sessions delivered his speech in the center's oath of citizenship room—the place where new U.S. citizens get naturalized.
"It's ironic," says Courtney Carter, an immigration and criminal defense attorney. "The place where we welcome immigrants is the place where he's going to give a speech shunning immigrants. It's hypocritical, to say the least."
Sessions stood at a wooden podium flanked by the American and Oregon state flags.
He addressed a small group of about 80 federal law enforcement officials from the FBI, ICE, DEA and U.S. Marshalls seated in the naturalization room. Protesters outside the building chanted "Out of Portland" loud enough to be heard inside the quiet room.
U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams introduced Sessions before his remarks, thanking the attorney general for his support of partnerships between law enforcement agencies.
Sessions' speech began with an emphasis on violent crime. He said violent crime was on the rise in the country and in Portland. (He did not acknowledge that Portland's murder rate remains extremely low.)
He quickly transitioned into criticizing Portland and Oregon's sanctuary city policies.
"The fundamental duty of this government is to protect the safety and the rights of its citizens," Sessions said. "But political leaders have directed state and local officers to refuse these requests… 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 the sanctuary city policies set out by politicians endanger law enforcement officers and communities.
"These policies do far greater damage than many understand," Sessions said. "At its root, they are a rejection of our immigration laws and, really, a declaration of open borders."
Sessions assured the federal law enforcement agents in the room: "We have your back."
Police locked down the neighborhood surrounding the immigration center, bottling up the crowd of protesters a block away from the site. The rear entrance of the building was blocked by two city of Portland dump trucks.
"Fuck Jeff Sessions," the crowd chanted. "Indict Trump."
The crowd behaved peacefully, and no right-wing agitators could be seen.
The local advocacy organizations Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, Milenio, and Portland's Resistance organized the protests to oppose Sessions for his stances on immigration enforcement and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The organizers urged local officials to refuse meetings with Sessions during his visit.
Mayor Ted Wheeler released a letter this morning saying he would not meet with Sessions and reiterating his support for Portland's sanctuary city status and his support of DACA. "I strongly oppose the Trump administration's efforts to coerce local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws," he wrote.
Portland's local officials have generally opposed the aggressive approach to border enforcement that the Department of Justice has endorsed under the Trump administration.
The city has also joined Seattle in a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump's executive order that would strip sanctuary cities of some federal funding for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Last week, an Illinois District Court judge issued a nationwide injunction that puts Trump's move to withdraw federal funds on hold.
Despite the fight over immigration, Portland has been working closely with the DOJ to comply with a 2011 settlement over in the Portland Police Bureau's pattern of violence against people suffering from mental illness. The settlement agreement between the DOJ and the city requires PPB to implement changes in policy to improve the bureau's practices.
Sessions did not discuss the DOJ settlement in his speech. Instead, he focused on immigration and sanctuary policies, striking a strident tone in a hostile city.
"Sanctuary policies endanger us all," he said, "and especially the federal immigration officers who are forced to pursue criminal aliens outside of jails and prisons."