Paz is old enough to drink—he’s 26. But he’s also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who lacks proper identification. Portland police arrested him on felony charges for possessing an illegal ID.
The charges against Paz were later dropped to a misdemeanor, but the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office didn’t release him: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wanted him held. Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton let Paz go only after immigrant rights groups protested.
In April, Staton promised to cut the number of inmates held in the jail at the request of federal immigration officials. County commissioners wanted to end jail overcrowding, and immigration activists argued the immigration “holds” were unjust (“Freezing Out ICE,” WW, March 27, 2013).
But Staton has barely made a dent in the number of undocumented immigrants held in the jail. He’s rejected fewer than one in 10 hold requests by ICE since last spring, when he promised to detain only immigrants charged with felonies or violent misdemeanors.
Nicole Brown, with the Center for Intercultural Organizing, says Staton’s new approach was supposed to help immigrants feel more comfortable with police.
“This policy has not made a change in the community,” Brown says. “It’s not enough.”
Deputy Sheriff Drew Brosh declined to say whether Staton’s new policy was working as planned. “I’m not going to comment on the goods or evils of the policy,” he says. “This is a reasonable approach to community concern and law enforcement interest.”
Since county commissioners demanded Staton reduce overcrowding by not detaining immigrants charged with minor offenses, county data shows Staton has rejected just 27 of 323 holds sought by ICE.
“This is an area where the sheriff has jurisdiction,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. “To have an opportunity for him to talk to us publicly about what those numbers mean is important.”
Like Paz, many jail inmates see charges against them dropped or reduced. Staton’s new policy doesn’t ensure such inmates won’t be held for ICE. Brosh says jail staff can’t track each case.
As a result, many undocumented immigrants are still getting snagged by ICE in the Multnomah County Jail, says Ricardo Varela, an organizer for Oregon Dream Activist, who was put in an ICE hold in 2012 following an arrest at an immigrant rights rally.
“A lot of innocent people get put into ICE holds because of this policy,” Varela says. “They don’t follow the cases.”
Brosh says the department is reviewing its policy to determine if there’s a way to follow changes in charges after booking to avoid holding inmates such as Paz. “It’s going to be a resource strain,” he says.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office does receive some federal reimbursement for extra days immigrants are held on behalf of ICE. Last year, the payback amounted to about $230,000, Brosh says.
In 2012, 1,158 inmates—about 3.3 percent of the jail population—were placed on ICE holds. Meanwhile, county records show the jail granted early release to 916 inmates. In most months, inmates on ICE holds occupied jail beds while inmates accused of felonies were let out due to overcrowding.
Brosh says his department will continue to work with activists to refine the policy.
In the meantime, says Brown of the CIO, immigrants who should be protected under the sheriff’s new policy are at risk of deportation.
“For us,” Brown says, “we’ve seen enough to know it’s not working.”