Feds Falsely Boast of Immigration Raid Targeting Portland, But Only Detain Four People

"Operation Safe City" supposedly targeted Portland, but it's unclear how much of it was empty noise in a politically charged environment.

A protest of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Portland on Sept. 19, 2017. (Sam Gehrke)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement trumpeted a raid that ostensibly arrested 33 undocumented immigrants in Portland, then changed its story nearly a day later, saying it had only detained four in this sanctuary city.

The ICE press release—widely parroted by local media, until ICE retracted it—came less than two weeks after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Portland to deliver a diatribe against sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal agents to enforce federal immigration laws.

The press release announcing the raid initially said that 33 people were detained in Portland, but The Oregonian reported that the number was incorrect and only seven people were detained in Oregon this week.

ICE confirmed to WW this afternoon that its press release was wrong: The agency in fact detained 33 people across its Northwest Region, which includes Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Observers say ICE's raid, called "Operation Safe City," was intended to send a chilling message to cities that aren't cooperating. But it's unclear how much of that message was substantive, and how much of it was empty noise in a politically charged environment.

"ICE made a mistake in reporting numbers related to Portland, but it's clear that this action was intended to threaten and intimidate local governments willing to stand up to his cruel policies," says Mat dos Santos, legal director for ACLU of Oregon. "It confirms something that we have suspected all along: If local leaders stand up to Trump and his Administration they are going to find ways to retaliate."

An ICE spokeswoman says the point of the announcement—that sanctuary cities are dangerous—is not undercut by releasing false numbers.

"Even though they were highlighting these arrests for the purpose of sanctuary cities, we make these kinds of arrests every day," says Seattle regional office spokeswoman Lori Haley. "What they were trying to do is highlight the danger of those who designate themselves as sanctuary jurisdictions."

Haley says she does not believe the message of the press release was undercut by the fact that most of the arrests in the Northwest Region did not in fact happen in prominent sanctuary jurisdictions.

"I don't think it's undercut, because one dangerous person out there is one too many," she says.

Related: Jeff Sessions made four dubious claims in his jeremiad against Portland. We fact-checked him.

Although ICE claims it is targeting dangerous immigrants who pose a threat to public safety, none of the people detained in Portland were convicted of a violent crime. One had a conviction for theft, another for harassment, and one had a conviction for amphetamine possession. The fourth person detained in the city had no prior criminal history.

Of the seven people detained in Oregon, only one had a conviction for a violent crime: domestic violence.

ICE made zero arrests in the other prominent sanctuary city in the Pacific Northwest—Seattle—although the national press release details at least one specific arrest of a man with a DUI conviction and now attributes the 33 arrests first credited to Portland to Seattle. (Seattle media picked up the updated press release and ran stories saying ICE had conducted the raid in Seattle.)

Haley says, however, no arrests occurred within Seattle during the duration of Operation Safe City.

The repeated mistakes and apparent disconnect between the regional office and the national agency does not damper Haley's support for the message in the press release that ICE is getting tough on sanctuary jurisdictions.

"I really don't think it changes the message much," she says.

In Oregon, a sanctuary law and a state supreme court decision bar local officials from working with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants beyond the time authorized by local and state laws.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Portland on September 19 to voice his disapproval of the city's sanctuary status and make dubious claims about crime and support for sanctuary policies. Several local officials and law enforcement leaders denounced Sessions' comments.

"Portland is a sanctuary city," says Michael Cox, a spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler's office. "That means we do not use local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law. We have this policy because to do otherwise would threaten community trust in our institutions of justice."

Cox says the mayor's office has not been given any information about the raid from ICE. "It appears ICE is still trying to figure out what did or didn't happen," he says.

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