The blockade of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building by Portland protesters has grown into a sprawling tent camp, transfixing the city and spawning a national movement.

But as the "Occupy ICE" protest enters its second week, its organizers are beginning to grapple with the potential legal consequences of their civil disobedience—which may be greater than has been reported.

Jacob Bureros, who has been at the occupation since it began June 17, says protesters have their eyes open to the risks.

"I doubt that anyone went down there under the impression that what they were doing was legal," Bureros says. "The reason we're down there is that our government is breaking the law."

Federal police started handing out fliers June 25 warning protesters that by blocking the South Waterfront building's entrances and driveways, they were violating federal law.

The penalties attached to the law the fliers cited are relatively minor, including fines and up to 30 days behind bars.

But another document obtained by WW—this one written by a public defender—suggests occupiers may be risking far more serious charges.

Occupy ICE. (Daniel Stindt)
Occupy ICE. (Daniel Stindt)

The document was written and distributed by Oregon's chief deputy federal defender, Steve Sady. He handed out copies of the document at a meeting with a small group of key protest organizers Saturday. (Federal public defenders often represent undocumented immigrants.)

The document suggests that because Portland's ICE protest is targeted at the agency that enforces immigration law, the feds could charge occupiers under a range of federal statutes, including some that forbid what's called "misprision"—that is, concealing crimes, including illegal immigration.

"The power of the federal government to go after our [immigrant] clients can extend to their representatives," Sady's document says. It also warns that people who interfere with federal agencies risk charges of making false statements, harboring and concealing criminals, and obstructing federal agents.

Sady declined to discuss the document or his meeting with protesters.

Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, says the obstruction charges should be familiar to Oregonians—they're the same charges brought unsuccessfully against the men who in 2016 seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

"Both occupations seem to have as their purpose, and certainly as their effect, the blocking of those government agents from doing their duties," Yin says.

Occupy ICE. (Daniel Stindt)
Occupy ICE. (Daniel Stindt)

However, the attorney for one of the men accused in the Malheur occupation says federal officials would face a difficult challenge in pursuing such charges.

Per Olson represented David Fry, who was acquitted for his role in the Malheur standoff. Olson says a defense lawyer in the case of a peaceful protest would look hard at the statutes mentioned in Sady's document to see whether the charges apply to passive resistance.

"What plays most on [prosecutors'] minds is whether there are threats of violence and threats of physical harm to government employees," Olson says, "as opposed to pure protest that doesn't include any threatening behavior."

The failure of the central Malheur conspiracy prosecution, both men say, might be one thing that makes it difficult for U.S Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams to bring more serious charges against anyone peacefully blocking the ICE building.

"The prosecutor has to take into account the question: Do I think I can win this case in front of a jury?" says Yin.

That may explain why Williams's statement was somewhat muted, even as federal police warn of an impending eviction.

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Processed with VSCO with a7 preset

"We acknowledge the community's concerns driving these demonstrations," Williams said in a June 25 statement. "While demonstrators have a lawful right to assemble and voice their concerns, blocking the building's driveways or entrances is not permitted under federal law."

Yin points out that some legal risk is intrinsic to this kind of protest.

"The essence of civil disobedience," he says, "is that we acknowledge we are breaking the law, but we are saying the law is unjust."