Coming forward without fear

A panel of local law enforcement officials assured 115 members of the local Latino community Thursday night that Immigration Customs Enforcement agents aren't camped out at the Jackson County Courthouse.

Addressing recent national stories about ICE agents who have made immigration arrests outside courthouses in California, Colorado and New York, Jackson County's Trial Court Administrator Bob Tucker said courthouse security told him that ICE agents have appeared only once or twice a month at the courthouse, and then with stated business.

"We haven't experienced them camping out," Tucker said.

At a Spanish-language "Get to know your officials" presentation at the Medford library, Presiding Judge Tim Gerking told the crowd that Jackson County Circuit Court is "a resource you have available," regardless of immigration status.

The presentation drew officials from throughout the county's justice system, including the sheriff, district attorney, jail captain and numerous local police representatives, who explained protections undocumented immigrants have through Oregon's sanctuary law.

"Folks who are in this country without proper paperwork, you have the same rights to due process as anybody else," Gerking said.

Organized by several Latino outreach organizations, such as farm-worker advocacy group UNETE and social justice groups Unite Oregon and the Racial Equity Coalition, the event was an opportunity for members of the Latino community to ask questions to court and law enforcement officials.

Jorge Pinon asked panelists for their thoughts on Initiative Petition 22, which would add a ballot measure reversing Oregon statute 181.850, better known as the state's sanctuary law. That law, passed in 1987, forbids state and local law enforcement agencies from stopping people just for suspected federal immigration law violations.

Medford police Deputy Chief Brett Johnson said he couldn't comment on the political issue itself, but said the agency values its lines of communication with the Latino community. Johnson said Medford police has numerous Spanish-speaking records clerks and patrol officers, as well as a cultural liaison.

"We don't want anything that's going to stifle reporting of crimes," Johnson said.

After the event, Pinon called the response "short, but solid."

Sheriff Nate Sickler, Talent police Chief Curtis Whipple and Phoenix police Chief Derek Bowker said they have internal policies on top of the law barring officers from asking about immigration status, and all said they want the community to trust them so they can solve crimes in the community together.

"If you're a victim of a crime, we want to help you," Whipple said.

District Attorney Beth Heckert told the crowd that if people need to come forward with a crime, a victim's information isn't searchable, though "it's a little different if you're a defendant." Depending on the facts of a criminal case, Heckert said, deputy district attorneys will try to consider charges that won't lead to deportation.

Dagoberto Morales with UNETE pressed the sheriff and jail commander Dan Penland as to why the jail contacts ICE when a foreign-born person is lodged at the jail. In Spanish through an interpreter, Morales said it should be the FBI that verifies a person's criminal history.

There must be an accompanying crime or warrant signed off by a judge to keep someone in custody with an ICE hold, according to Penland. But, he said, jail officials still have to report to ICE under the Secure Communities Act of 2010, in which the Obama administration ordered ICE to prioritize criminals in the country illegally ahead of others with undocumented status.

"When you're dealing with the federal government, you don't get to decide what you're going to report," Penland said. 

Following the event, Morales said the jail's line of communication with ICE is an issue that concerns him, though he was comforted knowing that local agencies honor state sanctuary laws. He said many of the Latino farm workers for whom he advocates are "concerned all the time" because of their immigration status.

To add context, Spanish-speaking Corrections Deputy Raymond Luna said the jail will also reach out to a detained foreign national's consulate at the inmate's request, and that someone from Mexico's consulate regularly appears at the jail.

"We're here to serve the community as best we can," Luna said. "We're not the enemy."

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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