Last week's effort by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to make lemonade out lemons left a sour taste in our mouth.
On Wednesday, after more than a month of silence, an ICE official responded to a request by Oregon U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer to explain the Sept. 18 incident outside the Washington County Courthouse in which several ICE officers detained and questioned a Latino couple leaving the courthouse. The officers apparently mistook the man, Isidro Andrade-Tafolla, for someone they were seeking.
A volunteer for the ACLU of Oregon who was nearby taped the encounter on her cell phone shortly after it began.
The footage, available on Youtube, is chilling.
The agents are not in uniform. A woman wearing a green Oregon Ducks sweatshirt repeatedly ignores the ACLU volunteer, who asks her and the other agents if they are from ICE and if they have any identification. A man, wearing jeans and an untucked checkered shirt, politely asks the volunteer to step back.
At this point, Andrade-Tafolla's wife asserts herself. "We do not know you," she tells the ICE agents in front of her. "Please back away from my husband. Please back away from our car before we call the cops."
Shortly afterward, the agents, without a word of explanation, pile into their three unmarked cars and drive away, leaving Ms. Andrade-Tafolla, who, like her husband, is a U.S. citizen, to ask: "Who was that woman?"
Isidro Andrade-Tafolla, a longtime county worker and former Glencoe High School soccer standout, said he'd accompanied his wife to a court hearing. When they left the courtroom, he said, the woman in the Ducks sweatshirt and the man in the checkered shirt, who'd been sitting nearby, followed them out to their car.
He and his wife say the ICE officers never identified themselves. In last week's belated response to Bonamici, an assistant ICE director, Raymond Kovacic, notes that the ACLU video does not capture the initial contact between his agents and the couple. He implies, though doesn't specifically say, that the agents identified themselves. What's more, he said the video illustrates "the hostile environment that ICE officers must confront every day. In spite of being verbally abused, ICE officers demonstrated great restraint and professionalism throughout the encounter."
That restraint, it must be noted, included failing to respond to witnesses who repeatedly asked the agents whether they worked for ICE.
Kovacic also fails to explain why the agents weren't in uniform.
"ICE officers use several means to identify themselves including, but not limited to, wearing placards or clothing that clearly identifies them as immigration officers," he wrote. "However, in certain situations, high visibility attire hinders or endangers safety and officers may decide not to broadcast their identity."
Kovacic fails to explain why ICE agents would have been endangered had they been in uniform while sitting in a county courtroom and walking down a residential street.
The agents' actions raise serious questions not only about civil liberties, but also public safety.
As reported by the Hillsboro Tribune, Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said standard police practice is for officers out of uniform to clearly identify themselves when they stop someone.
Such public stops, he noted, cause concern among witnesses, who may think someone is being kidnapped. A call to police will bring local officers in contact with armed federal agents who don't look the part. Failing to let to everyone know that they are engaged in official police business is, Garrett said, "reckless and dangerous."
Last week, Bonamici and Blumenauer, joined by fellow Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, called on the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the incident, as well as another one, from Oct. 19, in which a contractor painting inside a Beaverton home was arrested and removed by plainclothes ICE agents who entered the house without a warrant. The man later was released after ICE admitted it was another case of mistaken identity.
We join that call for hearings and suggest ICE officials start by answering the following questions.
Did the agents identify themselves to Isidro Andrade-Tafolla? If so, in what way?
What are the criteria for agents to work out of uniform? Were those criteria met in the two recent Oregon incidents?
What criteria do agents use to identify individuals suspected of being in the country illegally? Were they met in the two incidents?
Typically, we'd be reluctant to second-guess police conduct. But when ICE won't answer questions from our congressional delegation, they invite speculation. And when civil liberties and public safety are compromised, it's a guessing game with extremely high stakes.