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ICE in the CITY
A teen daughter is at high risk of being kidnapped and used for sex trafficking in El Salvador.
A man was murdered by ruthless gangsters, who gave his girlfriend and her daughter 24 hours to leave Honduras.
These are just a few of the complex reasons why people make the decision to flee their country, including some of the people standing in line for a routine check-in at Portland's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office last Wednesday.
One of those checking in was Belinda Miranda de Solano, currently staying in Northeast Portland with longtime St. Andrew Catholic Church parishioners Eddie and Catherine Murphy. Check-ins are for immigrants who came to the country illegally and have been deemed by ICE to be subject to deportation; they are in "removal proceedings," a process that could take months or even years, since each person has a unique case. It could be that it ends up in their favor and they get to stay, or the immigration courts could decide to deport them.
"There are multiple outcomes of an immigration proceeding," says Virginia Kice, ICE spokeswoman. "The judge might find that the person is entitled to legal release. That happens fairly frequently."
ICE doesn't make the final determination on whether a person is deported; that is left for the immigration courts.
Nonetheless, heading to a check-in generally elicits very few smiles, and many families waited solemnly for their turn. But Solano went to her check-in with a big, warm grin, as the walkway into the ICE offices was lined with about 50 churchgoers and immigrants-rights advocates cheering her on.
"The idea is that we're very attentive in our message today to ICE," said Rae Anne LaFrenz, coordinator for the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ), formerly the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement. "We're watching, and we are protective of community members, and we're not going to let them be detained without making a big noise about it."
LaFrenz said it's about the sanctuary church movement "shaming the government with a high community presence" and giving the immigrant a high profile and being supportive until the case is resolved.
A scary process
Heading to check-in can be intimidating. Families large and small lined up, papers in hand, outside of the 4310 S.W. Macadam Ave. location.
The people checking in already have been deemed by ICE to be subject to deportation.
At some point in time, they may have had a brush with law enforcement or even tried to apply for an immigration benefit and were found to be ineligible. And while they wait to go through immigration courts, the government must make sure they're following the rules. It might be a quick lookover of documents to make sure they haven't changed their living situation and simply get a stamp of a date to return. Others, however, could be detained if they're deemed a risk or have violated their conditions. But not checking in at all could mean a higher risk of detention.
Portland's ICE office houses cells where people are held temporarily before being transferred to a detention center in Tacoma, Washington.
"We prioritize the dentention beds for people who are subject to mandatory detention under law," says ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, noting that those who are a high flight or safety risk would be detained.
Kice said there are several days a month when people go to the office to check in; it's routine. However, fears have been heightened under the Trump administration.
Nationally, there are more than 40,000 people in ICE custody on an average day, while there are "hundreds of thousands" like Solano who are in removal proceedings, Kice said.
Solano, who doesn't speak English, wasn't detained or transferred last Wednesday; her next check-in is on Sept. 20.
Fallout from civil war
Solano entered the United States illegally for the first time in the mid-2000s. She was fleeing conditions in El Salvador, the smallest yet most densely populated country in Central America.
The country has experienced multiple civil wars, most recently in 1992, and economic conditions have continued to suffer, while it also endures problems with gang violence and kidnapping.
"She had no choice but to flee," says Eddie Murphy, who, along with his wife, Catherine, was connected to Solano through the IMIrJ program. "The neighborhoods are so dangerous. There's so much gang violence and extortion and kidnappings. She chose to flee and seek asylum."
At the time, Solano stayed in Oregon for about a year, but then there was an uptick in ICE raids. In 2007, immigration officials arrested more than 165 illegal workers at the Fresh Del Monte Produce plant in Portland.
That incident is partly what prompted Murphy to become more involved with the sanctuary movement.
"At the time, we were kind of trying to prepare for what was going on for people in tough situations," Murphy said. Solano was connected to the Murphys and stayed with them for a while.
But then "around the time" of the Del Monte raid, Solano was caught in a separate raid, he said.
She returned to El Salvador, but again came to the United States last fall with her three children: Brandon, Genesis and Alondra. Brandon is the only family member who is a U.S. citizen, since he was born here.
"Anyone with kids would get out of there," Murphy said.
"Her trip was about a month long, getting from El Salvador to here, bouncing back from buses to cars," said Eddie's son, Diego Murphy, 21, while Solano was inside for her check-in. He moved out of his parent's house, allowing for more room for Solano and her children.
According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, El Salvador is second behind Mexico as a top country of origin for unauthorized immigrants in this country, accounting for 6 percent of the estimated 11.4 million living in the United States.
Rapid response trainings
Recently, St. Andrew Catholic Church members voted to become a sanctuary church to help immigrants looking for places to stay. They are coordinating "rapid response" trainings and organizing teams to support those like Solano who face deportation back to an unstable country and poor conditions compared to that of the United States.
St. Andrew recently held a training through Voz, a Portland organization that works to improve conditions for day laborers and immigrants.
At the training, participants learned the "importance of observation. We learned the importance of having your phone with you. What's the correct protocol for ICE agents, and what isn't? Language and respect (to officers involved), but also what our rights are," said Kate Hartley, a member of St. Andrew's who went to the ICE office to support Solano. "It's the power of observation and recording what's happening."
Local organizations, such as the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, are implementing a phone system for responding in the event of an incident.
"What we will be doing in our parish and other institutions ... is how will we work with our own Latino members on a phone messaging, phone tree (system). How do we alert, what is the chain of events that occur when (an incident, deportation or raid) happens?" says Mary Nemmers, lead organizer of the alliance.
Eddie Murphy and IMIrJ founder Sarah Loose accompanied Solano and her 3-year-old daughter Genesis, into the check-in. The lobby was so full that many families were forced to wait outside the office in the rain for their turn.
When Solano returned outside to the gray weather, she again beamed with a smile. Humbled, she thanked everyone for coming to support her.
"When I was inside, I felt very nervous," Solano said, through a translator. "I feel a little better."
What would it take to not be afraid anymore, to not feel uncertain?
"If I had some sort of a work permit or something, some assurance that I could stay and work if I want, I might feel safer," she said. And, pointing to her ankle where a GPS tracker hugs tightly, she said, "And also, if they could take this bracelet off."
She's worn it for months, since she re-entered the United States, a requirement for some individuals facing deportation — just another method for the government to track their whereabouts and make sure they don't abscond.
She'll have to keep it on until the next check-in on Sept. 20, when activists, church members and others will likely be there to champion her again.
"We'll be doing more of these," LaFrenz told the crowd before it dispersed, and a line of immigrants continued to wait in the rain.