Pandering to bigotry

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs, a division of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is preparing to relocate its northwest Portland offices to the South Waterfront.


The Bureau of Immigration and Customs, a division of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is preparing to relocate its northwest Portland offices to the South Waterfront. In addition to the government offices, the facility also will contain four detention cells. These cells will be for immigrants—some illegal, some not—as they prepare for release, or to be transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash.

Residents of South Waterfront flooded the City Council meeting on Jan. 19 to voice their concerns about the relocation, making loud their claims that the facility is really a jail for “illegals.” They released a xenophobic, classist purge onto the city council meeting. Insisting that they didn’t feel safe with immigrants who were being detained in their neighborhoods, they even went so far as to call the adjacency of a charter school reason enough that the city was conducting foul play.

Accounts in the media of this long, colorful meeting at City Hall were appalling. Essentially what is being said is that if you are an immigrant who finds yourself detained, you are most likely a criminal who intends to do harm on the poor children in their swanky neighborhood. The building approval has been placed on hold, and another city council meeting will be held tomorrow.

At the next meeting, an ICE representative will have to answer some of the concerns of the residents, mainly the question of how many of the detainees are guilty of a violent crime. The answer is that less than one-third of all detainees in the last two years at the current location in northwest Portland were detained because of a violent crime. The rest were people who were held because of raids of workplaces and homes. Some were just in violation of their current legal status, by some overlap in paperwork or residency/visa status. Many were guilty of a much lesser offense, such as not having valid TriMet fair.

The South Waterfront is in an especially compromising economic position. Having had $93 million invested into its development, both the city and the new property owners in the neighborhood have a vested interest in the development’s success. But the city and the property owners have different ways to secure their position to be for sure. Residents of the neighborhood have found themselves a nice racist scapegoat approach to protect their real interest: their property value.

There are dozens of reasons to be against any and all ICE facilities, none of which are the immigrants themselves. ICE Detention Centers around the United States have been in the hot seat since their inception due to their seeming ability to get away with atrocious human rights violations and function without transparency. It is difficult to know what exactly happens inside them.  

Since 2004, over 60 deaths of immigrants in custody of ICE have been documented. Many more have likely occurred that have not been documented, as record-keeping is notoriously bad at these institutions. Complaints over the denial of medical needs and medical attention have been one of the indignities that immigrants have had to endure due to detention. In addition, there have been countless reports of physical, sexual and verbal abuse at the hands of guards as well as overcrowding of cells.

 One such death that occurred at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., has been under scrutiny for a number of years due to its violations of the Fifth Amendment, which protects any person in the custody of the United States from conditions that amount to punishment without due process of law.

The detention center represents a $115 million dollar for-profit, privately owned facility, which at its beginning was designed to house 700 inmates. As of 2009, there were 1061 inmates, and there is currently a proposal to increase this number to 1500.

Given this fact, one question to the city council should be: If they are creating four remodeled cells in Portland, how many people are they going to cram into those cages?

The debate over the relocation of the ICE Bureau represents one of the fundamental contradictions in American economics and values. Numerous studies, such as ones conducted by the Udall Center for Public Policy, show the ways in which immigrants, illegal or not, uphold the United States economy through their labor and their consumerism. In addition, neo-liberal economics policies, such as NAFTA, facilitate the influx of immigrants looking for work because of job displacement in their country of origin. 

Is crowding someone into a small dark cell, denying them basic medical attention and treating them like a “cockroach”—as some guards have called Mexican immigrants—the way in which we should thank people who fuel the economy that pays for our fancy waterfront condos?

No, it isn’t.

Despite the fact that the meeting over the relocation approval is set for February, the rebuild is not part of the current city budget. The reasons to be against flooding city funding into this project have to do with the fact that ICE is incapable of handling immigrants in a fair and just way. But residents of South Waterfront don’t care about that. ?