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Law enforcement: 'We don't enforce immigration law'

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Sheriff and police agencies say immigration mostly falls beyond scope of their responsibility

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Scappoose Police Sgt. Dennis Viereck and Officer Matt Dorick work the scene of an incident in 2016. Scappoose Police Department, like other local law enforcement agencies, does not check for citizenship status in its routine duties.President Donald Trump has indicated he wants law enforcement agencies at all levels to enforce immigration law, but in Columbia County, that's not likely to happen.

Law enforcement agencies in south Columbia County say they do not enforce immigration laws, in accordance with state law.

Oregon is defined as a sanctuary state, meaning municipalities and law enforcement agencies can't actively use state resources to investigate a person's immigration status without that individual committing another violation of the law. However, if someone is arrested for committing a felony, law enforcement agencies may exchange information with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to verify the immigration status of that person.

Police and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office all say they don't make an effort to check for legal documentation, but most said they'd comply with requests from ICE when appropriate.

Aside from asking to show a driver's license during a traffic stop, law enforcement officials say they don't ask for proof of citizenship or legal right to be in the United States.

"We do not take action against individuals based on their status as immigrants," Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson stated in an email to the Spotlight. "How we deal with undocumented individuals, in general, depends upon the case. In all cases, racial makeup (real or assumed) is not considered to be a valid reason for making an inquiry."

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Sheriff's Office jail deputy Michelle Vandenberg reviews inmate records on a computer at the Columbia County Jail. The jail detains most people arrested in the county, but the CCSO never makes arrests based on immigration violations. The same goes for Scappoose Police Department.

"This department does not participate in routine immigration enforcement activities," Scappoose Police Chief Norm Miller explained. "If it comes up that ICE has entered some type of arrest warrant, that would be the only way we would know. We don't go checking."

Miller said it's crucial everyone in the public feels safe reporting crimes or coming forward with information about crimes, regardless of their citizenship status.

St. Helens Police Department has policies to deal with potential immigration violations. Like Scappoose and the Sheriff's Office, immigration status is not sufficient grounds for an officer to initiate contact, unless it's "relevant to another criminal offense or investigation," like smuggling, terrorism or harboring, the policy states.

Requests for assistance with traffic control, peacekeeping or other support services may be provided to ICE at a supervisor's discretion.

"I think there's a lot of fear, but I think if people understand what local law enforcement's role is in this, they wouldn't have a lot to worry about," St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said. "We're not doing anything here really with immigration."

Moss added that the department's policy regarding immigration is fairly universal and has been adopted by other law enforcement agencies around the state.

Beyond state law, cities and counties can also pass local ordinances and policies to further enforce their support of the sanctuary designation given by the state. Currently, Columbia County has no such designations. Neither does the cities of Scappoose or St. Helens.

"Our city is just going to continue to follow state law," Mayor Scott Burge said. He said neither he nor the Scappoose City Council has given much thought to whether the city would be considered a sanctuary city, or whether it should be.

"There's been no real discussion about it because, A, it's a contentious issue and, B, I don't know the position of my fellow council members," Burge said. "I feel like the state has already taken the position 30 years ago."

He touched on the need for immigration reform, but said until Congress can come up with a "comprehensive fix," change isn't likely.

In an executive order passed earlier this year, President Donald Trump promised to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. Columbia County officials are not fearful of losing out on potential funds, however.

Burge said the city occasionally gets federal grant funding and did receive federal stimulus money for infrastructure improvements a few years back. It also gets gas tax revenue in the form of pass-through funds from the state.

Although St. Helens sees itself as a sanctuary city, officials have not made any special declarations or designations to promote that image.

Mayor Rick Scholl said he's always seen St. Helens as a safe place to be, and said the state designation is enough for him. City Administrator John Walsh and City Councilor Keith Locke echoed similar sentiments.

St. Helens Finance Director Matt Brown said most of the money the city receives from the federal government is in the form of grants, and as such would not be in jeopardy of losing any of that money.

In 2017, St. Helens is set to receive $126,000 in federal grants for the Economic Development Fund and $126,000 to fund the Crisis Intervention Team training coordinator through the Community Enhancement Fund.

Both grants are partial carryover grants awarded during the 2015-16 fiscal year, Brown explained.