Federal immigration agents detained a man at the Clatsop County Courthouse in Astoria on Thursday after spraying people who were trying to escort him away.
Fabian Alberto Zamora-Rodriguez appeared in Circuit Court for a hearing related to felony charges that he encouraged child sexual abuse. Aware U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were outside the second-floor courtroom, immigrant rights’ advocates and the man’s mother and partner tightly surrounded him as he tried to leave.
A video of the encounter, shared with The Astorian by a bystander, Maria Senaida Perez, shows immigration agents confronting the people in the hallway and releasing what appears to be pepper spray before grabbing Zamora-Rodriguez and taking him into custody.
Tanya Roman, a spokeswoman for ICE, said she was unable to comment on Zamora-Rodriguez’s immigration status or the legal reason for his detention due to privacy concerns.
“It is actually often due to the implementation of unreasonable ‘sanctuary city’ policies that prevent ICE from being notified of the presence of criminal aliens in jails or prisons, which then necessitates that we utilize options like enforcement actions at courthouses to accomplish our law enforcement mission,” she said in an email.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has every legal right to carry out its mission on courthouse grounds if the circumstances of an enforcement action require it.”
Sheriff Tom Bergin said he was notified by ICE before the immigration agents took local action.
“We need to start supporting ICE in their efforts of when people are here illegally,” the sheriff said. “This isn’t a game. These people are here illegally and if ICE has a detainer for them or a warrant then they need to abide by the laws in the state and the United States of America. I’m sorry, that’s how it is. That’s how it should be.”
Bergin said the people who surrounded Zamora-Rodriguez were interfering.
“I’m sorry, but if they have a warrant and the guy needs to go into custody, then he needs to go into custody,” the sheriff said. “But when these protesters or whatever they were, these people that wanted to make sure he didn’t go to jail surrounded him, they’re interfering with a police officer.”
Hours afterward, Andrea Gonzalez, a program coordinator with the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council, she said was still shaken by the physical nature of the encounter and that it took place inside the courthouse.
“People don’t have rights all of a sudden?” said Gonzalez, who was sprayed. “I don’t know. It just feels ... it feels wrong.”
Under Oregon’s sanctuary law, sheriff’s deputies and others in state and local law enforcement are prohibited from enforcing federal immigration law if the suspect’s only crime is being in the country illegally. Last year, Bergin wrote a letter signed by 15 other county sheriffs supporting a ballot measure that would have repealed the sanctuary law. Voters rejected the measure in November.
The video shows sheriff’s deputies in the hallway at the courthouse on Thursday, but they did not appear to participate in or seek to stop the detention.
“I’m not surprised. Tom Bergin is the sheriff and I know his stance,” Gonzalez said. “And I’m not saying all sheriffs are bad. But I mean clearly they are cooperating with them and they were what, OK with people who are just trying to escort someone out being hurt by these officials? People from their community? That’s disturbing to me for sure.”
Judge Paula Brownhill, the presiding judge of the Circuit Court, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Earlier this year, after a man was detained by ICE outside the courthouse in December, the judge echoed complaints from many judges and civil liberties’ advocates nationally. “Not only criminal defendants, but civil litigants, crime victims, and witnesses may be reluctant to come to court for fear of encountering ICE,” she said.
District Attorney Ron Brown said ICE’s local action was legal. He said that people inside the courthouse could detect the pepper spray hours after it was released.
“It’s not something we like to see at all, but it does happen,” Brown said.
Roman, the ICE spokeswoman, said civil immigration enforcement actions taken inside courthouses can reduce safety risks to the public. “Arrests that take place inside courthouses are undertaken in coordination with courthouse security leadership with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers and agents are committed to practicing every day,” she said.
“ICE does not make civil immigration arrests inside courthouses indiscriminately. As with all other federal agency planned enforcement actions, ICE arrests at courthouses are the result of targeted enforcement actions against specific, targeted aliens.”
Roman said, in years past, “most of these individuals would have been turned over to ICE by local authorities upon their release from jail based on ICE detainers. Now that some cities do not honor ICE detainers, these individuals, who often have significant criminal histories, are released onto the street, presenting a potential public safety threat.”
Zamora-Rodriguez was arrested in February after the sheriff’s office said he showed up at a local park for what he believed was going to be a sexual rendezvous with an 11-year-old boy. Online, deputies had been posing as the boy and the boy’s 40-year-old babysitter.
He has pleaded not guilty to encouraging child sexual abuse and other felony charges. At the hearing Thursday, a case management hearing was set for October.