As temperatures pushed 80 degrees late Monday morning, six or seven armed Homeland Security officers patrolled the Amtrak station at Portland Transportation Center.
After reports emerged Friday that ICE crackdowns were slated to begin Sunday in cities across the country, targeting undocumented families for deportation, some Portland residents reported the sighting of Homeland Security agents with alarm on social media Monday.
But these officers weren’t from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rather they were Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response agents, comprised of Federal Air Marshals from the Transportation Security Administration wing of Homeland Security.
The VIPR program was launched in 2005 after the train bombings in Madrid. Thomas Kelly, a TSA spokesman, said that the agents protect against criminal and terrorist activity at the request of transportation services such as Amtrak, in air, sea and freight transit.
Kelly said that VIPR is “not there in an immigration capacity” and aren’t checking passports, but could check for identification “if there was a criminal activity and they needed to engage in a law enforcement function.”
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To the average citizen — let alone a newcomer to the U.S. — distinguishing between ICE and VIPR can be difficult. Both sets of officers are armed. They wear identically colored dark blue uniforms: ICE agents say ICE and (sometimes) Department of Homeland Security (DHS); VIPR agents’ uniforms read Department of Homeland Security.
VIPR agents aren’t officially concerned with immigration, but they don’t appear to have much restriction in policing “criminal activity.” In a high profile case in 2011, VIPR agents commandeered an Amtrak train in Savannah, Georgia, and reportedly conducted warrantless searches of dozens of citizens.
On Monday, an Amtrak agent in Portland — who declined to give their name because they were unauthorized to speak — described the VIPR sighting as routine. “It was an exercise on how they [Amtrak, DHS and the Portland Police Department] work together.”
While added security is the goal, the VIPR agents’ presence left some in Portland feeling uneasy.
Myles Bullen, a 27-year-old Portland resident, said he felt “threatened and profiled” by the VIPR agents at the Amtrak station Monday.
Bullen said he entered the Portland Transportation Center and saw six or seven VIPR agents clustered in the corner of the room. He took a seat on the other side of the room, and a VIPR agent targeted him.
“The second I sat down, one agent came over to me with his dog and pointed at my bag for the dog to sniff out,” Bullen said.
While the dog sniffed his bag, Bullen said, the agent didn’t make eye contact or speak to him. He wasn’t detained in any way, but the experience didn’t sit well.
“I felt singled out and embarrassed. He didn’t do that to anyone else.”
A musician in town, Bullen said he was traveling with a duffel bag, a backpack and an instrument.
“I was easily the youngest-looking person in the room by 20 years,” Bullen said.
The Amtrak agent said that the VIPR agents’ presence did have an impact on the atmosphere of the station.
“It makes people more aware of their surroundings. They stand out because they have shirts on that say Homeland Security,” the Amtrak agent said. “While they were here, one passenger came over and reported a bag that had been sitting unattended for just a couple minutes.“
Though the Trump administration ramped up funding for border security and ICE departments, the VIPR program was recommended to be eliminated in the president’s 2019 budget, but instead received full funding from Congress. It has an annual budget of more than $100 million.
On Sunday, the Trump Administration said it would delay an ICE crackdown targeting undocumented families in 10 major U.S. cities that was slated to begin over the weekend. The crackdown is now believed to begin July 7.
A detective from Amtrak’s Police Department declined to comment. An inquiry to Amtrak’s media from the BDN was not immediately returned.
Over 200 asylum seekers are currently residing at the Portland Expo, a mile from Amtrak, having arrived on buses from San Antonio paid for by Catholic Charities. Several dozen of those have since left Portland for Canada over the past two weeks, city officials say.