USA: Bringing communities together at a time of division: the work of Milenio in Portland, Oregon

By Mariah Grant

One of the most striking developments, since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in November 2016 and his assumption of office at the beginning of 2017, is the rapid mobilization of civic opposition to the policies of his administration. Virtually every major announcement since taking office – from the so-called ‘travel ban’ on citizens from a selection of Muslim countries to his announcement on Twitter that transgender citizens would no longer be able to serve in the military – has provoked widespread condemnation, including from members of his own Republican Party. Yet in many ways the most potent resistance has come at the grassroots level, through a diverse range of community groups, civil society organizations and other bottom-up initiatives.

One remarkable example of this is Milenio, an outreach and advocacy organization based in Portland, Oregon, working in particular with the local Latino community as well as other minorities to increase their engagement and visibility. Juan Rogel, Milenio’s Executive Director, first became politically involved during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, when he supported the candidate Bernie Sanders. Even at that stage, it was clear that immigration was going to play a central role in the election, with the Republicans adopting a hardline approach on border control, refugee resettlement and the treatment of undocumented people living in the US. Despite the very real implications this posed not only for millions of migrants but also many Latino Americans, Rogel came to realize through his door-to-door campaigning that political participation in the community, particularly the young, was very low – a situation that could leave them having little say in decisions that would directly affect them.

In the subsequent months, after Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won the respective nominations of the Democratic and Republican Parties, Rogel continued to mobilize local Latinos to vote in the election. Though many largely took a Clinton win for granted, Rogel was acutely aware of the very real possibility that Trump would secure the election through his effective campaigning. Whereas Clinton was vocal in her opposition to Trump’s anti- immigrant stance, she faltered in creating an equally resonant pro-immigrant message: Trump, on the other hand, used simple language and messaging to define his anti-immigrant platform, including his promise to ‘build a wall’ (along the US–Mexico border) and enact a ‘Muslim ban’. In this context, Rogel and other members launched Milenio with the specific objective of educating young Latinos on how to run political campaigns and how to get involved in local government. While part of their efforts focused on encouraging them to vote in the election, Rogel also began preparing for the possibility of a Trump victory and the impact this would have on immigrants across the country, particularly in Oregon.

As a result, Milenio was already relatively prepared when the shock results of Trump’s victory became clear in the early hours of 9 November and the subsequent panic following his inauguration in January 2017, when he signed an Executive Order targeting refugees and people entering the US from seven Muslim-majority countries. While focused before the election primarily on the local Latino community, since then Milenio has been vocal in its support for the Muslim community in Portland and has sought out Muslim community leaders to be in solidarity with their mission. In this regard, their unifying approach is in sharp contrast to the divisive attitude of the Trump administration to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.

Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Milenio has continued to focus on their initial mission but also responded to the implementation of Trump’s deportation campaign promises. Milenio has been active in demonstrating against Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) raids throughout the state and started an ‘ICE out of Oregon’ campaign. With demonstrations in different cities, they have also been leaders in demanding the release of beneficiaries of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme detained by ICE within the state, commonly known as ‘Dreamers’. This includes some 800,000 minors who arrived in the US illegally and through the initiative were able to secure temporary legal migration status – protection that will disappear if Trump implements his proposed scrapping of DACA by March 2018. Through these protests, they have focused on specific communities where ICE arrests and operations have been on the rise, including in East Multnomah County. During a protest there in May 2017, Milenio called for elected officials to take action to protect its immigrant community members and to initiate a fund to provide immigrant detainees with legal counsel.

These activities have been mirrored at a national level by countrywide demonstrations against mass arrests of immigrants from Latin America and the Executive Order barring travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, with coordinated protests in cities across the US condemning the administration. Yet other incidents, while attracting international attention, have taken place closer to home. This included, on 26 May 2017, an attack on a public train in Portland by a white supremacist sympathizer who, after yelling racial and religious epithets at two teenage girls, both African-American and one wearing a hijab, fatally stabbed two men and seriously injured another who attempted to intervene. Milenio responded in a statement in support of Muslim women, black women and ‘all those affected by the culture of hate in Oregon that led to the tragedy on the Max [train line].’ The statement read in part, ‘We have come to the regrettable conclusion that Latinos, African-Americans and Muslims are not safe in Portland. ICE raids, Police brutality and White supremacist acts of violence are the norm in Portland and we must come together as a community’. Just over a week later, Portland was overtaken by an ‘alt-right’ demonstration that included a number of far-right militias – although it was far outnumbered by local Portlanders who turned up to protest their presence.

To further address fears and to support immigrant communities in and around Portland, Milenio has monitored adherence to sanctuary status policies from officials at multiple levels and advocated for more cities to adopt these designations. While the sanctuary model does not have a singular legal definition, it references a movement that largely took shape in the 1980s as thousands of refugees entered the US after fleeing civil war and violence in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. To protect these individuals from deportations, Catholic and other Christian-denomination churches opened their doors and provided sanctuary. Since then, states, counties and cities have passed laws and enacted policies that self-define them as sanctuaries; this takes on various forms but usually precludes local law enforcement from assisting in the enforcement of federal immigration law. In Oregon, there has been legislation on the books since 1987 that prevents state police from enforcing federal immigration law, but this does not extend to all state law-enforcement agencies.

In February 2017, Milenio held public demonstrations in Hillsboro, a city west of Portland with a large immigrant population. The demonstration was designed to appeal to the city council and Mayor’s office to declare Hillsboro a sanctuary city, and in early March they narrowly voted in favour of this policy. As Rogel explained, the advocacy efforts of Milenio in Hillsboro were representative of the role the organization intends to play. They see themselves as being able to lobby those in elected office and local leadership directly on behalf of their community. He clarified that Milenio can play this role because, ‘when you identify with the struggles of the people that’s how you connect to the people that’s our organization.’

It was also important for Hillsboro and cities around Portland to adopt sanctuary status, as more and more Latino families are being pushed out due to the high cost of living. Rogel highlights how the unaffordability of housing in Portland has called into question the city’s sanctuary status, if the people it is meant to protect cannot afford to benefit from it. As such, people move into more affordable communities while potentially losing the supposed security provided by Portland’s sanctuary status.

Milenio also holds regular community and educational events including ‘Migrant Tales’, during which immigrants tell their stories of life in Oregon, and ‘Know Your Rights’ events where attendees learn about national, state and local immigration laws. While these community gatherings address some of the outcomes of Trump’s election, they are also meant to address the more deep-rooted divisions and issues within Portland, statewide and nationally. To act as a bridge between communities in Portland and to confront disparities in access to fresh foods, Milenio has also recently initiated a food justice programme, which includes a free farmer’s market in a neighbourhood where gentrification has disproportionately pushed Latinos and other minorities out. Other initiatives include mentors from Milenio speaking to Latino high-school students about the importance of political participation, and organization representatives taking part in regional conferences to speak out on many issues that directly impact immigrant youth access to higher education, including lack of access to many forms of financial aid.

Rogel is clear that the backlash against immigrants and minorities did not begin with Trump. Milenio’s efforts to defend the rights of immigrants within their communities go far beyond immigration reform and Trump’s recent measures: prior to Trump, systems were already in place that disadvantaged immigrants and made them more vulnerable to incarceration, both nationally and within Oregon. Rogel identifies a perpetual cycle of discrimination that sees immigrant children grow up in lower-income neighbourhoods, which are then targeted by police – hence the need, in Rogel’s words, to ‘find a solution to the systemic oppression that we [are] living in.’ Milenio hopes to do this by both defending their community against laws that undermine their human rights and mentoring future leaders who they hope to be part of a more diverse and representative government, responsive to the rights and needs of all community members. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: Molly Adams

No Associated files

Date: 13/12/2017


United States of America


Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech

Press Contact Information

Name: Emma Eastwood

Telephone: 020 7422 4205

This website has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union.
The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union