A lawsuit was filed Friday, July 21 in Wasco County Circuit Court claiming the regional jail was violating state law by holding immigration detainees.
The lawsuit, filed by the Oregon Law Center in Portland on behalf of four Wasco County residents, asks the court to stop Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities (NORCOR) from holding the detainees.
A 1987 state law prohibits the use of state or local resources to “detect or apprehend” people whose only offense is being in the country illegally.
The lawsuit states Oregon law defines apprehend to include “restraining an individual’s liberty so that the [government] can assert the authority of legal process over that individual.”
The suit contends the jail is in violation of that state law through its contract “which requires it to incarcerate individuals solely to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Will Carey, attorney for NORCOR, said that while state law says resources can’t be used to detect or apprehend illegal residents, “We aren’t doing any of those things, we are just housing prisoners. We also have a policy that we won’t hold anybody who is only being held because they’re a citizen from another country and don’t have proper papers to be here.
“As a matter of fact, the head of NORCOR, our jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg, went through the list the other day and found two people that he didn’t think qualified. He called up ICE and made them come down from Tacoma and pick them up.”
Carey said the lawsuit is a complaint that “an institution is violating Oregon law because it’s cooperating with the United States. So, you’re in violation of Oregon law because you’re cooperating with the United States. That’s going to be an interesting concept. I don’t think they’ve probably even faced this since the Civil War.”
Almost since the jail opened in 1999, it has accepted immigration detainees as prisoners. After a detention facility for detainees was built in Tacoma, the federal government stopped sending detainees to the regional jail, causing a budgeting crisis for the jail.
In 2014, the jail signed a four-year contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to hold federal detainees. It was amended in 2015 to include detainees from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE].
Brandenburg has previously said that all detainees being held at the jail have final deportation orders. The jail’s current budget anticipates that ICE will use around 22 jail beds per day, though sometimes it is as few as five. The anticipated revenue for the current fiscal year is $1 million.
The lawsuit states the contract requires the jail to accept federal detainees who “are awaiting a hearing on their immigration status or deportation.”
Carey said he believes the lawsuit is “a pure political thing” that was a result of the presidential election. While deportations were high under former President Barack Obama — and the regional jail housed detainees for years without controversy — President Donald Trump campaigned on a hard stance against illegal immigration.
Citizens began attending regional jail meetings earlier this year, and were asked by jail board officials why they were only now focused on the fact that the jail houses detainees. One attendee said she hadn’t realized it before, but was now taking action.
The lawsuit contends the jail does not house federal detainees because of any violation of state or local law. Rather, the jail uses “county money, personnel and equipment to incarcerate people solely because they allegedly are persons of foreign citizenship present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.”
The suit says the 1987 state law is intended to prevent agencies from assisting “federal officials at any stage of the immigration enforcement process.”
Carey said, “We’ve told the marshal’s office and we’ve told ICE, if they’re not charged or convicted with a crime, then we won’t hold them.”
The lawsuit states, “Whether or not these persons have criminal charges or convictions, the sole reason they are held by NORCOR is to assist ICE in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”
In a press release distributed Monday, Jessica Campbell, co-director of the Rural Organizing Project, a statewide network of over 60 groups organizing for human dignity across Oregon, said, “NORCOR officials have been violating Oregon law by using taxpayer money to detain people for federal immigration purposes. This is not only a violation of the law, it’s a violation of the trust Oregonians have in their locally elected officials and their public institutions.”
In May, a spokeswoman for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told the Associated Press the 1987 state law did not apply to NORCOR's contract to house ICE detainees because "it doesn't appear that NORCOR resources are being used to detect or arrest people."
Mat Dos Santos, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told Willamette Week in May that he believed the Attorney General’s office was wrong. “We think it’s a clear violation of state law for a local facility to house ICE detainees.” He said “apprehend” not only means arrest, but “detain.”
The four plaintiffs in the suit are Brian Stovall, John Olmstead, Connie Krummrich and Karen Brown.
The suit contends the plaintiffs are subject to the risk of additional future taxes. The ICE contract states the jail is responsible for all medical care provided inside the facility to detainees. (The federal government is responsible for all medical care provided outside the facility.)
The contract assumes the jail’s medical expenses are covered in the $80 per diem rate for each inmate.
The lawsuit notes the jail is only paid in arrears for holding detainees, subject to the availability of funds appropriated by Congress. It notes the contract requires the jail to apprehend escapees at its own expense, at federal direction.
Carey said it costs $6.2 million a year to run the jail, and the four member counties — Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam — contribute $3.8 million. Wasco County pays about $2 million of that.
The regional jail helps support the cost of running the jail by renting beds to ICE, Carey said. “So it’s not like we’re taking money away from Wasco County taxpayers, we’re actually precluding them from being taxed for more money.”
Andrea Williams, executive director of Causa Oregon, a statewide immigrant rights organization, said in a press release, “We applaud the courage of those who are challenging NORCOR’s use of local public funds and hope that NORCOR stops detaining people for federal immigration purposes.
“We must uphold the integrity of Oregon’s 30-year-old law that limits our local resources from being used to enforce questionable federal immigration policies,” said Williams, who is not involved in the lawsuit.
Carey said the Oregon Law Center sent him a letter July 12 telling him that if NORCOR did not notify the federal government it would stop accepting ICE detainees by Friday, July 21, it would file suit.