Community-based groups in the Columbia River Gorge have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of ending the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR) contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A friend-of-the-court brief, also known as an amicus curiae brief, is a written statement submitted by someone who is not an official party of a case offering information, expertise or insight bearing on the issues of the case. The decision whether or not to consider the brief lies within the discretion of the court.

The lawsuit itself was filed by the Oregon Law Center in Portland on behalf of four Wasco County residents in July 2017, on the basis that NORCOR’s contract with ICE violates Oregon’s sanctuary law. A Wasco County circuit judge ruled in early 2019 that, while some jail practices do violate the sanctuary law, the contract itself does not. The ruling has been appealed and is now in the hands of the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The groups who filed the brief, including Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, Gorge ICE Resistance, Hood River Latino Network, NORCOR Community Resources Coalition and Rural Organizing Project, are located in and serve communities in Gilliam, Hood River, Sherman, and Wasco counties, who share the operation costs of the mega-jail. The groups are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon and Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP.

“Our community has come together to end NORCOR’s contract with ICE,” said Solea Kabakov, a member of Gorge ICE Resistance. “We do not accept the imprisonment of immigrants in our public jail and refuse to allow our tax dollars to be used in the enforcement of federal immigration practices which are unjust and inhumane.”

NORCOR is the last county jail in Oregon to hold immigration detainees for ICE. Iván Resendiz Gutierrez, attorney with Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP, said NORCOR’s contract with ICE seems to blur the line between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement, and places an unnecessary burden on limited local resources.

The brief quotes Martha Verduzco, founder and president of Hood River Latino Network, who said that many in the community are hesitant to ask police for help, even when they are victims of a crime. “‘Someone may be hurting me, but because ICE is at NORCOR, I’m afraid to contact law enforcement because I’m afraid I will be taken away.’”

“The fear and division created by ICE at NORCOR degrades connections which are vital to rural life in our state,” said Hannah Harrod, organizer at the Rural Organizing Project. “Rural Oregonians rely on strong ties in their communities. The jail contract flies in the face of local values of inclusion and welcoming.”

The groups have worked to raise awareness within the Gorge community about the detention conditions faced by immigrant detainees, said an ACLU press release. Consecutive daily protests have been held at the county jail for more than 700 days and the protesters raise funds for immigrant detainees to afford commissary and phone calls to loved ones — services that, while available at NORCOR, remain largely out-of-reach to most immigrants due to exorbitant prices charged by the jail, said the press release.

Rev. John Boonstra, a United Church of Christ clergyperson who frequently visits the jail to counsel detained immigrants, said the pain of family separations impacts everyone in the region.

“People from all walks of life have come together because of the tremendous harm ICE is causing our communities,” he said. “Folks here care about our friends and neighbors. We welcome immigrants in our communities, and we want our towns and cities to be vibrant and inclusive.”

The groups expressed concern that NORCOR’s federal immigration enforcement activities violate local policies of inclusion and nondiscrimination, as well as the 32-year-old state law that keeps local law enforcement from participating in or using resources for federal immigration enforcement. A ballot measure attempting to overturn the law and require Oregon agencies to participate in federal immigration enforcement was rejected by Oregon voters in 2018.

“Oregon voters reaffirmed our sanctuary status last year; it’s unacceptable that the jail continues to be a cog in the feds’ wheel,” Kabakov said. “As long as NORCOR cooperates with ICE people are afraid and our community is less safe. This contract needs to end permanently.”

Leland Baxter-Neal, staff attorney at the ACLU of Oregon, said the reasons for the law’s passage 32 years ago remain true today. “Oregonians saw that the human and fiscal costs of immigration enforcement harm Oregon communities, which is exactly what’s happening with NORCOR. And just like today, it was clear then that local involvement in federal immigration enforcement increases instances of racial profiling by police leading to fear, distrust, and division.”

Litigation was filed last year by Innovation Law Lab and the Oregon Law Center challenging the jail’s ICE contract and its unlawful immigration enforcement policies, including its booking and release notifications. A judge in Wasco County ruled on the case in February, agreeing with the plaintiffs that certain practices were unlawful, but allowing NORCOR to continue its contract to detain immigration detainees and its booking notifications. Innovation Law Lab and Oregon Law Center appealed the decision, and the community groups’ brief was filed in support of their appeal.

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