Since 1987, Oregon has promised immigrants that they are safer here than almost anywhere else in the country.
The state’s so-called sanctuary law essentially prohibits local police from enforcing federal immigration policy or helping federal agents go after people whose only violation is living in the country illegally.
But for years, two Oregon jails have aided U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by housing detainees who face deportation. The Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in The Dalles and the Josephine County Jail in southwest Oregon both have contracts with ICE.
Over the years, those contracts have helped prop up the criminal justice system financially in communities where residents have been reluctant to pay for public safety and corrections.
Jail officials say they’re not violating the letter of Oregon’s sanctuary state law. Yet dozens of public records and interviews suggest they’re at least skirting the spirit of a state policy designed to make immigrants feel more at ease.
In using ICE contracts to fund struggling jails, these Oregon counties are assisting the federal government’s efforts to deport immigrants in the country illegally.
Oregon Jails and ICE
Across the country, ICE uses roughly 200 local jails and prisons to house some 38,000 people detained for possible deportation on any given day.
In Oregon, the federal government primarily uses the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities, or NORCOR, a cinder block jail surrounded by a high chain-link fence and razor wire in an industrial section of The Dalles.
Unlike most county jails, NORCOR is a co-op of sorts. The counties of Hood River, Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman all pay — some more than others — to operate the facility. At its current staffing level, NORCOR can hold 212 adult inmates, including women, those in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and ICE detainees.
NORCOR also has beds for 32 juvenile inmates, including some brought in by ICE. Recently, the jail population included two teenagers arrested on the East Coast who face possible deportation. Jail officials say they’re gang members.
Inside NORCOR, inmates are divided into a series of large, locked dormitories. It’s an open layout. Toward the front of each unit, there’s a living space with tables where inmates eat. In the back, partially hidden from view, are bunk beds. Some inmates wear solid orange or green jump suits; others who work in the jail wear black and white stripes.
“And so, this is one of the immigration dorms,” jail administrator Bryan Brandenburg said during a recent tour. “As you can see, it’s no different.”
Two ICE detainees sat atop a metal table, watching television. Brandenburg noted the newly installed microwaves — one of the improvements ICE detainees demanded during a hunger strike that ended in May. The detainees wanted the microwaves to heat water for instant noodles because they had been using warm shower water, according to the ACLU of Oregon. Brandenburg said adding microwaves to all the units was planned months before anyone asked for them, but it was a question of finding the money.
All adult male ICE detainees are housed together. On one recent visit, there were nine. The last several months, the jail averaged 18 detainees daily.
ICE prisoners typically come from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where the federal agency contracts a roughly 1,600-bed facility owned by the GEO Group, a private prison company.
ICE pays NORCOR $80 a day per detainee. The amount is designed to cover meals, guard salaries, maintenance — any and all costs associated with housing the federal detainees.
ICE detainees eat the same food as inmates at NORCOR, and they’re guarded by the same corrections staff.
Brandenburg said his jail policy is not to take just any immigration detainee. Being in the country unlawfully is a civil violation, rather than a criminal one. But Brandenburg said he’ll only accept ICE detainees who have been charged with a crime or already have a criminal record.
“We house criminals,” he said. “We’re a pretrial detention center.”
In the past, NORCOR has accepted people stopped and denied entry into the United States by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Portland International Airport. Brandenburg said he won't do it anymore.
NORCOR's revenue from ICE detainees has skyrocketed in the past year. In 2016-17, the jail budget predicted $190,000 in ICE payments; NORCOR ended up collecting almost $800,000.
Increased emphasis on immigration enforcement, which dates back before President Donald Trump’s administration, also has helped balance the budget in Josephine County, on the Oregon-California border.
In 2014-15, ICE paid the county $401,500 to house detainees. That was almost 20 percent of the jail’s incoming revenue, according to budget documents.
Outside use, including contracts with ICE, made up half the jail’s budget in recent years.
"Without this revenue, the jail would not remain open," budget writers wrote in one presentation.
In the past, ICE contracted with other Oregon jails, including those in Umatilla, Jackson, Klamath and Columbia counties, according to a 2009 federal document. Today, only Josephine and NORCOR cooperate so closely with federal immigration officials.
For years, Columbia County housed up to 70 ICE detainees at a time. Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said they came by the bus load.
“They would use the Columbia County Jail as mostly a stop-over place for them to leave detainees for a while before moving them on to Tacoma,” he said.
Oregon's sanctuary law, the one that says state and local resources shouldn't go to help federal immigration enforcement, didn't bother Columbia County leaders; they felt comfortable that holding immigration detainees didn't represent an illegal use of local money or manpower.
But Columbia County changed its policy in 2014 after a federal judge ruled that immigration detainers from the federal government — essentially requests to hold inmates who would otherwise be free to go until federal immigration agents could show up to claim them — weren't legitimate grounds to keep people in jail.
Since the ruling, Dickerson said he no longer sees how any jail in Oregon could legally work with ICE.
“We don’t see the legal justification for us to be able to do that,” Dickerson said. “I don’t know what ICE is presenting to them that is giving them comfort with that. But what they’ve presented to us does not pass muster for us to be able to do it.”
In 1987, the Oregon Legislature passed the sanctuary law. Lawmakers prohibited state or local law enforcement agencies from using "money, equipment or personnel for the purpose of detecting or apprehending persons whose only violation" is that they're in the country unlawfully.
NORCOR leaders aren’t sure when they began taking immigration detainees, but think it could date back to when the jail opened in 1999.
In July, a group of Wasco County residents filed a lawsuit arguing NORCOR’s relationship with ICE violates the state’s sanctuary law.
The lawsuit says the purpose of the 1987 Oregon law was “to prevent such agencies from using public money, personnel, or equipment to assist federal officials at any state of the immigration enforcement process.”
Stephen Manning, an immigration lawyer who is representing the Wasco County residents in the case, declined to discuss the specifics of the suit. But he did talk more generally about what he sees as the problem with county jails housing ICE detainees.
“It’s the issue of using Oregon resources for a policy and a practice that I think is very dangerous,” he said. “We’re at the beginning of a mass expulsion of immigrant communities of color from the United States, something unlike we’ve ever seen.”
When it comes to immigration, Manning said he believes the Trump administration has a larger objective. As evidence, he cites a series of executive orders signed by the president that deal with immigration.
The fact that Oregon jails are housing detainees for ICE is “dangerous” for the state, he said.
“Should we be using Oregon resources to participate in this depopulation, this mass expulsion of people of color?” Manning said. “That’s a choice for Oregon to make, and I think that’s a choice Oregon should be making very consciously.”
Lawyers for NORCOR have asked a judge to throw out the lawsuit.
They argue in court filings that Oregon’s sanctuary law prevents “detecting or apprehending persons,” but says nothing of “housing an individual who has already been captured.”
NORCOR’s contract with ICE “does not require NORCOR to capture or arrest individuals,” attorneys for the jail wrote. “It does not require any of the stop and interrogate type of work in the field contemplated by the Legislature ... The actions by NORCOR are limited to housing those that have already been detected and apprehended under the statute.”
That echoes a statement from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. In May, she told the Associated Press that NORCOR appears to be following the law.
“State law forbids using law enforcement resources to detect or apprehend people who have not committed a crime, but may be in violation of immigration laws,” Rosenblum told the AP. “It doesn’t appear that NORCOR resources are being used to detect or arrest people, so the 1987 law would not be applicable.”
A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice said the agency hasn’t been asked to provide a full legal analysis.
ICE Money Keeps Struggling Jails Going
To immigration advocates, the situation is simple: Jails that house ICE detainees in Oregon are breaking state law, or at least ignoring its intent.
But local officials say the situation is more nuanced: The money county jails receive for ICE detainees helps make communities around the state safer by ensuring that Josephine and the four NORCOR counties can continue to operate their jails.
When Brandenburg took over NORCOR in 2015, it offered little in the way of treatment or rehabilitation options for inmates. The recidivism rate was 75 percent — meaning three out of every four inmates released from NORCOR eventually returned.
“That’s way high,” Brandenburg said. “That’s like, embarrassingly high.”
By comparison, the Oregon Department of Corrections reported its recidivism rate is about 30 percent.
Brandenburg has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a licensed professional counselor. Since taking over NORCOR, he’s added rehabilitation programs for inmates who are locked up for at least 30 days.
Qualifying inmates, including ICE detainees, can take classes five days a week, for up to four hours a day. Subjects include substance abuse treatment, anger management, parenting skills and tips for re-entering society. The programs are largely funded through a combination of federal, state and county grants.
Brandenburg said he has identified a control group and developed his own research protocol to measure the effectiveness of the classes.
“We really tried to … implement some things to not only occupy people’s time, but also give them some opportunities to make different choices when they get out,” he said. “That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Not to come back to jail?”
Since taking over NORCOR, Brandenburg said he’s reduced the jail’s recidivism rate to 64 percent.
“It would be nice if we could get it down to 50 percent,” he said. “That would be ideal, even under 50 percent would be great.”
But financially, NORCOR struggles.
Together, the four counties contribute about $4 million a year to jail operations. The total cost of keeping NORCOR open is about $6 million a year.
“So that means I have to make up $2 million in revenue. And so that’s where the ICE contract comes in,” Brandenburg said.
The county’s contract with ICE doesn’t guarantee how much the federal agency will use NORCOR in any given year, though Brandenburg said ICE does “their best to keep our numbers up a little bit.”
Without the ICE contract, Brandenburg said the four counties that back NORCOR would be faced with a series of uncomfortable alternatives. They could reduce staff and services or cut the number of inmates NORCOR houses at any one time.
Otherwise, they must find new money closer to home to support the jail. That seems unlikely.
Last year, the construction bond used to build NORCOR was paid off, and leaders in the four NORCOR counties asked voters to replace bond repayments with a permanent levy to help pay for jail operations. It would have raised $1.3 million a year — about the same amount NORCOR budget experts predict the jail will receive from ICE this year.
The levy would not have raised taxes, since residents of the four counties were already paying a similar rate because of the construction bond. Voters in three of the four counties passed the measure. But it failed by a large margin in Wasco County, where property owners pay the largest share of the four counties that fund NORCOR.
“It would have been a way to help stabilize this whole funding issue so that we could have looked at our ICE contract at some point as possibly not needing that to help support NORCOR,” Brandenburg said. “It would have helped reduce the counties’ subsidy, which is of course what they’d like to see happen because they’d like to use resources for other things besides public safety and criminal justice.”
Taxpayers in Josephine County have shown a similar reluctance to pay for public safety and corrections. That used to be less of a problem, back when timber was king in southern Oregon.
“We lived off the money from logging our resource lands,” said Josephine County Vice Chair Lily Morgan.
But the logging industry took a downturn. Increased automation and the addition of the spotted owl to the endangered species list in 1990 contributed to the closure of saw mills and, eventually, deep cuts to public services.
In 2000, Morgan worked as a Josephine County 911 dispatcher.
“We had six to eight deputies on three shifts a day,” she said. “They had detectives, they had full records support, they had a functioning sheriff’s office. And all that was eliminated in 2012.”
The county has tried to pass a levy to fund public safety a dozen times since 1998, Morgan said.
In May, after all the years of trying, voters passed a public safety levy that will generate $6 million to $7 million per year. The levy provides the county's jail with a dedicated funding source. It will also provide enough money to reopen the county's juvenile detention center, which closed five years ago amid budget cuts.
While more stable financial times may be ahead, the county’s contract with ICE has played an important role in the fiscal health of the Josephine County Jail, according to budget records.
Just three years ago, the ICE contract made up 20 percent of the jail’s revenues.
Even with the new levy, the ICE contract remains a notable part of the jail’s 2017-18 projected budget. The county estimates it will receive $36,500 for housing ICE detainees this year. But as with NORCOR, there’s no guarantee or certainty about how many detainees ICE will move through Josephine County.
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel didn’t return repeated interview requests. Instead, his office referred any questions to the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association. Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, president of that group, said he wasn’t able to comment on jails that house ICE detainees.
Morgan, the county commissioner, said the new levy will allow the sheriff to shift resources that were going to fund the jail toward things like hiring back patrol deputies. But county leaders don’t have plans to drop their ICE contract.
“They still are helping our community,” Morgan said. “It’s still a revenue source to our community.”
Unlike NORCOR, where there’s been controversy and a lawsuit to end the jail’s contract with ICE, residents in Josephine County have been more supportive of the relationship, she said.
Morgan also doesn’t worry the county could be violating Oregon’s sanctuary law.
“We’re not doing anything but providing a bed for them [ICE detainees] in the night and meals,” she said. “It’s not a matter of us enforcing anything. It’s renting a bed, like a motel room.”