A Wasco County judge heard oral arguments Wednesday about whether a regional jail is violating Oregon’s sanctuary state law.

Several Wasco County residents have sued the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facilities, arguing the jail, known as NORCOR, is violating Oregon law because it houses detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The plaintiffs in the case want Judge John Wolf to determine NORCOR is in violation of state law and to force the jail to end its contract with ICE.

State law prohibits state or local resources from “apprehending and detecting” people whose only offense is being in the country illegally.

“NORCOR does neither of those things,” argued NORCOR’s attorney Wilford Carey. “NORCOR is a holding facility. It holds detainees and basically never gets involved in apprehending or detecting.”

Carey argued the plaintiffs have misunderstood what the state Legislature meant when it passed the sanctuary law in 1987.

“Their whole case is hyped up on an interpretation of the word ‘apprehend,’” he said at the county courthouse in The Dalles. “If apprehend means what it says, they have absolutely no case.”

The Oregon Law Center’s David Henretty, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, argued “it’s clear the Legislature intended to use the term apprehend in a broader sense.”

He also argued NORCOR is doing more than just providing bed space.

“This is secure custody where people are always held in secure areas whether they’re inside or outside,” Henretty said.

“It’s not a hotel,” Judge Wolf replied.

“Exactly, this is more than just housing,” Henretty said. “It’s incarceration.”

NORCOR is a cinder block jail surrounded by a high chain-link fence and razor wire in an industrial section of The Dalles, Oregon.

NORCOR is a cinder block jail surrounded by a high chain-link fence and razor wire in an industrial section of The Dalles, Oregon.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

The attorneys also spent considerable time discussing whether the four residents who brought the case have standing to bring the lawsuit.

“Taxpayers may bring a lawsuit to prevent an illegal use of public resources,” said Steve Walters, who is also representing the plaintiffs with the Oregon Law Center.

He cited longstanding common law and statuary rules in Oregon to support his argument.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit also names Wasco County.

Brad Timmons, the county’s attorney, said the lawsuit doesn’t apply to them because they’re not asked to do anything by NORCOR. Timmons also argued Walters was misrepresenting the case in his arguments.

But Walters said Wasco County is playing a key role because it assesses, collects and ultimately sends the local tax dollars to NORCOR.

“We think that they play a vital role in the chain that results in the misuse of resources — personnel, property, money — by NORCOR,” he said. “We think that gives them a sufficient interest in whether or not NORCOR is doing the right thing with resources that they provide.”

Wolf said he will rule in the case before Christmas.