For nearly three years, human rights protesters have regularly picketed a jail in The Dalles that contracts to hold immigrant detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now a bipartisan duo of lawmakers is putting forward a plan to end those contracts – if they can make the case that Oregon taxpayers should pay for the change.

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Under House Bill 4121, the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility – known as NORCOR – would be prohibited from pursuing new contracts with federal immigration officials, if state lawmakers agree to replace revenue from those contracts with state money. That amounts to at least $820,000 a year for the facility, which acts as an adult jail for four counties and accepts juvenile inmates from an even wider area.

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

“In the community I live in, the jail gets picketed by folks,” said Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, one of the lawmakers spearheading the bill. “At the same time, the jail requires a minimal amount of funding to provide the services it provides … At the end of the day, we tried to come up with a way to let everybody win.”

Bonham is sponsoring HB 4121 alongside Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, whose district also uses NORCOR to jail criminal defendants or people serving out short sentences.

Williams believes the jail's use as an immigrant detention facility violates Oregon's sanctuary law, which limits how public resources can be used to enforce immigration law. (A Wasco County judge last year ruled that was not the case.)

The proposed legislation, she said, “allows us to have conversations about our sanctuary law and about how we are or are not living up to that as a state … Whether we get it funded or not, that’s a very valuable conversation to have.”

HB 4121, which received its first hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, will likely face skepticism during a short legislative session in which leading Democrats are pledging to be judicious about new ongoing expenses. Both Williams and Bonham acknowledged that it risks setting a precedent that state dollars may be spent on services currently funded by counties. But both lawmakers also point out that NORCOR, with its regional service area, is unique.

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“There are very reasonable concerns about not only setting precedent that the state would come in and fill county budget gaps, but also real concerns about spending new ongoing money in an unpredictable budget environment right now,” Williams said.

In a legislative session already freighted with deep partisan divides, HB 4121 is also a notably bipartisan bill. The issue of immigration has been a matter of fierce disagreement between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, most recently when Oregon Democrats passed a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driving privileges in 2019.

And in fact, the NORCOR bill came about because of an effort to help the House bridge divides. Recently House Speaker Tina Kotek has asked lawmakers to participate in “caucus exchanges” where rural and urban lawmakers visit one another’s districts to help build understanding of issues important to their communities.

As Bonham tells it, he brought Reps. Diego Hernandez and Alissa Keny-Guyer, both Portland Democrats, to meet with NORCOR administrators to discuss the ICE contracts last year. On the way out, they wound up speaking with protesters outside the facility.

“It led to a nice conversation,” Bonham said. “Two of the advocates called me later on and said, ‘Would you be willing to meet us again?’ ... They raised my awareness on some of the long-term detainee problems that existed with the ICE contract. This is a county jail not meant for long-term detainment, and yet that’s the role it was serving for just a few people.”

Under the bill Bonham and Williams wound up sponsoring, NORCOR would be prohibited from renewing or negotiating a contract with ICE during any budget biennium in which the legislature allots at least $1.64 million to the facility.

The bill would not preempt NORCOR from temporarily accepting ICE detainees who are being transported through The Dalles to other facilities.

NORCOR officials did not respond to inquiries about when the facility’s current contract expires. But several county officials affiliated with the jail testified before lawmakers Monday that they support the bill.

Wasco County Commissioner Kathy Schwartz, who serves as vice chair of the facility's board of directors, told lawmakers officials were "committed to establishing a sustainable funding structure" for the jail without ICE revenues, if lawmakers are willing to bridge the gap in the short term.

Molly Rogers, director of the Wasco County Department of Youth Services added that the facility is hoping to resolve "a practice that appears to be not in line with Oregon's sanctuary law."

The bill also has support from those who’ve been protesting NORCOR’s contracts with the federal government, according to Judy Zimmerman of the group Gorge Ecumenical Ministries.

“Our main concerns are conditions of confinement,” Zimmerman said last week. “That facility was never intended to serve as an immigration detention center. There are detainees who have been there for years.”

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